Philip Sheldrake

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Google on collaboration – a new study

Google collaboration report June 2015
First published to Gigaom Research.


Our customers often tell us that encouraging and enabling collaboration has dramatically improved their business. We decided to dig a little deeper by conducting some original cross-industry research that measures the power of workplace collaboration in concrete terms.

This is how Google introduces the findings of its recent survey of senior staff and C-suite executives at 258 North American companies across a wide range of business sectors and sizes. (PDF of full report.) The primary conclusion is presented up front:

… collaboration has a significant impact on business innovation, performance, culture and even the bottom line.

This is quite right and quite wrong. Collaboration is at once driven and the driver; it is both a cause and an effect. As is culture come to that. Effectively, Google must grapple with two distinct appreciations of business among its customers and prospects.

Simply complex

If there’s one thing that differentiates organization this century from the last it’s that we may now acknowledge complexity and do something about it. We increasingly have the technologies to help navigate complexity. Choosing to do so offers competitive advantage for the time being; there will soon come a time when failing to do so renders an organization unresponsive, fragile and, consequently, bust. (Note that complexity and complication are different things.)

As we are in the midst of this transition, Google’s report walks a line to make sense to those for whom the penny is yet to drop. On the one hand it recognizes that (too) many business leaders still regard digital transformation as not much more than the digitalization of the pre-digital. Absent an understanding of complexity and systems thinking, deliberate strategy formulation and mechanistic organizational alignment remain unchallenged dogma within an organization’s four walls. This then is a world in which one might consider a strategic investment (in technology for example) a potential cure-all. Or ‘cure-lots’ at least. The report’s conclusion is, in this context, spot on.

And yet, on the other hand, the Google For Work team appreciates that work is collaboration. As Esko Kilpi puts it:

The basic unit of work is not an individual, but individuals in interaction.

Laszlo Bock, Google’s SVP People Operations, asserts:

If you give people freedom, they will amaze you. All you need to do is give them a little infrastructure and a lot of room.

Bock notes that because constant innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, people who succeed in the company “tend to be those with a lot of soft skills: leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability, and loving to learn and re-learn.”

In groping then for a more emergent rather than deliberate understanding and approach you might say:

Organisational objectives are best met not by the optimisation of the technical system and the adaptation of a social system to it, but by the joint optimisation of the technical and social aspects, thus exploiting the adaptability and innovativeness of people in attaining goals instead of over-determining technically the manner in which these goals should be attained.

And in fact Albert Cherns did say this, in 1976! The report’s conclusion may then be considered misleading when the context does not encompass what I like to refer to as the fabric.

Fabric

… when asked to name the realistic measure that would have the biggest business impact on knowledge-sharing and collaboration, investment in relevant technology came out on top. It was named most frequently as the #1 measure for business impact, and also appeared in respondents’ lists of top three factors more than any other option.

Respondents to Google’s survey identified the technical as #1 for business impact, yet that might be because it’s relatively new and shiny and looks like no more than a purchase order away. Adjusting behavioral norms and hierarchy may only be ranked as less important on the other hand (#’s 3, 4 and 5) because we’ve all seen how difficult transformation of these can be, and indeed the survey’s respondents identified the difficulty in changing working habits as the foremost challenge to creating a more collaborative culture.

Organization requires an organizational fabric for it to act coherently with due speed. It is the sociotechnical substrate that supports and nurtures a healthy living system. In transitioning from deliberate to the more emergent, from the Newtonian to the complex, from the 20th to 21st Century, we must lean on one last heuristic to ready ourselves for competing in rude chaos – beat your competitors in getting the sociotechnical working for you. So not the social or the tech, and not the social and the tech as if they’re separate components that just need to be introduced to each other, but the sociotechnical as one – the qualities that combine holistically to deliver such easy-to-say-hard-to-achieve aspirations as a great culture and productive collaboration.

The ingredients in such combination rarely adhere to some qualitative ranking.

Process is dead, long live process

The report identifies four categories of organizational culture in decreasing technological maturity for want of a better turn of phrase, labelled pioneers (18%), believers (34%), agnostics (27%) and traditionalists (21%).

Google collaboration report June 2015 – culture categories

I was attracted by the report authors’ observation that:

‘Believers’ … put less emphasis on systems and processes, which could suggest that they consider these to be regressive and inhibitive.

I have had conversations of late that support this interpretation. It appears that an aspiration for adaptability may tempt a disregard for process given its historical association with repeatability and efficiency at the expense of responsiveness, and yet such conclusion increases business risk and injures adaptability. Consider that adaptability works on two levels, agility (adaptable strategy) and flexibility (adaptable tactical execution). Maintaining relevant strategy – identifying where to play and how to win – is a disciplinary process, and equally the corresponding tactics and execution require constant improvement (kaizen in lean speak).

In short, the power of process is no longer in the fixed process but in fixing attention on its derivative so that change becomes routine. And this then neatly returns to my main thrust here. Change of any one or two things is unlikely to effect the desired improvement. It’s complex. An organization doesn’t so much exist as transmute, and many dials need to be twiddled and many things need to be sensed constantly by everyone involved to ensure that transmutation lives up to all stakeholders’ expectations.

Simple, but not for much longer

And as complexity has it, this works at many levels. This year’s Global Drucker Forum focuses on this topic at the organizational and societal levels and I’ve had the opportunity to contribute a pre-event post: The human web and sustainability. This is the mother of all “management” challenges, so one can appreciate why Google’s report defers to the simple.

To paraphrase its conclusion then and reading between the lines – if you haven’t already, work out how you want to work and procure some modern collaboration technology to support you working that way. And then it gets interesting.


 

Images: Grabbed from the Google report in question.