While we are all busy collaborating who is actually working?

A few weeks ago I was trying to arrange  some interviews with managers for an intranet project I am working on. I had a list of ten managers, some of whom I wanted to meet individually and in the case of others it made sense to meet them two at a time. It was not a particularly large company and the managers concerned represented a fairly substantial core of senior level expertise about the organisation and its business. The intranet manager opened up the corporate calendar and sighed. Ten minutes later she sighed again and said that it was likely that the six meetings would need to be spread across several weeks. The problem was not one of vacations but just of the number of meetings the managers were involved with each day. We sat down and looked at the schedules and found that a substantial number were team/collaboration meetings.

I’ve just been reading an article in the June issue of Harvard Business Review about the need to manage the collective time spent on meetings. The author, Professor Leslie Perlow, writes about one company she had worked with where an overly collaborative culture meant that too many employees were involved in every decision. Meetings were crowded with unnecessary people, employees were double-booked and everyone’s Outlook calendar was packed. The only time that people could do their actual work was outside normal office hours.

I’m concerned that there is an ethos along the lines of “If in doubt, collaborate” in too many organisations. There is no doubt that effective collaboration can be of benefit to the organisation but how many organisations track the time that each employee spends in team meetings and looks at the totals against the number of working days available each month? Work still has to be done. Reports need to be thought about and written and customers need to be talked to.  The list goes on and on. There is an interesting case study in Morten Hansen’s admirable book Collaboration about a situation in a major software company where the proposal-to-sales ratio became worse as more people were involved in the development of the proposals.

In his poem The Rock T.S.Eliot reflects on the knowledge we have lost in information. I’m beginning to wonder about the decisions we have lost in collaboration.

Martin White