Overcoming ‘Islands of information’

When comparing traditional project team-working and working using web-based collaboration platforms, a phrase I frequently use in presentations is "islands of information" (the same phrase I have just seen used on the Innovation Weblog).

In the context of construction projects, I use the term to describe individuals and companies who, due to the predominantly paper-based nature of communications in traditional projects and the risk-averse nature of their professions, would accumulate substantial archives covering every aspect of their interactions with other team members. In many, many instances, these ‘islands of information’ would be very similar to those developed by other team members; a single project might have numerous ‘islands’ all built of copies of the same documents and drawings – the only differences would reflect the individual’s or company’s role and responsibilities on the project.

Construction collaboration technologies – ‘extranet’ platforms – remove the need for individuals to manage their own islands of information. Instead, they can access one secure central repository of data, with access rights governing what data they can view and interact with according to their role on the project. In my experience, some individuals can regard such systems as a threat. In my book, I devote the whole of chapter 8 to the issue of human issues to collaboration.

I analyse the problem by breaking down resistance to collaboration technology into two elements: resistance to the idea of collaboration per se, and resistance to the technology. As a rough guide, I estimate the first area is the most difficult to crack (people and processes are 80% of successful collaboration, technology making up the other 20%), and the people and process resistance issues can be further analysed at four levels: individual, intra-organisational, inter-organisational and industry-level resistance or inertia.

Responding to the points made in the Innovation Weblog, perhaps it’s worth briefly recapping my views on the individual and intra-organisational issues.

In architecture, engineering and construction (AEC) firms, individual advancement has frequently depended upon gaining time-consuming professional qualifications and years of project experience, using familiar, traditional, tried and trusted techniques. True partnering requires a more collaborative approach, and it can be very difficult to persuade individuals that they need to change, to adopt a different mindset and behave differently (and to use a new technology into the bargain), particularly if their entire careers to date have been devoted to achieving seniority through age and continual demonstration of their individual skills, expertise and experience.

For example, for many people within organisations, the predominant attitude to information has been to guard it carefully: ‘knowledge is power’ is a phrase often used. As a result, some individuals build entire philosophies about their roles and responsibilities based on a non-sharing concept. Collaborative approaches will be of little or no value unless people believe in them. Once they accept the concept, they then need education, training and support to migrate from a non-collaborative mindset towards one in which collaboration is embraced both implicitly and explicitly.

Even if individuals do move towards more collaborative approaches to their activities, this may count for little if their employers do not also encourage and support such approaches. Just as individuals have often adopted an attitude of ‘knowledge is power’, within many organisations, there can be departmental resistance to the notion that they should share information. Key functions – sales, IT, procurement, HR, accounts, etc – often sit in ‘silos’, with their own agendas, systems, attitudes (including the often destructive ‘not invented here’ syndrome), and varying degrees of influence over corporate strategy. There may also be regional silos within which different parts of an organisation pursue regional agendas that differ from each other, and from that of head office. Most construction businesses have yet to resolve this challenge, let alone the related challenge of creating an environment that encourages collaboration.

Organisations may need to alter their organisational structures and cultures, to change their internal management processes and to promote a different style of leadership if their staff members are to succeed at working in teams.

For example, managers could amend employee job descriptions to emphasise team performance and, while accepting there is still room for individual brilliance, place less emphasis on individual achievement alone. Senior managers ought to be seen to preach and practice collaborative working (sometimes described as ‘talking the talk, and walking the walk’ – as distinct from those who are ‘talking not walking’). Collaborative working should be rewarded, thus motivating and incentivising employees to change their attitudes and behaviours.

The Innovation Weblog suggest an additional strategy: “intervention.”:

"Some people, sad to say, may never change no matter what you do. If you’re faced with an obstructionist individual, you may want to consider reassigning him or her to another role within your company. This effectively “neutralizes” the person without running afoul of employment laws (which would happen if you fired the luddite)."

I was pleased to read this, as it directly echoes a strategy I advocated only last week to a project team. I suggested that a typical project team will include:

  • a small minority of people who are open to and enthusiastic about new approaches (innovators and early adopters – maybe 10% of the team)
  • at the other end of the scale, another small minority of people who are resistant to and sceptical about new ideas (Luddites, laggards – another perhaps 10% of the team)
  • in between, the great majority (the other 80%) are practical, pragmatic people who, though they may take a bit of convincing, will adopt a new approach if it can be shown to improve the quality of their working day.

My management strategy, in a nutshell, would therefore be three-fold:

  1. incentivise the innovators
  2. persevere with the pragmatists
  3. sideline the sceptics.

Permanent link to this article: http://extranetevolution.com/2006/05/overcoming_isla/