Image courtesy of Dan Page/

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.

Consider this paradox about digital change: Although it increases the need for collabo-ration 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. 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.

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. This can lead to more mistakes, slower project completion, and, in many cases, less innovative outcomes.

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