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Former Member
SAP Jam’s Daisy Hernandez sits down with influencers in enterprise collaboration, for external perspectives on how people communicate in the workforce.

For those of us who follow the collaboration market, it seems to encompass a variety of people’s excitements and frustrations. The more we interact at work, the stronger our opinions about how we best communicate with our colleagues and share information.

Rob Cross has been studying and writing about how people interact at work for decades. As a professor in the management department at University of Virginia's McIntire School of Commerce for nearly 20 years, Rob has researched, taught and consulted on applying social network analysis ideas to critical business issues Rob has also co-authored a number of books, including Driving Results through Social Networks: How Top Organizations Leverage Networks for Performance and Growth and The Hidden Power of Social Networks: Understanding How Work Really Gets Done in Organization.

The topic of our conversation, collaborative overload, centered around an article Rob, along with Wharton professor Adam Grant and Wharton People Analytics Researcher Reb Rebele, contributed to the January/February 2016 issue of Harvard Business Review.

Daisy Hernandez (DH): Has modern-day collaboration gone wrong, in your opinion?

Rob Cross (RC): I wouldn’t say it’s gone wrong. However, there are a suite of things that have happened that have increased the volume of collaboration demands for knowledge workers, including matrix-based organizational structures, increased globalization of workforces, and more demand for faster innovation.

Our research of more than 300 organizations shows that the distribution of collaborative work is often uneven. We’ve found that 20-35 percent of value-added collaboration comes from just 3-5 percent of employees. Leaders must learn to recognize, promote and allocate the right kinds of work to the right kinds of people. Finding an appropriate balance is challenging – too often top performers will bear the costs of too much demand for too little supply.

In addition, according to our data, time spent by managers and workers in collaborative activities has increased by at least 50 percent in the past 20 years. This has had an impact on organizational performance. High-performing employees are particularly vulnerable since they are already being stretched thin.

DH: How do you calculate the value of collaboration?

RC: I don’t think many companies today are generally calculating the value of collaboration at all. Rather, they’re looking at the impact of getting better collaboration. In other words, “Is there improved coordination across product lines?” They can also measure the time people are spending in different collaborative activities, like meetings, against solo work.

DH: In your article for Harvard Business Review, you discussed your research which found people in the highest demand as collaborators in their companies also have the lowest engagement and career satisfaction scores. How can business leaders help to effectively manage the demands placed on top collaborators? 

RC: Once someone gets good at what they do, their stock starts rising. Word gets out, and, over time, these skilled workers can get bombarded with requests large and small.

As you see, we’ve divided the ways employees provide assistance into three resource types: informational, where workers record and pass on expertise; social, where employees leverage their own access and position in a network, and personal, where workers devote time and energy to participate in a project or task. Instead of asking for specific information or social resources, the de facto collaboration demand is for personal resources. Though information may be available in documents or knowledge libraries and could have taken 5 or 10 minutes to dig up, people often ask for hands-on assistance, which can easily turn into a half hour meeting, potentially straining resources on both ends of the equation.

There are multiple impacts. Workers may start feeling so taxed that their own efficacy takes a hit. This can even result in these workers becoming “bottlenecks” – essentially, work and projects may not move forward until they’ve provided input. In addition, since requests are often spread across multiple departments, team or lines of business, the assistance and work they are providing for others can often go unnoticed. Our research has shown that these overwhelmed workers often leave for a new position, or stay in their current role and run the risk of spreading their feelings of apathy or exasperation to colleagues.

Leaders at the organization should be cognizant of the percentage of people that are being overloaded and work to actively streamline and redistribute responsibilities. They should recognize as well as reward effective contributions. There’s a huge amount of opportunity for organizations to increase collaborative efficiency, and effectively manage the demands placed on overburdened workers.

Tools like network analysis and peer recognition programs can help companies assess their workforce. For example, network analytics can help organizations pinpoint employees who have broad impact beyond hitting their numbers, as well as leverage this information in performance reviews, promotions, bonuses and salary discussions.

DH: You also mentioned that organizations could be well-served to hire chief collaboration officers. Has the time come for companies to invest in senior-level positions dedicated to managing teamwork thoughtfully and providing the resources necessary to do it effectively?

RC: Many companies could benefit from a senior leadership position dedicated to collaboration. With such a role, management sends a clear signal to employees about the importance of managing teamwork thoughtfully and effectively, with the right tools and resources in place to do so.

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