The Power of Collaboration

I was recently chatting to a doctor who described to me why she still works in emergency rooms well after others may have chosen to retire from a successful career. These days she sees fewer patients but she still plays a critical role in the functioning of a ward.

Her role is to contribute to management of the ward and most important of all she shares her wisdom and experience with her colleagues. She is a sounding board for opinions, guides the choice of tests and scans, helps read charts, and generally available to consult and guide others in the high pressure and high stress environment of an emergency room.

Where is the special value in access to advice and experience vs more hands-on work?

Well, the hospital asked the same question. Hospital budgets are tight and they need to be allocating their resources carefully to produce the best outcomes. Rather than assume an answer the hospital looked at the data and compared the time patients waited and the outcomes for the whole ward on the days the experienced doctor worked versus the other shifts. To everyone’s surprise, there was a dramatic improvement when she was working and advising her colleagues. Wait times for patients were significantly reduced on those shifts. In an emergency ward that time makes a big difference.

Adding a doctor to the shift who had a career of experience and had accumulated years of tacit knowledge made the entire system of the emergency ward perform better. Doctors took less time over their decisions and needed less often to wait to interrupt a busy colleague to get advice. That matters a great deal when many of the decisions are time critical and life threatening.

This is not a story about skills. All the doctors are smart, passionate and talented. They made their own decisions on what to do and when they needed advice. The ward is always well run, but it runs better with the opportunity for more collaboration. What mattered was that the opportunity for collaboration and access to greater experience, improved the outcomes by speeding the exchange of knowledge in the ward.

Tacit knowledge and experience matters to speed and to outcomes in knowledge work. Knowledge is a flow and comes from interactions between people with diverse experiences. Being able to draw on more of these interactions can save a great deal of rework and mitigation of doubts and concerns.

How do you enable sharing of knowledge and experience?

This story resonated deeply with me because I have both benefited from the advice of others and spent a significant part of my time sharing my experience with others. Knowledge work is a growing share of most developing economies (around 40% in Australia, US and EU) In my experience, the use of experience and advice in knowledge work is often undervalued by organisations and they rarely consider the impact of advice and counsel on team performance. This story was a great example of an organisation that measured that impact and saw a dramatic result.

There are a few lessons from this story that apply to all organisations:

  • Recognise that in knowledge work the discussion, debate, advice and counsel is part of the work: Many organisations take an industrial view of knowledge work. If there’s not an immediate tangible final output it is waste. That means any conversations in and around the process of work are seen as waste. It is a common misguided criticism of enterprise social media – ‘why is there so much talk? shouldn’t people be working?’ They are working if they are improving their understanding, gathering insights, learning and solving problems more quickly. That a is all knowledge work. Importantly, that learning is permanent and shared.
  • Design ways of work, teams and connections to leverage experience and other forms of tacit knowledge: People with experience, shortcuts and life lessons can be an invaluable part of the team. Their prior experience as a part of a conversation with the team can accelerate progress and reduce risk. The smartest, most talented and most energetic bunch of people in the world are better with a wise advisor. Drawing out tacit knowledge into conversation improves others learning. Make plans to leverage this. Foster mentoring, make it OK to ask others and build an advice culture. Social collaboration tools are a great start.  
  • Use data, not assumptions, to determine the contribution of individuals to their groups and teams: Individual performance is usually easily measured. It takes a little more effort to understand the contribution of people to group performance. As many organisations have learned to their detriment, the person underpinning team performance may be the person with less visibility but who is sharing the most.

PS Don’t forget the value of diversity too: Another key lesson is the power of leveraging older workers, especially female role models. There may be benefits you have not considered in a greater diversity of experience. This takes effort from organisations to create flexible roles that suit their interests and passions and a work environment to which they want to contribute. With the changing demographics of an ageing workforce, this is an important consideration for all employers.

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