Is Collaboration the Right Way to Work?

©2008-2009, Esther Derby

As a manager, your job is to organize people and work for success. That includes work design–figuring out whether you have a group or a team, and creating an environment where people can do their best work. I don’t know about you, but work design wasn’t part of my training as a technical person. And it’s not explicitly included in many business and management programs either.

The default belief seems to be “teams and collaboration are good,” and in a previous column, I wrote about the benefits of collaboration. But is collaboration always possible? Is it even the right thing to do in every situation?

In this article, I’ll show different levels of collaboration, and lay out the questions that managers need to answer to decide whether they have a group or a team.


Josh and Julie work in a tech support area. The primary responsibility of the unit is to configure, tune, and support servers. The workflow is controlled by a ticket system where the requestor submits an order with basic requirements and most of the work is handled first-in, first out. Of course, there are exceptions, when there’s extra lead time to order a special server or establish the configuration for a new product. But those orders are the not the rule.

And though different people excel in different areas and each brings unique talents, the most server installs in their company require a core set of skills.

Josh, Julie and their co-workers have a connection: they share professional skills, hold each other in high regard, and let each other know what they are working on. Julie, Josh, and their co-workers help each other when asked, but they don’t really collaborate. The workflow in their department isn’t conducive to collaboration, nor does the work require it. They may call themselves a team, but they aren’t engaged in teamwork. And that’s just fine. There’s nothing wrong with being a workgroup if that’s what the work needs.


Deb and Doug run test labs for two different products within the same company. Because their respective products are on different release schedules, there are times when the equipment in each lab isn’t fully booked. They cooperate with each other by loaning resources when its possible and makes sense to do so. Deb and Doug are working together to meet organizational goals. But they aren’t a team.


Frank and Frannie work in a product development group. Each has responsibility for a distinct product aimed at different consumer groups. They meet on a regular basis to keep each other abreast of release schedules. They consult with each other about market trends as they prioritize features. It is necessary to co