01 July 2008

Why Bureaucracy and Collaboration are Mutually Exclusive

I think [collaboration] is a very misunderstood way of working. That if anyone were to look at that as a vernacular shift from teamwork, it’s completely different from teamwork.

So says Loreen Babcock, the CEO of Unit 7, and one of my research participants. There may be teamwork, or multiple contributors to a project, in a bureaucratic organization, but not true collaboration. True collaboration involves admitting that there are aspects of the situation that you don’t know that you don’t know; that non-obvious others can make a contribution in unanticipated ways; and that you are willing to reveal what otherwise might be considered a lack of competence in a public forum through the act of reaching out. Teamwork, on the other hand, is based on the assumption that information in a bureaucracy is fragmented among its component roles, and that the way to ensure complete information is to identify and bring together the necessary components.

Bureaucracy, theoretically, is built on the assumption that it represents the ideal flow of information through a structure that is specifically engineered for competence, rationality, objectivity, and legitimacy – the right information being provided by the right people to the right place at the right time. Any given person, simply by virtue of occupying their office (by which I mean their legitimized role, function, station, or location) in a bureaucracy is socialized to believe that if they have sufficient information such that no gaps are apparent, then they necessarily have complete information upon which to act. Moreover, admitting insufficient information in the absence of obvious gaps (which, de facto, occurs in the act of collaboration – seeking out what you don’t know that you don’t know from those who are not necessarily part of the pre-determined procedure) is an admission of either one’s own incompetence in their bureaucratic office, or a failing on the part of the system. Neither of these can be admitted or tolerated openly for fear of the adverse, personal consequences, namely, that the occupant of the office is incompetent, irrational, or not acting objectively in their assessments. In either situation of the incompetent office-holder, or the incompetent office, the true bureaucratic system will protect itself by eliminating the troublesome or flawed component element, and replacing it with a functionally equivalent component.

So how does this explain the difference between collaboration and teamwork, and what is the connection to Valence Theory and my earlier post on the nature of bureaucracy? Simply this: Teamwork in the context of bureaucracy is grounded in what some might call the flow of information, and that I would identify as the Knowledge valence – information, expertise, skills, experience (and secondarily in the Economic valence, indicated by the issues surrounding the transactional nature of teamwork, e.g., the so-called free-rider problem). True collaboration brings more balanced aspects among all five of the valence relationships, and is better able to enact Effective Theory of Action, that is, the ability to anticipate, perceive and act on the intended effects of the decisions we make, and the actions we take.

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1 comment:

nuphero said...

Thanks you for a interesting post. Now I understand the differences between teamwork and collaboration.