In this second part of our five-part series on Morten Hansen’s book Collaboration, we look at the barriers to collaboration that may arise within companies. Identifying which hurdle is blocking productive teamwork can help boost the efficiency of your operations.

Book data
Title: Collaboration
Sub-title: How leaders avoid the traps, create unity and reap big results
Author: Morten T. Hansen
Publisher: Harvard Business Press
Price: $29.95

Our previous episode started off with the collaboration fiasco within Sony when the company tried to develop a rival to the iPod. In this chapter on counteracting the barriers to collaboration, professor Morten Hansen of UC Berkeley (and simultaneously professor at INSEAD; for bio click here) chooses the visible fiasco of the innards of the American government pre-September 11. Why choose nine-eleven? Because the sad event underscores many of the barriers to collaboration that professor Hansen identifies.

Let us examine all four sets of hurdles one by one.

Not invented here
The first set of hurdles to proper collaboration are what professor Hansen calls the ‘not invented here’ ones. This is when people are not willing to go outside their ‘environment’ (e.g. business unit, department, etc.) to seek external input from others. In the case of nine-eleven, one example was the lack of cooperation between the FBI and the CIA.

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According to his research, there are four principal causes for the not-invented-here obstacle to arise. A company having an insular culture, in which different areas do not communicate regularly, is one cause. The status gap – for example between a highly educated investment banking division and a street smart trading floor – can be another obstacle. An attitude of ‘fix your own problems’ and self-reliance can also be a strong hurdle. Last but not least, the fear of appearing stupid, of revealing shortcomings, can also be a strong dampener.

Do not touch my cheese
A second set of hurdles comes from the hoarding barrier. The symptoms here can be as simple as colleagues who do not return phone calls. Or who ‘forget’ to send you the email with some useful contact information? Or who find some lame excuse to procrastinate. In the case of nine-eleven, there were numerous cases of information hoarding, namely as regards classified information to avoid leaks.

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Why do some people exhibit the hoarding instinct? For professor Hansen, there are (once again) four main reasons. Perhaps the foremost is the competitive spirit. If divisions are in strong competition (for resources, for CEO time, etc.), each division will think twice before sharing potentially valuable information and experience. Close on the heels, narrow incentives – namely when people are rewarded only on how well they do their jobs – is another collaboration-killer. ‘Why should I help if there is nothing in it for me?’, asks the average corporate egotist. Busy-ness is another big hurdle. How can a manager find the time to handle her assigned tasks and also help out her distant colleagues? Lastly – and making a second cameo appearance – is fear. Fear of losing power this time. With knowledge being power, many managers believe that hoarding one’s knowledge enables preservation of power.

Needles in haystacks
The third set of hurdles is what professor Hansen calls the search barriers. Whereas the first two sets of hurdles were psychological, and man-established, this third set is more exogenous, and linked to sheer company attributes.

A more telling example here is that of the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbour. Although spanking new radar on Hawaii picked up the signal of incoming planes, the warning was disregarded as a technical error, in part because of mountains of other information reaching the US military command.

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For example, both company size and physical distance between divisions can be strongly detrimental to collaboration potential. Another hurdle is sheer information overload. A fourth hurdle is the poverty of networks within a company. All four of these hurdles have to do with the difficulty in finding the proper collaborative key to unlock a problem, and are more specific to large companies than to small ones.

ET come home
The final set of collaboration barriers are transfer barriers. This set of obstacles has to do with difficulties in transferring knowledge, either because of its form, or because of quasi-cultural difficulties.

Moving away from military examples to illustrate this point, professor Hansen quotes the French chef Fernand Point: “What is béarnaise sauce? An egg yolk, some shallots, some tarragon. But believe me, it requires years of practice for the results to be perfect.” In the same way, some collaboration is subject to such complexities that it becomes difficult.

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The difficulty in transferring tacit knowledge can be the first collaboration obstacle, since some information is difficult or impossible to transfer. Another difficulty can arise from the lack of a common frame, or a method of collaborating because of cultural differences. Lastly, weak ties can be an obstacle. If people do not know each other well, they may have trouble working together.

Wrapping it up
Professor Hansen even proposes a quick quiz to gauge how collaboration-resistant your company is. Click here to see the quiz (you will need to register). (Link to: http://www.thecollaborationbook.com/survey_main.php)

The last hurdle to good collaboration? For professor Hansen, it lies quite simply in modern management. After all, the increasing levels of autonomy given to managers within different divisions, business units, or subsidiaries of a same company have meant growing degrees of autonomy. Modern management says that to deliver results, managers have to be given the freedom to operate as they see best. Such a self-interested race for results often goes against the grain of inter-group collaboration.

In the next issue of Casium we will examine how to create a disciplined collaborative culture.

Published February 2010.
Next issue: March 3, 2010

Collaboration in five short snippets
As mentioned in our last issue, we are now offering you deeper analysis of noteworthy management books, over the course of several issues. We inaugurate this approach with professor Morten Hansen’s book Collaboration.

In the past issue (dated February 3), we started off with an examination of what he means by collaboration, when to collaborate, and when not to.

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In this issue we focus on identifying the four important hurdles to collaboration. Thereafter – on March 3 – we will examine how a company can create a disciplined collaboration culture. Then in the fourth instalment, we will examine how to become a collaborative leader. In the final – unpublished – chapter, we will look at online collaboration. For us, Morten Hansen will provide some insight into his as-yet unpublished research.

The editors
Michael and Chris Fodor
Comments are always welcome at michael.fodor@casium.fr or chris.fodor@casium.fr