Thursday, October 22, 2009

Collaboration: Vicious group-think with a point

By Dan Danford, MBA, CRSP

The great manipulation technique of this decade is “collaboration.” This horrendously popular business term has been deployed in all areas of American life.

We hear it constantly at work, and now it is now worming its way across the nation like some dreaded crop blight or tree disease. A recent Google search yielded some 83,000,000 hits in under a quarter-second. That’s five times more than “synergy” and four more than “paradigm.” We’re talking the World Series of inane business terminology, here.

According to Webster, to collaborate means 1) to work jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor, 2) to cooperate with or willingly assist an enemy of one's country and especially an occupying force, or 3) to cooperate with an agency or instrumentality with which one is not immediately connected.

Of those three, happy “collaborators” likely prefer the first, which sounds noble, but the bell which rings true today is the second; that is, to cooperate with or willingly assist an enemy (emphasis mine). That’s because collaboration is usually suggested by the strong as an effort to manipulate the weak.

Think about it. Do cries for collaboration ever rise up from the peasant classes? Not so much. They nearly always reign down from above. “Go, therefore, and collaborate on the issue of diminishing widget sales in the direct distribution channels of our Northsouthern region,” declares Mr. Puffy, the CEO. “Help them see why I think we should close that plant.”

In the community, it’s “let’s gather a group of social agencies to collaborate about neighborhood floral disintegration. Perhaps we could jointly commission a study to determine possible solutions,” intones Pansy Marigold, owner of the International Floral Studies Group. Blah, blah, blah, blah.

I loathe manipulation. Manipulators think they are smarter and sneakier than all the rest of us. They devise grand schemes to feather their own nest, and then coerce others to pay. They are bullies with velvet gloves. Collaboration is their tool of choice. “Everyone gets a say,” they’ll explain, but results are known far in advance to anyone with a brain. Ask around the office; manipulators think they are smarter, but they’re not.

There’s a sign on my desk declaring “none of us is as dumb as all of us.” The simple fact is that collaboration is often a management technique designed to exploit group dumbness. Most times, the lead collaborator has an agenda and a desired result. Others in the process are unwitting co-conspirators. They show up, hoping they can add data, or resources, or wisdom (or, with any luck at all, humor). Wrong. They are, in fact, adding dubious credibility to both the agenda and result.

Collaboration as intellectual endeavor? Maybe it could happen. When two university scholars gather at Starbucks to discuss research. Or when Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray conspire to create some new dessert for the Food Network. On ESPN commentators engage lofty discussions over the merits of a Wildcat offense in the NFL. (Though a friend just emailed that last weekend he heard a broadcaster suggest that two bruising linebackers "collaborated" on a tackle. I kid you not.)

Intellectual? Not today. Collaboration is a transparent and weak management tool. The suits want us to think we have input, so they put us in a group and guide us to their goal. But we have a secret weapon. Any of us are smarter than that group of us. As a tool, collaboration is dull, clumsy, and ineffective. Manipulators beware: we’re on to your hollow game.

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