Can you have too many conversations at work? And I don’t mean that in the sense of just cultivating, building or nurturing your social capital skills per se, even though we all know they are the key to success for the 21st century organisation, as my good friend Valdis Krebs once wrote about, but I was mainly referring about work related conversations themselves. Can you have way too many of them to the point of not allowing you to get work done effectively in a timeline manner? If you are thinking that some times we may well have far too many, I am going to ask you to hold on to that thought for a minute while I challenge you all to think the moment we feel we are just having far too many conversations at the workplace, specially, through the extensive use of social software tools, that’s probably the moment when we would all stop collaborating, because, to me, conversations and collaboration are pretty close to one another, which brings me to this particular rather thought-provoking article from Andrew Pope who comes to question ‘How much collaboration is too much?’
Collaboration is probably one of the most loaded words in today’s workplace that I can think of (And I am pretty sure there are plenty of other good candidates out there as well!) and, probably, it has been like that over the course of the last 25 years or so, when it first came about while being associated with the whole concept of groupware. There are tons of different definitions about collaboration out there and what it is, but, to me, the most effective one is this one: ‘the action of working with someone to produce something’.
Now, let’s go back in time, about 17 years ago, when The Cluetrain Manifesto was first published, and let’s have a look into this particular quote from David Weinberger himself about the one main role of knowledge workers, according to him. To quote:
‘Business is a conversation because the defining work of business is conversation – literally. And ‘knowledge workers’ are simply those people whose job consists of having interesting conversations‘
While I can certainly vouch that there may well be situations where collaboration just plainly fails due, mostly, to a lack of purpose, of consensus, or a lack of a trustworthy environment to work in or just simply because of either (micro-)management or leadership not working hard enough on it (Highly recommended read by Deb Lavoy on the topic, by the way!), I would also state that if you come to think about it and do a correlation between collaboration and conversations the risk of failure is almost non-existent. More than anything else, because, if anything, as a knowledge (Web 2.0) worker, you are what I call feeding the beast, essentially, switching gears successfully from the good old push model into a pull model. It’s when we switch from good old information into conversation.
Conversations are, most probably, the lowest common denominator towards a successful collaboration between peers who want to achieve a common objective. If anything, they manage to destruct everything that seems to separate knowledge workers and put them all at the same initial level, i.e. no status, no hierarchy, no silos, just an opportunity to learn about one’s own collaborators before executing on the task(s) at hand. So when I started reading through Andrew’s article about ‘How much collaboration is too much?’ I just couldn’t help thinking that if we were to take collaboration as a series of conversations the failure rates would probably be a lot less and that’s a good thing. Let’s see how sustainable that premise of collaboration = conversations really is in terms of Andrew’s article.
The balance between collaboration and concentration as well as establishing a time to focus just plainly disappear, because when you think about collaboration as a series of conversations the first thing you come to terms with is that work becomes learning and learning is the work, which means you realise you are no longer at the centre of the interactions, not that you ever were, for that matter, in short, of the conversations, but you are just one of them. You are now part of a massive exchange of conversations happening out there in the open and pretty much like with the good old known Web 2.0 river of news you dip in and out as you may see fit, based on the work you need to complete, and when you are done and come back to that firehose it’s all business as usual. You just resume the dialogue wherever it may well be at the time. Yes, of course, I know, it’s tough to let FOMO go, but you see?, you are now part of a giant social network, or of multiple clusters of networks and communities, who trust you just as much as you trust them, so there is no need to fear being left out. If anything, it’s those very same networks that will work really hard to ensure you are up to date on whatever you may have missed out that may be relevant to you. And all of that thanks to the power of conversations.
Of course, there is a time that needs to be established to focus on getting that work done, but because you are now operating as part of a network (or a community of practice for that matter), don’t make it an individual activity, but a collective one, if you can, that is, depending on the confidentiality of the information you need to work with, because there is a great chance that within the first five minutes of you having to do that work you will be depending on, or need, the help of one of your peers. So focus may be a good thing, but don’t isolate yourself too much, because nowadays we are working in such complex environments that we need to be able to reach out pretty easily in order to accomplish our tasks. Remember the good old days, say 15 to 20 years ago, when you used to work at your office cubicle, with the door closed, in a single project with a single team reporting to your boss executing on a number of different tasks you could complete in no time before you would move into the next thing? Well, those times are now gone, at least, for the vast majority of us. So don’t isolate yourself too much away from the overall conversations, even if you just see them fly over you, it’s still a good reminder you are no longer alone at work.
We all know that in every single workplace we have different working styles from various different generations and we therefore ought to have colleagues who are just plainly not good collaborators. At all. Well, that’s fine, if only, because I have always believed it’s a myth. Whether we like to admit it or not, we, human beings, are supercooperators by nature. It’s in our genes, our DNA, it’s how we have gotten work done over the course of millennia as a matter of mere survival adapting to the world we live in. So if you feel you have got fellow knowledge workers who are not very collaborative you may start asking yourself why is that happening? And what can you to do help out? And, of course, the art of conversation comes up, once again. Remember, we are all now part of giant cluster networks and communities at work, that gather in small groupings while having to get that specific piece of work done. And in that case, as my good friend Harold Jarche has been writing about for a good number of years, in networks cooperation trumps collaboration.
When you think about collaboration and collaborating with your peers, there is something we always keep leaving out of the equation, when, in reality, it’s critical, and that is context. Context defines how, why, when, what and with whom we get to collaborate to achieve a specific objective, yet, when you come to think about it, context is almost always left out, as if we didn’t have the time to think about it, so instead of aiming at that collaboration mix that Andrew writes about we just keep wondering why things didn’t work out all right. This is where conversations come to the rescue, because by thinking that collaboration is all about the conversations you have the first thing you understand is that there will be an imperative to understand everyone’s needs and wants while everyone else becomes a whole lot more understanding and flexible, if anything, because there is a massive transformation of both our behaviours and mindset when we realise that collaborative work is not longer a physical activity happening while we are at the office, but it’s mostly a state of mind. And that’s exactly where context kicks in, trying to fit in and accommodate, as best as it possibly can, the needs from everyone embarked on that collaborative piece of work.
Ah-ha! And this is where we come to realise, at long last, that collaboration, if anything, is all about having conversations, whether face to face or online through the various different social software tools that we may have at our disposal. Andrew himself put it quite nicely towards the end of the article when he wrote the following quote:
‘Use the time that people are actually together in a room to have a conversation.‘
Indeed, except that room is no longer just the physical meeting room per se, but also the social networking tools put in place out there, whether inside or outside of the firewall. They are as well the ones that, at long last, help us understand, in very clear terms, why we need to talk and speak up more often, in the first place, in the workplace, but, secondly, why we also need to create and define new ways of working through those networks and communities enabled by the conversations we host. Back in 1998, yes, you are reading it right!, back in 1998, the one and only Howard Rheingold wrote ’The Art of Hosting Good Online Conversations’, so if we ought to get better at collaborating with one another, and if conversations and narratives are the new documents we better get started today, as my good friend, Esko Kilpi, wrote about not long ago:
‘Work is communication and the network is the amplifier of knowledge. The process of communication is the process of knowing. Knowledge work is about a community-based cognitive and emotional presence. Bridging, bonding and belonging. […]
Work is communication. Conversations and narratives are the new documents. Conversations cannot be controlled. The only way to influence conversations is to take part in them.
If we want to influence the process of knowing we need to develop new habits of participation and new habits of communication.’
Are we there yet? I really hope so.