Saturday, November 23, 2013

Reading :: The Collaborative Enterprise

The Collaborative Enterprise: Managing Speed and Complexity in Knowledge-Based Businesses
By Charles Heckscher

I read this book during the summer, but have been putting off reviewing it because I got so much from it—it seems as if every page has at least one sticky note on it. But it's time to discuss this book, which I found to be extremely useful for thinking through some of my recent case studies.

Heckscher came onto my radar when I read the book he coedited with Paul S. Adler, The Firm as a Collaborative Community. That book influenced me as I thought through work organization, and Hecksher's The Collaborative Enterprise, which was published a year later, extends those themes that I found so useful. Its focus is on "the power of extended collaboration," which "is the latest of a series of historical expansions of human abilities through an increase in the scope and richness of human interactions" (p.1). At this stage, "the problem at the leading edge of production is to combine knowledge and skills flexibly around changing tasks"—a problem that is not tackled well by markets or bureaucracies (p.1). At this point, "the challenge is mobilizing not effort but intelligence: to get people to use their particular knowledge and capacities in ways that continuously contribute to the success of the whole" (p.2).

Collaboration involves working with others toward a shared objective. As Heckscher puts it, collaboration involves “a shared objective that cannot be reached without the contribution of all. Thus it necessarily implies processes of dialogue and negotiation, of exchanges of views and sharing of information, of building from individual views toward a shared consensus” (2007, p.2). When we work together with others to define a project objective, when we develop a shared understanding of a problem, and when we find ways to make sure that everyone gains an advantage from our shared work, we are collaborating.

Collaboration isn't new—but until recently, "it required sharply bounded groups with enduring and homogeneous membership (p.3). Now, we can support extended collaboration, which represents a "quantum shift" in that specialists can come together briefly, rotate leadership among themselves, and flexibly adjust to changing projects (p.5). This is what interests Heckscher: the "collaborative enterprise," which is "collaboration that extends beyond the limits of permanent teams, units, or firms" (p.5). 

Collaboration contrasts with two other ways of seeing the enterprise: (1) one that centers on loyalty, long-term relationships, and diffuse commitments, typically hierarchical (p.9); and (2) one that centers on individuality and autonomy, usually expressed as a market or bureaucracy (p.11). Both work against collaboration, which demands that people hold dialogues across hierarchical levels and that they give up autonomy to "enter into each others' ways of seeing" (p.12). Yet collaboration is hard. Whereas markets and hierarchies "are simpler because they are highly restricted and simplified patterns of interaction," either restricting information (markets) or links (hierarchies) (p.13). Collaboration involves listing the restrictions on both. 

The seeds of collaboration rest even within the conventional hierarchies. Even though hierarchies formally restrict communication channels, they typically also have informal associational links (p.26), which cut across the hierarchy but which typically do not impute power to the association. This associational dimension is what becomes organized by the collaborative enterprise (p.28), which has the ability to create effective task teams—temporary, project-oriented, multispecialist teams—as needed (p.35).

As  Heckscher later argues, shifting to a project focus can support adaptive collaboration, focusing resources such as knowledge around focused problems; such organizations “reduce hierarchy considerably and emphasize project teams generated around opportunities. Size is not so important because this strategic approach narrows the focus to a small number of ‘core competencies’” (Heckscher 2007, p.63).

Such collaborative enterprises have different needs. For instance, Heckscher argues that “Mobility could be a good thing for employees as well as for companies if there were good systems in place for supporting mobile careers. These systems were unneeded in a bureaucratic order, but they are crucial now—and weak” (2007, p.272). Additionally, people in collaborative enterprises must be able to build “shared understandings and processes” by freely using the physical and service infrastructure to contact each other, collaborating via associational links without going through the levels of their organization’s bureaucratic hierarchy (Heckscher 2007, p.92). This collaborative infrastructure can and should be “deliberately managed” in larger enterprises (Heckscher 2007, p.92, 136). 

Yet, Heckscher adds, “there is no organized and systematic effort to build the infrastructure for mobile careers” (2007, p.190; cf. p.272). He sees these constraints on communications infrastructure—as well as other structures, such as benefits—as restrictors that may retard the development of collaborative enterprises.

If you've been following my readings or writings over the last few years, you can see how I'd be intrigued by Hecksher's work. This review only scratches the surface of this book, which is well argued, thorough, and thought-provoking. If you're even a little interested in the issues discussed here, check it out.

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