Collaborative Overload?

By Alexander Klier Jan 22, 2016
Collaborative Overload?

Translation of the Original Article by Alexander Klier 

According to an article of the Harvard Business Review (HBR) from January 2016, the few collaboratively working people in the company very quickly produced an overload in terms of a full (personal) overload.

Picture: Keoni Cabral - Wearable Technology on Flickr here. Use under the terms of the Creative Commons - Attribution (BY).


The Harvard Business report of January / February 2016 stated a vastly increased amount of collaborative cooperation of managers and employees. According to the authors’ "measurements“, especially "collaborative" activities have increased by over 50% in companies. At the same time, these activities are considered as future success factor for organizations because they break up "typical" silo functions and ensure networking. Does this lead to an overload of the actively involved people? The title suggests this and inasmuch makes more than curious to know why this is an overload - and what causes there are for it. Since the report deals with a key issue for us at BeaS and possibly (empirically) devotes to an important problem, it is time to write a few words on it. Especially, since we got the impression after reading it critically several times, that the McKinsey authors have neither adequately captured the issue of collaboration, nor have they described it properly. Accordingly, the collaborative overload is a specific problem: however not in the context of social collaboration, but in the Tayloristic world.


The non-collaborative world of Taylorism

"At many companies the proportion [of meetings, phone calls etc.] hovers around 80%, leaving employees little time for all the critical work they must complete on their own" (HBR Review Nr. 01/2016).

Already the quote above does not bode well. The interesting thing is that this phrase already appears in the second paragraph of the report. Practically right after noting that collaborative activities had increased enormously. And already very early poses the question whether this could possibly be meant by collaborative activities. It is new to us though, that sessions and meetings could be seen as (social) collaborations. Though they are necessary as Coordinating instruments in a work organization based on Tayloristic separation (see our blog post "Social Collaboration, Collaboration - or what" here), but, a collaboration does not take place according to our interpretation anyway. At least not automatically. Well, the criticism of meetings to be totally unproductive and time-consuming events in companies is legendary. Ultimately, the authors significantly debunk with this quote, the underlying notion of Tayloristic work organization. The talk here is about that the sessions and phone calls! leave little time for the employees to carry out their own critical (the real) work, which they have to do on their own. That sounds not only like an analysis of the classic time management (refer to blog post for collaborative time management here), but the other proposals to avoid such overloads might as well be copied from it verbatim. Or rather: Borrowed from time management


From 5 up to 35

"In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees (a.a.O.).

This quote also must be digested slowly. 5% of employees generally provide 35% of value added in the context of a collaboration. Hats off to the measuring process that claims to have established such a thing. Whereas this supposedly resulted from own studies and a psychological study, you can guess it already, it refers to the cooperation between teams in the classical context. The authors deduce from this that there are colleagues, who assume many additional functions in the work of groups and teams (display an extra-role behavior) and thus become so popular, that nothing works without them, because they are consulted on all potential projects and teams. This makes them, like any other valuable resource, overloaded and thereby personally inefficient. The overload has occurred.

We do not deny, that there are those mentioned employees and also think, that they provide central resources in the field of cooperation (see also our essay "Peak performance through collaborative cooperation"). We also do not deny that then there may be an Overload (Burnout?) under the specific conditions of the Tayloristic organization of work. However, we do deny that this is a typical collaborative work situation. Consequently, this is not a collaborative Overload.


Collaboration as a bottleneck?

"But an individual employee’s time and energy are finite, so each request to participate in or approve decisions for a project leaves less available for that person’s own work" (a.a.O.).

This statement is true in the Tayloristic interpretation, as it represents a further step in the wrong direction in the context of collaborative working. First, back to the report, though. In the further course of their reasoning, the authors assumed that there are 3 types of collaborative resources:

  1. Informational Resources,
  2. Social Resources and
  3. Personnel Resources.

Here is the next big "bump". These 3 resources are not equally efficient for the authors, because the informational resources (knowledge and skills), and the social resources (awareness and / or position in a network) can be shared easily (Often in a single Exchange???) while the personal resources (own time and energy) are limited. Unfortunately however, it is just the human resources that are in demand in the context of collaboration. Which obviously cannot go well. Accordingly then are the recommendations to avoid the collaborative Overload: Redistribution of responsibility for collaboration and rewarding efficient "contributions". Where the redistribution of responsibilities essentially is to enable those concerned to say "no" sometimes. And recommends those seeking help to deliberate exactly when to invite to meetings via e-mail or request (personal) assistance. Of course, there are still a lot of technical tools such as Slack and Chatter. To put it a little bluntly.

Also somewhat exaggerated and generalized one could say: That is what happens when cultivating experts, who are in demand everywhere, rather than relying on the initiative and the competence of all those involved in the framework of a collaboration. In our view, a real social collaboration is characterized by a completely different structure of cooperation, where almost everyone involved - collaboratively - contributes to the result.


From 5 up to 100

"Collaboration is indeed the answer to many of today’s most pressing business challenges" (a.a.O.).

We can only agree. However, it depends on what you actually mean by a social collaboration. Cross, Rebele and Grant are at least consequential, when they call for a new position: The "Chief Collaboration Officer" (CCO). This person should then take care that collaborating happens efficiently and that the necessary resources are provided for. That would indeed be a clear signal - , however in our eyes in the completely wrong direction. Therefore, our proposal is not based on that 5% contribute to 35% value added, but we believe that 100% can and have to contribute to a high-performance collaboration. And (only) thus, the long-term success of the company is ensured.

I hope the difference has become clear: We assume that in the context of a social collaboration all employees are adequately involved, because they are empowered to network independently and collaborate via Communities. They also learn by doing, what is important and especially that a high-performance collaboration means a constant exchange among colleagues on an equal footing. From information in conversations that are gladly communicated to others in the framework of their own communities. The actual work thus takes place jointly, and meetings are part of this work, just like conversations. How this is implemented especially digitally, for example in the framework of Enterprise Social Networks, we have often written about, as part of our corporate blogs (for example here and here). Ultimately, that is the area where we offer our own Consulting activities to the companies as an aid, to actually be able to deal with the digital transformation towards a social collaboration - without Overload.

Source: Cross, R.; Rebele, R. & Grant, A. (2016): Collaborative Overload. In: HBR (Harvard Business Review), January-February 2016. Avalable at: