Is workplace collaboration a drag for headquarters personnel?

Nov 14, 2017

Knowledge@Wharton staff

Presented here for discussion is a summary of a current article published with permission from Knowledge@Wharton, the online research and business analysis journal of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

The mere mention of keeping up with overflowing e-mail, constant meetings and time-sucking conference calls makes many of us groan and roll our eyes. How did we all get so busy?

A major culprit is the sharp rise in cross-functional collaboration over the past several years due to the increased complexity of products and services, globalization, e-mail proliferation and the adoption of collaborative tools and social media, among other reasons.

Collaboration has been touted as a key to success by Steve Jobs, Virgin’s Richard Branson and Oracle’s Larry Ellison, among others.

“There’s just a range of things [about collaboration] that are undeniably positive,” said Rob Cross, a professor of global leadership at Babson College. Among these he cites employees’ ability to obtain information and expertise, which he says is better now than at any point in business history.

Wharton management professor Matthew Bidwell believes that for a company to adjust swiftly to changing conditions, collaboration is the way to go.

Yet the collaborative structure can have serious down sides, including slowing down decision-making without the traditional hierarchy of one decision maker. The constant e-mail and meetings can be a drain on workers’ time and resources and continual interruptions can lower productivity. Rewarding collaborative efforts can also be challenging because performance evaluations are often based on an older model of individual achievement.

Prof. Cross has found that some individuals manage collaboration better by doing “things like strategically calendaring, or blocking time, to be sure that they’re progressing toward their North Star and not getting drawn into things where either they don’t add unique value or that are not important to them.”

At the organizational level, some companies are finding it valuable to hire individuals who can “translate” across functional areas to help bridge potential silos. Enabling other departments to get to know one another can also improve collaboration.

You can’t just say no to people all the time, says Prof. Cross: you’ll end up being marginalized. But there are ways individuals and organizations can learn do it well.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Are the frustrations seen in cross-functional collaboration any better or worse for retailers and their vendor partners? What advice would you have for individuals or companies on improving collaboration? Are there any personal practices you’ve adopted to better manage collaboration?

Please practice The RetailWire Golden Rule when submitting your comments.
"Collaboration is only a great idea if it increases productivity."
"It is important not to confuse correspondence (quantity) with communication (understanding) with collaboration (agreement and action)."
"“Having lost sight of our objectives, let us redouble our efforts.”"

Join the Discussion!

12 Comments on "Is workplace collaboration a drag for headquarters personnel?"

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Ben Ball

It is important not to confuse correspondence (quantity) with communication (understanding) with collaboration (agreement and action). One does not necessarily beget the next. Unfortunately, the plethora of tools available to us today only enable the first — correspondence.

Kate Munro

I would disagree — there are a few tools available that enable both.

Whether we’re talking about internal or external collaboration, we need to remember that the retail industry is a community. It includes retailers, suppliers, banks, freight forwarders, carriers, mills, factories and more, and all of these groups come into play when bringing a great product to market. This requires easy and efficient communication across all parties, no matter the time or location. I’ve mentioned before that 63 percent of retailers are still using outdated applications and manual methods to manage their sourcing relationships, which just isn’t working in today’s retail economy. Agility is key and there are more tech solutions offering retailers and brands a way to collaborate at every stage of the product lifecycle than ever before. Retailers need to shift away from the linear, cumbersome process they are used to and take advantage of these digital technologies that enable better communication and collaboration.

Chris Petersen, PhD.

There is a reason Sam Walton went out and visited stores every weekend … he found it invaluable to meet and collaborate with staff on the front lines. A key to Sam’s success was “structured collaboration.”

A major challenge in the age of instant messaging is the phenomenon of being “always on.” Messaging can become incredibly disruptive across many potential “collaborators” without purpose.

Is it possible that we have reached an age where we need to train and mentor staff on “effective collaboration,” and how to balance it with personal productivity.

In an age when collective collaboration is the new normal, results still count.

Adrian Weidmann

Well said, Ben! What is simply communication is often referred to as collaboration because it sounds like you’re achieving results. The fact is, exchanging emails is not collaboration — it’s correspondence. Collaboration should achieve consensus and a decision to move forward with a common purpose. Most correspondence just fills time.

Ian Percy

“Having lost sight of our objectives, let us redouble our efforts.”

Brandon Rael

Collaboration and partnership is critical between the retailers and their vendor partners. However, simply having the advanced and latest collaborative tools doesn’t always result in clear, concise solution-focused communications.

As a practice, I always employ the “SMART” (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-Oriented) philosophy when it pertains to setting meeting objectives. Every meeting/collaboration should have a purpose, desired objectives/outcomes and the next steps should be properly defined, with identified owners, accountability and timings.

The basic business communication fundamentals shouldn’t change regardless of the advanced technological collaboration tools at our disposal. When in doubt, you could always pick up the phone.

Lesley Everett

Collaboration is only a great idea if it increases productivity. Perhaps we have now moved into an era in which accountability is more important, and creating an environment and culture of trust and respect and empowering individuals to get things done and follow through is a better business mantra. This in itself could encourage more collaboration — if indeed it means working together more effectively to achieve results.

Todd Trombley

I have clients in retail and the non-retail sector. Both seem equally challenged with managing the workload and time management issues inherent in highly-collaborative, email-heavy environments.

People need help. They need to be trained in how to handle the demands this work model entails. They need bosses that are in-tune with their workloads and not prone to throwing time-consuming tasks on an already overburdened individual. Cross-function bridge builders are a good idea. I’ve seen them work.

Seriously — arrive prepared, ready to contribute, have your stuff done and respect others’ time.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Collaboration requires employees to have expertise in more than their own function, and that is a rarity.

Ralph Jacobson
I had a meeting with the CIO of a major grocer that we all know and they said they have so much data and information, but they have no idea what to do with it. The next hour, I had a meeting with the CMO in the next office down the hallway and the CMO stated several types of data they would like to capture to derive insights from the analysis of it, but they don’t seem to be able to capture it. Of course, the data that the CMO was looking for was literally right next door. This is one area of collaboration that still exists in many organizations, large and small. Also, the technology tools that are used are often not integrated to one another, so when one practitioner in one business function makes adjustments to a demand forecast, for instance, another practitioner may not be alerted to those adjustments. Integrated systems is a great way to start this type of collaboration. And, it doesn’t mean you have to “rip-and-replace” the systems in… Read more »
Adam Silverman

While HQ teams might feel overwhelmed with too much communication and collaboration options, the retail hourly workers at the stores are suffering with few tools to help them collaborate and get work done. The retail industry should focus on holistic collaboration across all roles, especially those in the field, if they want to maximize the value of collaboration in their orgs.

Darren Knipp

Collaboration is important across an organization as today’s problems involve more data, technologies, and processes than ever before and it usually takes a village to get the best outcome. Having said that, I agree with prior comments on accountability being key. To enable collaboration, a consistent set of tools and usage patterns is important. This requires commitment and on-going training, but in the end it will pay off as the organization will be much more agile to respond to the market. Collaboration with customers should also not be overlooked. Getting real-time feedback as they browse the store can be invaluable.

"Collaboration is only a great idea if it increases productivity."
"It is important not to confuse correspondence (quantity) with communication (understanding) with collaboration (agreement and action)."
"“Having lost sight of our objectives, let us redouble our efforts.”"

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