Volume 11, Number 11
Dr. Gibbons is president of CoastWise Consulting, Inc., where
they create a competitive advantage for their clients by
leveraging the power of organization design, strategic alignment,
and collaboration. (www.coastwiseconsulting.com).
Ms. Brenowitz is the principal at Brenowitz Consulting, an
organization development consulting firm dedicated to improving
productivity through teamwork and collaboration (www.brenowitzconsulting.com).
The complexity of today's technology makes it impossible for
any one person to know all of the intricacies behind a new
product's design and development. Only 20 years ago, designing and
developing a product were more of an individual effort, and
organizational design centered on a hierarchical approach. Today,
companies have to accept that rapidly emerging technologies, a
global marketplace and an increasingly competitive and complex
business environment demand workplace collaboration.
Collaborative Work Environment
The simplest way to define a collaborative work environment
is to think of how we arrived there in the first place. It began
with the massive introduction of computers in the mid-1980s.
Better enabled by computers and their infinite capabilities, a new
breed of "knowledge workers" was born and, in many ways,
they share the same behaviors and value sets. The more the
computer distributed power in organizations, the less we relied on
traditional models of industry. Clear divisions of hierarchy have
been blurring ever since, shifting from a manufacturing model to
one of integration.
The collaborative work environments representing this stage
of the timeline are team-based organizations with highly aligned
people and structures. In this setting, team roles, goals and
operating principles are clarified, and joint problem solving and
innovation are essential.
Getting a company to this point is difficult. The traditional
hierarchies of most companies don't easily lend themselves to
team-based structures - especially large organizations that are
complex and more difficult to manage and modify. The non-profit
Association for the Management of Organization Design promotes the
knowledge and practice of organization design. After more than a
decade of studying companies, they state, "…We see the
emphasis shifting on a number of dimensions…less reliance on
hierarchy and more reliance on networking and strategic alliances;
less reliance on physical labor and more reliance on knowledge
workers and technology, less reliance on isolation and more
reliance on value chains and the willingness to build strong,
Means a New Design
Organization design is the planning and integration of the
way people work in an organization. It's also an essential
business tool for building a collaborative workplace. Although
organization design previously focused more on physically
modifying an organization's structure, information technology is
changing this approach. With the technical tools now available,
many types of dispersed work methods have emerged. Home offices,
drop-in work centers, electric conferencing are symbols of what
has vastly changed the focus of a company's organization design
efforts. The high-tech world is finally redefining today's
process-based organizations and changing the lines and boxes of
traditional organizational charts.
Collaborative work teams aren't necessarily without
structure, nor are they without levels of power and status. The
difference lies in the fact that the structures are set up to
change rapidly and to encourage innovation.
For example, companies such as DreamWorks or Apple Computer
tend to perfect their definition of teamwork as they grow.
Decision-making power and authority are constantly changing. Or,
there are companies, especially those with extensive sales
efforts, that must manage dispersed teams where managers work in
one location and their teams are located in several other places
throughout the world.
The complexity of building a collaborative environment
dictates the need for expertise in its planning and
implementation. Originally, small teams of five to 20 people
characterized the collaborative models. Increasingly, however,
teams are getting larger and more geographically dispersed.
Arriving at an operating style that works for all team members is
sometimes a hurdle.
Creating a collaborative work environment that supports the
work of engineers shows how models should be altered to
accommodate specific needs. In engineering organizations,
frequently the concept of team is associated with a loss of
creative freedom and individual uniqueness. In an organization
where the charter is to imagine and invent, even the possibility
of losing the freedom to innovate can be traumatic.
Design engineering work is not a matter of continuous
improvement, but rather of creation and innovation, leading to
technological and conceptual paradigm shifts. This type of work
does not easily lend itself to cross-training or pay-for-knowledge
reward systems that are typical within team-based process
The length of feedback loops in engineering organizations is
much longer than those in manufacturing organizations. On an
engineering project, it may take years before one knows if the
customer or the marketplace thinks positively about the product.
This is in contrast to quality control or internal inspection in
manufacturing organizations, where feedback may be received in a
matter of hours or days. Traditionally, engineers were trained to
be independent workers. They are often frustrated by today's
technology and the structural constraints market demands are
exerting on their work environments. In general, engineers prefer
being measured on individual uniqueness and heroics, not on
collaboration and team behavior.
Building effective models of collaboration is challenging.
Even when a company has decided to team its special (best) talent
to meet today's critical challenges, the ensuing process cannot be
underestimated. It warrants a great deal of attention, especially
regarding the players in the collaboration. One common philosophy
points toward the three components necessary for team success:
The exciting experience of being part of a collaborative team
is often enough for players to maintain their commitment. As
members build on each other's ideas, the resulting synergy is
rewarding. But these attributes don't just happen by accident.
It's not enough to get a couple of the elements right, because
this is still a system. Systems are interdependent by nature, so
changes in one part of a system create corresponding changes in
other parts. All of the elements need to be designed in concert
with one another in order for the collaborative workplace to
operate well. Ultimately, paying attention to the total design of
the organization, and not just its structure, is as important as
paying attention to customer satisfaction or financial results.