In my experience over almost fifty years as a manager, OD practitioner, and coach, inefficiencies at the interface are almost universal. They are so foundational and continuous that most of them are unconsciously accepted as simply inevitable costs of doing business – or more likely not even recognized at all. Estimates of the cost of ineffective collaboration & communication range as high as $11,000 to $25,000 per employee, per year, world-wide. Taking the lower figure and aggregating across just the global white-collar workforce, the cost is in the trillions of dollars per year, world-wide. Personally, I believe that the real inefficiencies and frictions are so great that even these astronomical numbers are likely an underestimate of the true magnitude of the problem.
Collaboration is a management obsession at the moment. And yet, I would argue that much of what management is focused on – collaboration technologies, collaborative office space, intensified communications – is beside the point. Collaboration is not a “thing” problem, it is a “people” problem. Technology can be helpful but only after the people problem has been addressed. And even when management focuses on the people issue, for instance with training to improve interpersonal skill, that training is almost always delivered on one side or other of the interface, rather than in the interface itself.
I want to suggest a different approach – in fact, a different mindset. I think organizations have to start viewing their interfaces as organizations in and of themselves; meta-organizations. A “meta-organization” is simply an organization of organizations. The word has largely been used to describe grand, global collaborations of many, many organizations. That said, I think there is great value in applying it more simply as a way to highlight the most important point: whenever two or more organizations have to work together, their collaboration should be viewed as a meta-organization – a legitimate organizational entity in its own right.
Let me illustrate why it is so important to focus on the reality of the meta-organization.
I had a client several years ago; a very large, privately-held global logistics company. They in turn accrued most of their considerable revenue from a single client; a global food service giant. These two businesses had been grown side-by-side by a pair of entrepreneurs who needed each other. One wanted to open a second restaurant and needed to manage his supply chain, the other had a truck, a warehouse, and a nascent shipping business. The trucker came to manage logistics for the restauranteur, and as the number of restaurants grew to ten, then a hundred, then a thousand, the logistics company grew at the same time, to the benefit of both. Inevitably, old age intervened. One of the collaborators died and health issues drove the other away from active management. Global trends began to eat away at the profitability and market share of the food services company, which in turn began to demand more and more for less and less from the logistics company, threatening to utilize other providers. What had been a generative collaboration personally nurtured by life-long friends began to unravel as each of the organizations more and more managed the relationship through the narrow lens of their own institutional self-interest. When I started to work with them, I was struck by the obvious stress and anxiety of the logistics company project managers. At every break, the Blackberries came out and anxious calls were made to increasingly demanding product managers on the other side. Lunches were spent in crisis mode, as “those people” doubled down on their quest for greater “value-added” in the relationship.
If ever there was a “meta-organization”, the collaboration between these two companies was it. Yet the fact that they had effectively merged along the interface, forming a meta-organization with its own needs and culture and realities, was never recognized. Both organizations spent money sending their people to classes on Emotional Intelligence and Crucial Conversations, but they did this separately. To this day, and to their individual and collective detriment, the sparks are still flying along the organizational interface and revenues continue their downward trend.
But what would have happened had they recognized the legitimacy of the meta-organization and begun to enhance the relationships and mutuality of understanding through joint training, team development, and business planning? By doing so, they would have had the opportunity to create a more constructive collaborative relationship wherein the legitimate interests of both organizations were accepted as legitimate.
Viewing it a slightly different way, this is sequestered value. An organization that was able to increase collaborative efficiency by even a small fraction could realize considerable value-added. And in an increasingly competitive world, even marginal increases in value-added can have major impacts on organizational effectiveness, efficiency, and profitability.
Viewing it in still another way, ineffective collaboration is a source of significant frustration and stress for employees. An organization that can improve collaboration can not only reduce costs and increase value-added, but also improve employee satisfaction and engagement in the process.
Organizations pursue different theories as to how to improve collaboration. Many have presumed that the Physical Environment plays an important role. And so they have spent tens of billions of dollars in the United States alone on creating collaborative workspaces; lowering or eliminating walls and dividers, creating “pods” of workstations, etc. The sorry reality is that most such well-intentioned efforts have precisely the opposite effect. Offices become like libraries, with employees tiptoeing through and speaking - if they speak at all - in whispers, lest they incur the wrath of the floor Quiet Nazis.
Another theory has been that of Communication Efficiency, and so organizations are spending even more billions to electronically knit their employees even closer to each other with instant messaging, dashboards, and other state-of-the-art communication tools. Again, the impact has often been negative. Employees report even more stress and even lower job satisfaction as they are constantly bombarded with ever more information and requests for interaction.
The reality is that collaboration is not a “thing” problem, it is a “people” problem. The most artfully crafted collaboration platform or the most efficient knowledge management system is useless if people are not motivated to fully engage. The focus on technology obscures the real problem and can actually make it worse.
To me, the answer lies in tried and true techniques of Change Management, Team Development, Conflict Management, etc., but they must be applied to the meta-organization itself. It is insufficient (frankly, I’d argue it’s really a waste of time) to train and intervene at the parent organization level to deal with interface issues. Meta-organizations exist – They are true organizations in their own right, regardless of how long or short-lived, and the greatest power and leverage of intervention and development lies there.