In this final part of our five-part series based on Morten Hansen’s book Collaboration, we look at some aspects of online collaboration. When can online do the job? When is face-to-face required? What are the pitfalls to avoid?

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

In which circumstances can online collaboration be a good substitute for face-to-face collaboration?
The golden rule is that you need to first know the people you’re going to interact with online. First face-to-face, then online. There is research that shows that teams that took the time to build real person-to-person interaction did better than those that simply communicated virtually.

What are the tricks to make online collaboration successful?
We have to take a step back and ask, what problems are we trying to solve with regard to collaboration? If the problem is that employees from different parts of a company (or between companies) do not want to collaborate, perhaps because they do not want to share what they know, then we’re dealing with a motivational problem. That cannot be solved by introducing online collaboration tools such as facebooks for companies, wikis, video conferencing and the like. When people just don’t want to share and collaborate, then no IT tools will coerce them. Other managerial interventions, such as changing the incentives systems, are needed. Relying on online tools will make them a failure.

On the other hand, if people cannot easily find others (a search problem) or need to work virtually across geography (Bangalore and Paris, for instance), the online tools can be extremely helpful.

The bottom line: choose online tools for the right collaboration problems; don’t think for a minute that they are a panacea.

What are the main differences between ‘regular’ collaboration and ‘online’ collaboration?
There are many kinds of online collaboration, but I think there is one key difference between those and regular collaboration: a difference in richness of interactions. Online tools are, for the most part, ‘thin’ or ‘weak’ in that they do not convey nuances: emails don’t convey emotions, wikis and databases leave out nuances of information (e.g. under what conditions does a piece of advice work or not), and Facebook pages are just one-to-many communication of basic information. In face-to-face interactions, however brief, we pick up an awful lot. Research shows that people form opinions from cues within 30 seconds. All of that is lost online. One exception, perhaps: today’s advanced video-conferencing systems, such as Cisco’s telepresence, is so high definition that it allows people to pick up some of these cues.

So online is good for quick and ‘dirty’ interactions; regular collaboration works best when higher intensity is required.

How does this link to open business models?
‘Open’ means across company boundaries. Online tools can be very helpful here. They allow you to quickly find partners and work with them, people you had no idea existed or you had no idea how to find their expertise. Online tools allow you to find them and then also work with them. They are great for search. You need to be cautious about whom you work with and what you share with them. They can run away with your IP (intellectual property) or do lousy work for you. But it can work well.

One of my acquaintances doing a software start-up in Silicon Valley was able to find a software engineer in Romania who was good and who worked on the code for the product. And much cheaper.

Is online more suited to collaboration between company and its suppliers as opposed to within company divisions?
No I don’t think so. I think most companies can benefit from online collaboration, provided it is done in a disciplined way: use it for the right barriers (search and transfer, not motivational problems) and don’t overuse it. People can end up spending too much time messaging and writing blogs and entries for various webpages in the company, and not getting their own work done properly.

Can you provide us an example of poor online collaboration?
In a study we did of online collaboration tools in a large IT consulting company, some teams overused the tools. We found through statistical analysis that they were considerably worse off (less successful with their clients) than those who did not use the tools.

Another example is the Department of Homeland Security in the US. See my blog post:

Since September 11, 2001, they have invested an enormous amount of money in online collaboration, yet they don’t seem to do a much better job. They failed to integrate all the pieces of what they have (sort of having all the information, yet not making sense out of it). They should have invested more in human analysis of data and not just IT systems that enabled sharing of information.

In the next issue of Casium we start a series on “Market Rebels”, written by professor Hayagreeva Rao of the Stanford GSB.

Published March 2010.
Next issue: April 14, 2010


Collaboration in five short snippets
As mentioned in our last issues, 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 first instalment (dated February 3), we examined what he means by collaboration, when to collaborate, and when not to.

In the second instalment (dated February 17), we identified the four important hurdles to collaboration.

In the third instalment (dated March 4), we examined how to build a cohesive collaboration effort, either for a specific project, or as an overall corporate culture.

In the fourth instalment (dated March 17), we focused on how to become a collaborative leader.

Place chart with outline here.

In this final – unpublished – chapter, we will look at online collaboration. For us, Morten Hansen provides some insight into his research findings.

The editors
Michael and Chris Fodor
Comments are always welcome at or