When high-definition, flat screens first came out, there was a commercial of a boy sitting in front of one, mesmerized. The TV displayed a stunning vision of the Grand Canyon. He couldn't look away. Which was unfortunate because the TV was set right at the edge of the actual Grand Canyon. A turn of his head this way or that way, and the kid could've seen the real thing.
I got the commercial's point, but I still found it frustrating.
That's how I feel now about how close companies are to genuinely benefiting from collaboration, but just aren't quite there...
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, business nonfarm productivity has plummeted to its lowest point since the digital age began. CEB chief executive officer Tom Monahan shared that he's hearing this slowdown anecdotally confirmed by senior executives across the country.
Monahan identified the culprit for low productivity in a recent CEB blog post. "Collaboration is the enemy of both speed and better outcomes," he wrote.
I call this phenomenon the "Collaboration Paradox." The more information, tools, and opportunities teams have to collaborate, the more difficult effective collaboration becomes.
The question is why? Why should better technology and more collaborative attitudes hinder getting things done?
One important cause is that many people in the workforce lack the digital and soft skills needed to collaborate in an effective and efficient way. New tools and new ways of working are changing so fast; it's difficult for people to keep up.
The Missing Soft Skills
Lack of "soft skills" is a growing concern for many companies. Employees having good soft skills is more important that their job-specific skills according to 73% of employers. Still more astonishing, 44% say lack of soft skills is the largest skills gap they see.
The challenge is that employees want to communicate and collaborate with their co-workers, but they may not know how to do it well. Perhaps leadership isn't creating a culture that encourages open communication and collaboration. Perhaps employees aren't clear on what knowledge and experience they have that's valuable to share with others, or what their co-workers need from them.
Another soft skill both needed and obstructed by collaboration is attention management. How well do your employees know how to prioritize where they give their attention? Which tasks are important? What information is needed to do them? How quickly can they get to it?
The exploding volume of content being created and discussions occurring all increase the noise around workers. And it's getting hard to sift through it all, to quickly understand the context of a conversation or file so they can assess its priority to their current task. This is where technology is supposed to help.
The Missing Digital Skills
Technology can't teach people what to prioritize, but it should help them access it and act on it more quickly. Yet the McKinsey Global Institute has found that knowledge workers spend 19 percent of their work week searching for and gathering information.
Document and messaging tools provide users with a lot of retrieval functionality. Tagging, categorizing, searching. But the net positive impact isn't what we'd expect.
The fact is that the relentless advance of our business tools means that an employee's digital skills have an ever-shortening half life. Each time a new tool or function is added to the arsenal, employees need to do more than learn how to use it. They need to learn how to use it productively in a collaborative setting.
Leadership Skills Require Focusing on Developing Employee Skills
As leaders in our companies, we're expecting employees to work collaboratively. We're giving them technology to do so. But are we laying ground work for them to be successful at it?
We can start helping them by using intuitive collaboration tools that don't force steep learning curves people don't have the patience to climb.
Next, we need to pro-actively encourage and train them in the soft skills we expect them to display. Training can be done by leadership modeling and rewarding effective collaboration, as well as by formal instruction.
In either case, it's up to leadership to grease the wheels of collaboration by making sure our employees have the soft and digital skills needed. Just a little turn of attention to skills this way or that way, and the benefits of collaboration are all right there in front of us.