In the business and management world, a great deal of attention is devoted to producing, supporting, and sustaining collaboration. Popular business and management publications often claim collaboration is a secret ingredient to market success, or a pathway toward successful innovation, or simply a better way to work and retain employees. The titles of articles promise a great deal: “Collaborate to Win is the Paradox of Market Competition”, “The Way to the Future Through Collaboration: Tinkering With the Bounds of What’s Possible”, and “Collaborate for Real: turning the lingo of collaboration into everyday practice”. In theory, this attention makes sense. Collaboration requires workers to reach beyond their individual skills and knowledges. These publications claim that, when done right and well, collaboration results in interdependence amongst workers, thereby magnifying the abilities of individuals and producing new collective competencies. Accordingly, collaboration leads to a healthy work environment, a stimulating workplace, and a pathway for continued capital growth. Better yet, collaboration is a strategy toward all of these ends that also seems to be in the best interest of workers.

But what if collaboration isn’t all it is cracked up to be?

While collaboration is not a new concept in work settings,1 recent attention to collaboration points to various contemporary workplace issues. In an era of reduced budgets, thin margins, and lagging workforce development, legacy strategies seem insensitive to current conditions. Re-tooling manufacturing lines, for example, are costly material investments for an uncertain future and a changing workforce. Amongst the issues plaguing contemporary companies, two issues seem to be most salient with respect to collaboration: human retention in an age of wage austerity and saturated competition in a rapidly changing marketplace. Both issues stem from the conditions of global capitalism, and seem impossible to address through cost saving measures or renewed investments. Instead, the prevailing logic is that companies need to differentiate2 products or disrupt3 existing conditions through attention to how they make what they make. This logic places the key to business success in a creative approach to daily work that critically reframes the market in order to open new, unforeseen doors. Furthermore, companies need to change how they think about work, with the added constraint of doing so at low or no cost. In other words, work needs to change without costing much.

In this milieu, collaboration has a strategic foothold. As an activity, collaboration is understood as capable of producing new ideas and outcomes without necessarily hiring new employees or building new hard infrastructure. Put bluntly, collaboration is a low-cost strategy to make the most of existing workers. As a work style, collaboration highlights the hidden capacities of people working together, thereby opposing models of compartmentalized work. Even more, collaboration parallels other socially minded ideas, such as the global citizen (“Think Global, Act Local”) or the conscientious employer (take Tom’s shoes for example), by foregrounding work as a social process. In this second regard, collaboration problematizes Fordist models. In these legacy models of work, workers are responsible for discrete tasks. In contrast, collaboration emphasizes the work benefits of sociality, and so the distribution of responsibilities. As such, social interactions are the secret to success. By doing so, workers are heralded as the saviors of a company.

For a company, valuing collaboration makes good sense in terms of both corporate strategy and human resources. Collaboration holds the potential for new business opportunities through additive and synergistic work. Collaborative settings offer workers the ability to learn from others and potentially exercise creative thinking skills as they find ways to create output that would be impossible in sequential or individuated work. As such, a collaborative workplace purports to transform individuals in a collective by sharing responsibilities and mitigating slow-downs. In theory, collaboration requires the suppression of egos, which from the corporate standpoint means a workforce might be more aligned with collective values (and hopefully those of the company itself). By moving beyond a compartmentalized approach to work, individual workers create collective identity that is not parsable to its individual parts.

Beyond the stated goals of collaborative workplaces, collaboraton cannot be separated from its potential shadow on a workforce. The very means of what makes collaboration useful and important to companies—namely, distributing responsibility and tasks in the hopes of synergy—are also the means through which collaboration can be a regime of control. With teams working in more integrated ways, individual workers no longer retain sole ownership over particular skills, outputs, or ideas. As much as distribution reduces bottlenecks and redundancies, it also acts as a type of de-/re-skilling. As teams build capacities, ideas, and methods, the actions of individual workers dissolve into those of the group, leading to less and less individual ownership over any subprocess. Instead, workers construct particular relational skills within the tiny supply chain of a team. Of course, this notion is culturally paradoxical—collaboration coincides with language of increasing employee ownership over the things they work on (“If you want employees to work like they own the company, then give them a stake in the game.”). These relational skills, while vital to work, are not the work itself, but in fact are additional tasks added to one’s job description. While a low-cost strategy for a company, collaboration is human resource intensive. Like the term “workplace flexibility”4, collaboration seems to used to disguise efforts to disempower workers in the exact moment of claiming their empowerment. As such, collaboration serves as a euphemism for reducing material cost while increasing the human cost of work.

