by Peter B. Grazier

This article originally appeared in EI Network April 1,1998

What began simply as quality control circles in Japan in the 1970’s has blossomed into a full-blown trend toward greater collaboration in the workplace. In reality, the movement began much earlier when psychologists began experimenting with work groups in the early 1900’s. This experimentation continued throughout the century, yielding much knowledge about how people work and think together.

But the impetus for change accelerated into a significant trend in North America when the competitive pressures of the 1980’s shook American dominance (and arrogance) at its foundation. As the United States lost one industry after another to foreign competition, most notably Japan, it became clear that organizations could improve quality and productivity dramatically, and innovation could proceed at previously unheard of rates of speed when the organization engaged more of its brainpower, i.e., its workforce, its customers, and its suppliers.

The Collaboration Trends
In 1982, trend forecaster John Naisbitt startled us in his Number 1 Bestseller Megatrends by predicting that we would see much greater participation in workplace thinking and a general disintegration of hierarchies as networking would speed information between those with a need to know. He observed that “In an information economy, rigid hierarchical structures slow down the information flow—just when greater speed and more flexibility are critically needed.”

As we looked closer at our Japanese competitors, we observed firsthand how work decisions were now being made by small, decentralized work groups…a notion that challenged all of our thinking of how work was performed. One of my greatest learning’s from Naisbitt, however, was his principle that real change occurs when there is a confluence of both changing values and economic necessity. The values of collaboration and participation had been changing for years, but it took the economic necessity of lost businesses and industries to force us to look closer at these values and their relationship to organization performance.

Consultant Marvin Weisbord in his 1987 book Productive Workplaces noted that since the 1950’s “Everybody (as opposed to just the experts) solves problems.” He predicted, however, that by the year 2000 everybody would improve whole systems, again escalating the level of involvement. This would mean that people at all levels of the organization would be intimately involved with how the organization operates.

As we reflect on the past ten years, we can, in fact, see these trends in action in the workplace. The need for speed and flexibility in an information economy has driven hierarchies downward as layers of management have disintegrated. With fewer managers has grown a need for more responsibility and independent decision making at the front-lines. A manager or supervisor with 50 direct reports cannot control to the level of one with 10 direct reports.

And as higher level managers have been forced to deal with the rapidity of change and resulting strategic decisions, front-line employees have assumed responsibility for work processes. Self-directed work teams with their greater autonomy, for example, are an outgrowth of this shifting responsibility.

Collaboration on the Systems
The need for rapid change and flexibility has brought forth a number of change processes all centered on greater participation. Concepts such as search conferences, large group interventions, and open space meetings involve large numbers of the organization’s employees, customers, and suppliers in process changes. These events bring a cross-section of people together to identify the challenges and develop plans and goals for the future. The shift from centralized thinking to broad-based involvement is a hallmark of this approach, and its use is spreading rapidly.

Collaboration as a Business Strategy
Much has been written about Microsoft Corporation and its rapid growth and dominance in the software industry. Collaboration has played a central role in their ability to maintain market share and, in fact, develop new markets.

For example take Exchange, Microsoft’s enterprise E-mail and collaboration software. The development project began in 1991 in an attempt to match Lotus’ popular Notes. Progress was slow at first. But Microsoft practically assured Exchange’s eventual success by taking the unusual step of inviting 20 corporations, including General Electric, Texaco, and Boeing, to help it develop Exchange from the ground up — with the inducement that it would contain the features they valued most. And when the product was ready, these companies didn’t have to spend months evaluating Exchange. The result: Microsoft has shipped 7.2 million user copies of Exchange in just 18 months — compared to 15.3 million copies of Notes that Lotus has shipped in 9 years, according to Electronic Mail & Messaging Systems.

The April-May issue of Fast Company Magazine (coincidentally, one of the fastest growing business magazines today) is highlighted by a special report entitled “The Agenda.” The Agenda recognizes companies in four categories that are changing how we work:

Grassroots leadership
Humane technology
Total teamwork
Sustainable growth

For this report Fast Company emailed a global community (again a demonstration of collaboration) of leading businesspeople, provocative writers, out-of-the-box thinkers, and cutting-edge educators to determine the categories and the companies making a difference in the new world of work. The fact that “Total Teamwork” made the list is significant in its own right, but the company highlighted as the one most epitomizing the trend is surprising.

SEI Investments, a financial services company that manages $121 billion in assets for its clients, operates in a starch-shirted world that would seem resistant to rapid change, flexibility, and teamwork.

Born in 1968, the company initially grew traditionally and was indistinguishable from others in the field. Then in 1990, CEO Alfred West Jr. decided the company had to speed up its reaction time, innovate more quickly, and get closer to its customers.

First he took a wrecking ball to the corporate pyramid. Then he eliminated secretaries and instructed his managers to do their own typing, faxing, and travel planning. The intent was to break the back of the old culture. In 1996 the company moved into new headquarters in Oaks, Pennsylvania. There were no prearranged floor plans, so it was up to the teams to arrange it. What is most significant, however, in this new environment is how the teams operate. Most employees are on a base team and three to four ad-hoc teams. The ad-hoc teams form and disband as needed to solve specific problems and processes. All furniture is on wheels and colorful spiraled cables carrying electricity, phone connection, and Internet access drop down from the ceiling.

When a need arises, people quickly move their desks into team locations. There are no Dilbertesque cubicles to hinder movement and collaboration.

The result…a rapid response to the organization’s needs. The effect on the business…a 30% increase in revenues in 1997 from the previous three years to $300 million.

What strikes me in this article are the symbols of the new culture…the drop down cables (instant connectivity) and the wheeled furniture. This says that, even in the stereotypically stogy world of financial services, the ability to respond rapidly through collaborative processes (instant teams) becomes a key competitive advantage. Collaboration takes on a new significance. The trend moves further forward, driven, as Naisbitt noted, by economic necessity.

Collaboration…A Personal Connection
A few years ago I took a summer hiatus from my work, mainly to recharge my batteries and reconnect with life. Since I enjoy working with my hands, the summer projects involved performing needed repairs and renovations to the house.

As the engineer, male, and mechanically inclined one of the family, years before I would have launched into the projects as I always had…alone. But this summer was different. I had been working with collaborative processes at work (employee involvement, empowerment, teams, and such) for too many years. As a result I found myself consulting with my wife Barbara on almost all of the projects.

Interestingly it wasn’t a forced collaboration, that is, I really didn’t have to think about doing it. It just came naturally. The years of collaborating at work had replaced in my subconscious a new way of working. Even though Barbara considers herself to be “mechanically challenged,” I incorporated most of her thoughts into my projects. In some cases, for example the most difficult project, I used her ideas entirely. Not surprisingly, the repairs and renovations went well. Her ideas combined with my own made the final result better. Collaboration worked. As more people use and experience collaborative practices at work, as younger managers move to the forefront, and as competition continues its relentless pressure to change, we will continue to see people interacting in new ways.

Collaboration is, indeed, alive and well.