Wednesday, 6 January 2016

Expert enablers - or knowledge bottlenecks? HBR article on 'Collaborative Overload'



HBR has just published an article by Rob Cross on 'Collaborative Overload'. We are probably aware of anecdotal stories of individuals unwilling to be held-up as experts prepared to help others, for fear of being overloaded. The survey, on which the article is based states that 'In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. As people become known for being both capable and willing to help, they are drawn into projects and roles of growing importance'.

An interesting observation is that rather than being reticent helpers, these individuals become knowledge 'bottlenecks' or 'suffer from burnout... due to escalating citizenship'. Cross makes distinctions between Informational, Social and Personal resources. He proposes that the first two are infinate; you share them, but don't lose anything in doing so (in fact you gain potential reciprocity). Personal resource (time and energy) is finite and becoming increasingly precious. Calling time-consuming meetings to share knowledge, under the guise of 'collaborating' is a wasteful and unnecessary depletion of personal resource. 'Each request to participate in or approve decisions for a project leaves less available for that person’s own work'.

Ironically, in the HBR survey, those seen as the best sources of information and in highest demand as collaborators in their companies—have the lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores. So, what's to be done? Here the report is less helpful. For example, under 'Encourage behavioural change', they recommend 'encourage individuals to make an introduction to someone else when the request doesn’t draw on their own unique contributions'. More helpfully, the article cites Dropbox's experiment in cancelling all recurring meetings for two week experiment. This highlighted those that were really necessary. As a result, according to a Stanford University report, 'although the company tripled the number of employees at its headquarters over the next two years, its meetings were shorter and more productive'. 

The most helpful suggestions are around structural changes. 'Many hospitals now assign each unit or floor a nurse preceptor, who has no patient care responsibilities and is therefore available to respond to requests as they emerge. The result, according to research conducted with David Hofmann and Zhike Lei, is fewer bottlenecks and quicker connections between nurses and the right experts'. Other types of organizations might also benefit from designating “utility players”—which could lessen demand for the busiest employees'. This is a good description of the 'enabling' role that many of us working as knowledge managers do; appropriately connecting the right people at the right time and ensuring their time is used effectively. There is a good precis of how technology developments (Slack, Chatter, Syndio and Volometrix) are creating smart tools to help connect experts and teams.

The article concludes that 'Leaders must learn to recognize, promote, and efficiently distribute the right kinds of collaborative work, or their teams and top talent will bear the costs of too much demand for too little supply'. However, I disagree with a final recommendation 'we believe that the time may have come for organizations to hire chief collaboration officers'. This is a non-job and would absolve line managers from helping their experts manage their time and energy in a sustainable and reciprocal way.


Image credit: knok.com

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