On the ground, this euphemism takes on particular characteristics. In my dissertation fieldwork at a company called LTC, I heard over and again how LTC frequently flew the banner of collaboration, yet did little to support its day-to-day activity. Many workers found this nominal attention to collaboration frustrating. A particularly salient example comes from the performance review process. At LTC, performance reviews primarily focused on those projects an employee led, or what employees colloquially referred to as “owning a project.” As such, the performance review process soured the potential for collaboration by disincentivized working on projects of which one could not claim ownership. Here performance reviews valued leadership rather than compromise, ostensibly making collaboration a hindrance to promotion. Collaboration meant following rather than leading. Skills like interpersonal communication were rendered invisible through LTC’s nominal support of collaborative work.

Outside of a corporate setting, collaboration is differently constructed. In my more recent research into coworking spaces, collaboration frequently appears as a selling point. Coworking offers workers of various sorts— independent entrepreneurs, freelancers, remote workers, and startups—the opportunity to colocate. By doing so, individuals can bump into someone new, hopefully spurring on new thinking, new connections, and new opportunities. While I am sure this happens, I have yet to hear a truly compelling story of this taking place.

At one of the first coworking spaces I visited, I spoke with Grant, a mid-40s remote employee. Grant worked for a small NGO based in the southeastern United States; he did fundraising. Prior to joining the coworking space, Grant worked from his home office for years. Spending his days in his house, he felt cut off from the world, but also cut off from other workers. When I asked whether he worked directly with other people in the coworking space, he responded that he didn’t—“Nobody else here is doing what I am doing.” Unexpectedly, he quickly followed up by explaining that he frequently collaborated with others though. What he meant was not what I expected. In recent years he had been given new tasks, such as updating a portion of the NGO’s website, announcing events on Facebook, and reaching donors through email newsletters. While Grant knew about fundraising, these new tasks fell outside of the purview of his job five years ago. Not having all the skills, Grant asked the “young guys” around him for help. For Grant, reaching out to others was not a strategy for continued growth but a maintenance requirement to do his job. While his job expectations are not unheard of, Grant’s response highlights how normalized this type of overextension has become. On top of the work Grant called his “core work” were still other tasks. These tasks fell outside of Grant’s training and job description. Despite being tasked with this work, Grant was given no formal support from his company, nor was he given a raise. Instead Grant gathered ad-hoc help, or, as Grant put it, “I’m able to get little bits and pieces [here and there] that I can benefit from.” What Grant called collaboration might be better understood as consolidation or “shadow work.”5

Again, the point is not to disparage collaboration on the whole. As an ideal and activity, collaboration has an important place, and can lead to productive avenues for workers and businesses. Collaborative work has its place and is a worthy ideal to strive for. Instead, the concern is how collaboration masks other activities or is masked as other activities. These two examples look beyond the stated goals of collaboration. These instances point out how workplace changes still exhibit known issues. In the end, collaboration might be yet another euphemism for business as usual.

  1. For example, the now-familiar term brainstorming dates back to the 1940s and early 1950s when Alex F. Osborn (then working as marketing firm BBDO)introduced the concept in a series of books: How to ‘Think Up’ (1942), Your Creative Power(1948), and Applied Imagination: Principles and Procedures of Creative Thinking.(1953). As a technique for ideation, brainstorming requires individuals to build off of one another’s (hopefully wild) ideas. In an attempt to simply produce a quantity of potentials, brainstormers refrain from judging or otherwise evaluating ideas in the hopes that something unexepected rises to the surface. As the description illustrates, brainstorming plays into a mythos of creativity as a wild, uncontrollable, and subconcious process, tapped into by dislocating the self from social norms and bounded mental states. While brainstorming has been handedly criticized, the idea points out that ideas like collaboration (and more broadly creativity) have long been a corporate strategy. According to the mythology, brainstorming saved BBDO from implosion by tapping into existing workers through their group capacities. 

  2. Chamberlin, E. H. (1969). The Theory of Monopolistic Competition: A Re-Orientation of the Theory of Value (Eighth Edition). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 

  3. Christensen, C. M. (1997). The Innovator’s Dilemma: The Revolutionary Book that Will Change the Way You Do Business (First Edition). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press. 

  4. Gregg, M. (2007). Freedom to work: The impact of wireless on labour politics. Media International Australia, (Special Issue on Wireless Technologies and Cultures). 

  5. Illich, I. (1981). Shadow Work. Boston: Marion Boyers.