Prof Paul Leonardi Explores Paradox of Digital Collaboration

Many software tools promise to facilitate teamwork — but what suits close-knit colleagues may not help those who need to make connections across the organization.

Paul Leonardi, Professor, Ph.D. Program Faculty Director, Technology Management

Consider this paradox about digital change: Although it increases the need for collaboration in organizations, it also makes collaborating more difficult. In my research and consulting work, I’ve observed that this happens for three key reasons.

First, it becomes harder to identify the right internal partners. In many organizations in the thick of transformation, particularly agile work environments, employees are given greater latitude to make important decisions on the ground. But when they need help completing tasks or solving problems to execute those decisions, they often aren’t sure where to turn for support, because they lack a broad understanding of who has what expertise in the organization. Thanks to technology, people can connect with coworkers across an array of specialties. However, research shows that they tend to focus on the information, ideas, and skills held by the colleagues around them — those in their work groups, for instance, or those who sit in close physical proximity.1 That may be evidence of an attempt to rein in an overwhelming field of potential collaborators because employees have no clear sense of which colleagues know what.

When people narrow their attention in that way, it undermines the benefits of digital connectivity, but it’s understandable. Given how frequently and fluidly people move from project team to project team (possibly from week to week), they don’t often build the relationships that would allow them to map out the expertise in their companies. And failing to find the right experts can easily lead to work duplication and missed opportunities for efficiency and innovation.2

Second, it’s harder to get coworkers to say yes to requests to collaborate — even experts who would be ideal collaborators if they had the time, energy, and resources to commit to yet another emergent team. In a dispersed, agile workplace, persuasion and influence are essential to securing needed resources. But it’s tough to persuade people to join your project if you have never worked together closely and have not developed trust.

Third, given that lack of close connection and established trust, it’s also harder to develop the kind of common ground that facilitates productive interaction. The issues that people care about, the technical languages they speak, their modes of problem-solving, and their goals tend to diverge greatly when they work in different locations, specialize in different domains, and are responsible for different outcomes. It’s particularly challenging to bridge the gaps in understanding if they don’t know many people in common. The less employees know about each other’s motives and knowledge bases, research shows, the less inclined they are to share knowledge with each other.3 This can lead to more mistakes, slower project completion, and, in many cases, less innovative outcomes.

When digital change makes collaboration more difficult, companies become more siloed. But we’re not talking about yesterday’s “top-down” silos, where formal organizational boundaries divided employees into separate functions or business units. The silos in transforming companies often arise as people do their work, and they are based on their differences in knowledge, geography, and goals. You can bust the top-down silos with cross-functional teams or a matrixed reporting structure, but those organizational solutions don’t apply to silos that emerge from on-the-ground work.

To bust those, you’re better off using digital collaboration tools. Unlike email, chat, videoconferencing, and data repositories — channels through which people communicate — digital collaboration tools are platforms upon which employees use various channels to interact, watch others interact, and gain a deeper understanding of where knowledge lies. (Common platform examples include Basecamp, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Jive, Chatter, and Workplace.) Such tools are designed to help people work together and learn from one another by creating threads of conversation and places to exchange information. My research 3/10 shows that those platforms’ primary benefit for collaboration goes beyond knowledge sharing: They provide a window into who knows and does what in the organization, and into how people make decisions and do their work.4

Over the past decade, I’ve studied and consulted at more than two dozen companies that have reaped this benefit — many of them unexpectedly — as they’ve turned to digital collaboration tools to streamline operations, integrate knowledge, and enable remote work. I’ve observed two basic types of collaboration needs inside these organizations: collaboration among coworkers who interact frequently on teams or in other ways (the regular collaborators in one’s inner loop) and among coworkers who are dispersed across the company (the sporadic collaborators in one’s outer loop). These sets of needs require different types of tools. We’ll discuss why, but first let’s step back and think about how digital collaboration can make expertise more visible in an organization, since that’s really the “killer feature” they provide.

To read more, visit MIT Sloan Management Review.

1. P.H. Christensen and T. Pedersen, “The Dual Influences of Proximity on Knowledge Sharing,” Journal of Knowledge Management 22, no. 8 (December 2018): 1782-1802; and M.R. Tagliaventi and E. Mattarelli, “The Role of Networks of Practice, Value Sharing, and Operational Proximity in Knowledge Flows Between Professional Groups,” Human Relations 59, no. 3 (March 2006): 291-319.

2. P.M. Leonardi, “Social Media, Knowledge Sharing, and Innovation: Toward a Theory of Communication Visibility,” Information Systems Research 25, no. 4 (December 2014): 796-816.

3. L. Argote and Y. Ren, “Transactive Memory Systems: A Microfoundation of Dynamic Capabilities,” Journal of Management Studies 49, no. 8 (December 2012): 1375-1382.

4. P.M. Leonardi, “Ambient Awareness and Knowledge Acquisition: Using Social Media to Learn ‘Who Knows What’ and ‘Who Knows Whom,’” MIS Quarterly 39, no. 4 (December 2015): 747-762; P.M. Leonardi, “Social Media and the Development of Shared Cognition: The Roles of Network Expansion, Content Integration, and Triggered Recalling,” Organization Science 29, no. 4 (June 2018): 547-568; P.M. Leonardi and S.R. Meyer, “Social Media as Social Lubricant: How Ambient Awareness Eases Knowledge Transfer,” American Behavioral Scientist 59, no. 1 (January 2015): 10-34; and T.B. Neeley and P.M. Leonardi, “Enacting Knowledge Strategy Through Social Media: Passable Trust and the Paradox of Nonwork Interactions,” Strategic Management Journal 39, no. 3 (March 2018): 922-946.