Collaboration is overrated?

In some form or another, collaboration has been a buzzword for ages. Finding smarter ways to work together… what’s not to like about that?

Plenty, contrarians were quick to answer. Beset by Orwellian visions of conformity and groupthink, pessimistic prognosticators put on their sandwich boards and warn us that collaboration was some nefarious plot against individual liberty and that technology threatened to strip away the very essence of our humanity – or something. In 2006, Inc contributor David H. Freedman warned, “The effectiveness of groups, teamwork, collaboration, and consensus is largely a myth… And the technology of ubiquitous connectedness is making the problem worse.” He went on to raise an eyebrow at the prospect of a significant amount of people “making valuable contacts” via social networking sites. (Oops.)

Flash ahead to 2014: “Complex problem solving in science, engineering, and business has become a highly collaborative endeavor,” reported a team of MIT Media Lab researchers in a new study.”Teams of scientists and engineers collaborate on projects using their social networks to gather new ideas and feedback.” It’s not a phenomenon limited to marketing or Corporate America; it’s happening all over.

But Freedman was writing eight years ago; Twitter and Central Desktop had barely gotten off the ground. People were listening to James Blunt. It was a strange time.

Even today, though, myths and misinterpretations persist, leading to any number of articles that seem to suggest, straight-faced, that teamwork isn’t that important for you or your business. Sure, we have a cultural tendency to romanticize lone wolves and scrappy, solitary heroes building global empires from humble origins and spartan garages (you can see some great photos of some of those garages). And, sure, the internet likes to pose provocative headlines as a misdirection (e.g. “Collaboration is overrated?”).

But we still hear from well-intentioned observers that “group work is overrated,” that “working together often yields weaker results,” that collaboration is a ticket to feeling “soulless and mechanical,” and that collaboration is sometimes a synonym for “shared incompetence,”

Too often, collaboration critics – or, as we call them, collabohaters – are conflating collaboration with brainstorming, when really brainstorming is just a piece of the collaborative puzzle for most businesses. Granted, it is often an important piece, which is why we’ve devoted space to the topic of improving brainstorming sessions. But every time you return an email, pop by a coworker’s desk with a question, submit a request form, sign off on a creative asset, etc. etc., you’re collaborating. Sometimes the art of collaboration, especially in discussing technology’s role in collaboration, is figuring out a better way to do the work you’re already doing. How can you link a series of independent but interrelated tasks together to strip away unnecessary downtime? Which pieces of your workflow can be automated? “Collaboration” shouldn’t be (and, in my experience, never is) code for “more meetings” or “superfluous cooks in the kitchen.”

There’s also the curiously recurring commentary that collaboration stifles dissent. Sure, there will always be peer pressure to fall in line with a bulldozing boss or a strong company culture. What isn’t quite clear, though, is how opening more avenues for communication and collaboration make it any less likely for opposing views to surface. Sure, if you’re a genius like Thomas Edison, it may seem easier to just make bold individual decisions instead of risking dullness-by-committee… except that’s not at all how Edison actually worked.

Collaboration was a crucial component of the culture of Edison’s labs. That’s perhaps what some of the doom-and-gloom crowd is missing; it’s not just about new technology or new faces in the same old meetings and brainstorm sessions.

“Successful social business initiatives require leadership and behavioral changes,” says Gartner VP Carol Rozwell. By next year, an estimated 80% of social business initiatives will have failed. That’s an alarming number, but when you dig deeper, it’s an indictment of the strategies (or lack thereof) deployed, not the mission itself.

For more detailed examples of the impact of smarter collaboration, check out our recent case studies with FleishmanHillard and CareerBuilder. To learn best practices for boosting user adoption of your collaboration solution, check out James Gardner’s 8 tips.

Post by Adam McKibbin

Adam McKibbin is the content marketing manager for iMeet Central. His writing has been featured in Adweek, the Chicago Tribune and The Nation, and he’s produced content for some of the leading tech brands on the Fortune 500.