Posted by: Katherine Raleigh
Programme Manager on Thu 23 Nov

Welcome to the latest in a series of brief interviews with guest experts from KnowledgeBrief’s Innovation Programme, providing a window into the experts’ latest ideas and new advice for executives.

Following the Innovation Day in November, Jeanne Meinholt, Senior Researcher at KnowledgeBrief (KB), interviewed Dr Nicola Millard (NM) from BT Global Services to discuss how, in an increasing virtualised world, we can bring the workplace back together to collaborate.

KB: What’s the key business challenge that organisations need to address, that your research tackles?

NM: The research looks at the way that work is changing. That change is partially driven by technology – the fact that it is shrinking, and that we are becoming ‘shoulder bag’ workers, untethered from our desks and our offices. The more fascinating part is that our culture sometimes anchors us back to the old, familiar ways. We call this the ‘collaboration conundrum’. In other words, as work globalises and virtualises and work forces diversify, how do you bring them back together in either virtual or digital space in order to collaborate?

It is clear that collaboration doesn’t happen simply because we can connect with each other. It is much more about creating purpose for collaboration, and that isn’t a technology issue – it’s a management one.

There are many conundrums to be tackled here. Organisations are becoming more diverse – from age to personality type and beyond – and that is great for innovation. However, diversity can also create fragmentation. If we simply take age and technology, older generations in the workforce are more likely to collaborate on email than on social media, whilst younger tend to gravitate more towards chat. This means that collaboration could be fragmented into tribal groups – echo chambers – who don’t talk to each other.

On one level this is a technical challenge – how do you plumb diverse technologies together?

On the other it is a leadership one – leaders need to be able to establish ‘common ground’ for collaboration. Common ground has to be accessible to everyone, and also appropriate to the task at hand.

That may well be physical common ground – the office, because offices are key collaboration tools. However, it is increasingly difficult (and sometimes very expensive) to get people into the same room together – it’s like herding cats! So that common ground is often digital.

Digital common ground can take many forms. Tools like video, or mixed/augmented/virtual reality can give us the impression of being there when we are not, but they might not be accessible to all, or appropriate for the task. Audio is often the most common, common ground – which is why BT have innovated in that area to bring in much more immersive audio environments. Then chat, and social media are picking up where email fails (it’s a great information tool, but a terrible collaboration one).

KB: What advice would you give to executives, based on your findings?

NM: Leadership in virtualised organisations is far less about seeing people at their desks. It’s much more about creating purpose, connection, and common ground. Leaders need to be good collaborators, and reward others for their contributions to collaborative tasks. They also need to be good networkers – the researchers at MIT call these people ‘charismatic connectors’, London Business School calls them ‘boundary spanners’. The bad news is that most of us – only 1 in 4 according to research – are good at this. The good news is that it is a skill, so it should be one of the key things that we teach our future leaders.

Collaboration also requires trust. Trust is relatively easy to build in face-to-face situations, which is why the office is unlikely to disappear in the future, but it also needs to be forged between people who may never meet. This is why executives need to understand the dynamics of collaboration in their teams. Colocation may seem to be a simple solution – but it can exclude key talent, extend commutes, and can be impossible in complex, global organisations. Execs need to figure out more creative common ground for their teams to effectively collaborate in a digital world.

KB: How does your latest research approach this? What do the results indicate?

NM: There is a myriad of research out there about human networks. We have been tapping into some of the MIT research on ‘social physics’, which is a big data approach to understanding collaboration. There is a whole wealth of human network analysis research out there as well – including some interesting work linking our health to our network (notably work from Lynda Gratton and Julia Hobsbawm). 

Understanding how culture intertwines with the new digital tools is really what fascinates me. At this point I probably have more questions than answers – which is why this research is continuing.

KB: What did you learn or take away from meeting with the executives in the KnowledgeBrief Innovation Programmes?

NM: I think this is topic that fascinates most people – myself included. So, we had some great discussions on the day. Notably, ‘over collaboration’ – the problem of being always connected, rather than being able to find the mental off switch – was the topic which seemed to resonate with the executive participants.

With thanks to Dr. Nicola J. Millard, Head of Customer Insight & Futures, BT Global Services Innovation Team.

Next month, clients will be exploring how to change people’s mind without the facts with Professor Mark Lorch, University of Hull. Find out more here.

Part of a series of brief interviews with expert guests from our Innovation Programmes, we cover insights from the latest research and key advice for executives to stay ahead in management and innovation.

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