Collaboration in Organizations

Throughout this past semester I have been taking another course in the Management Department titled, “Creativity, Design, and Marketing.”  This course has been focused on what innovation is and how innovative and creative ideas are formed and then come to fruition.  This past week we were lucky enough to have Lew Epstein, a lead designer at Steelcase Inc. come and speak with our class about a new innovative product his company just recently released.  It might also be of importance to note that while Lew spends about half his time in Michighan (where Steelcase is located), he also spends half of his time in Palo Alto, California working at IDEO, which is a subsidiary of Steelcase.  The topic that Lew spoke about was the global trend of collaboration in business.  Their new product pictured below called Mediascape was the result of over 2.5 years of researching and development trying to come up with a solution that will solve all the issues surrounding collaboration.  While the technology was extremely interesting and highly innovative, what really struck me was all of the barriers to collaboration within an organization that they had discovered in their research.  The frequency with which we work in groups in the School of Management at Bucknell is almost daily, yet what I have come to realize is that these small organizations are just about anything but efficient.

Mediascape - the all in one collaboration center.

Mediascape - the all in one collaboration center.

Recently in class we have been discussing networks and how they can influence the amount of knowledge or information that a particular organization or group has.  Yet, what Lew’s presentation really helped me to understand is that way before you can worry about the sharing of information between groups, you have to focus on how to get information to flow between the individuals in a group.  When you look at the picture above, in addition to being aesthetically appealing, it also solves more issues that you can possibly imagine.  In order for a small group to collaborate, each individual needs to be able to share their ideas effectively and efficiently to the rest of the group.  Let’s take our class as an example organization, and our class discussions as an example of collaboration.  While each of us may have many wonderful ideas that we would like to effectively share with the class, we are limited to only what we can share through oral communication.  Sure some of us sit with our laptops and may have notes/graphs/websites etc., but the only person who has the power to project is our wonderfully powerful professor.  In addition, we are limited to one person sharing with the group at a time (although this doesn’t always go according to plan).  Also let’s think about the physical surroundings that our discussions take place.  I’ll be the first to tell you that the desks are extremely uncomfortable (especially for us lefties) and it’s difficult to pay attention or see those to my direct right and left.  So maybe we aren’t being quite as collaborative as we think we are….

Now look – I am not trying to be a salesman and convince you that this Mediascape product can solve any organization’s collaboration issues.  But, it might teach us a few lessons about how we can enhance collaboration and get a richer and more fullfilling experience out of classes, group meetings, or even dinner table discussions.  Mediascape always for any member of the group to share the information on their laptop to the entire group at the press of a button.  Also, with more than one screen multiple individuals can show their ideas to the entire group at the same time.  Comfort is also enhanced by the higher (bar stool type), which also serves to keep group members more awake and on their toes.  There were 1000 other problems that Steelcase attempted to solve with Mediascape, although unfortunately I couldn’t quite keep up with my short-hand notes (another problem with collaboration).

So, what does this all mean for organizations?  I think the implications of the barriers to collaboration are pretty significant when you think about how much communication and time is probably wasted in every meeting or collaboration session.  From my experience over the last few years, Bucknell’s School of Management seems to put a lot of emphasis on interacting with our peers and learning how to successfully work in a group.  Yet, I have never once been taught how to collaborate.  I can only imagine the amount of time, energy, and communication that has been wasted in the hundreds of hours of group meetings, projects, and presentations I have been involved with in my academic career.

3 Responses

  1. I definitely agree with the lack of collaboration efforts here at Bucknell, in more than just the management department. For example, in computer science they use a system called Subversion for team collaboration. While it does have its perks, subversion can be a bit of a pain. How it works is your partner saves their files to SVN, then you can update your project to match theirs. My biggest issue with this is waiting to submit my stuff until they have submitted theirs so I don’t erase their changes. It is a real pain.

    I agree that better collaboration tools (email and project spaces are nice but not sufficient) would be very helpful to the “group work” learning experience. I think this type of problem is why I have an interest in IS. There are so many great ways to share information in this world and many more to be discovered. It is important that organizations that would like their members to collaborate effectively to have the right tools to do so.

    I like the classroom example. It really helps to put this into perspective for me.

  2. I definitely agree. I also thought it was interesting how Steelcase recognized that it is not simply a technological problem for these small organizations, but a spatial problem. As much as I agree that IS is going to be a huge factor in enhancing collaboration, I still believe that face to face contact is extremely important in collaboration.

  3. Very thoughtful and interesting. Please don’t read these as defensive, just stirring up the discussion.

    Is the best way to teach you to collaborate to have you do it? Can you imagine a 60 minute lecture on collaborating?

    While I agree that I am the only one who can control projections, I would humbly suggest that I have two methods to encourage collaboration like you discuss. One, how often do you talk to a partner or small group? Two, how much does the blog give everyone a platform to share ideas and encourage information flow?

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