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Nick Barnes of Coral Communications wonders what might be if we could all learn to work together.


Thank you David and welcome everyone to talk55.

How collaborative are our workplaces?  And are communicators wasting their time trying to progress a collaborative agenda?

Like the majority of leading business who have it at the heart of their values, I think the theory of collaboration is a good thing – it unlocks innovation, promotes inclusiveness and efficiencies.

My challenge is with the attention it receives in company values and the lip service paid to it by CEOs, whether collaboration is actually happening in our workplaces or indeed can ever truly happen in today’s world.

And when I’m talking about collaboration, I’m working from a very simple definition which is “employees communicating and working together to produce something new or do something differently”.

And unfacilitated collaboration in particular; where working together is a part of people’s working disposition, as opposed to facilitated, where it happens but it’s an imposition.


Collaboration by the numbers

Here’s some facts about collaboration in Australian businesses.

If everyone worked more collaboratively, experts say there’s $46bn of potential to Australia’s economy; based on the time it would save or the gains in quality and efficiency.

Currently, the evidence shows that people in business spend most of their time working on their own, coming together largely just on routine tasks. 

According to research, irrespective of whether you have a collaboration strategy, (which only 50% of Australian businesses do) less than 10% of people’s day is spent on working together.

That means there is a $41.4bn deficit to be leveraged through better collaboration.

Obviously this figure is somewhat arbitrary in the sense that the relationship between collaboration and revenue is unlikely to be a linear one. 

But the potential value from collaboration is clearly there.


Dysfunctional families

So with all this focus and potential, why do we only spend 6 minutes of every hour collaborating?

The research says it’s to do with three things: management, culture and a lack of time, with workplace design, governance and technology mentioned as the levers to overcome these.

But why do I think it’s a myth?

I use to work for an agency much like my own, where there were no more than 10 full timers.  We worked in an open plan office, sharing desks, phone lines, stationary.

A big selling point when we use to pitch was our small-team comradery; in fact we would often use the word ‘family’.

If we were a family we were a very dysfunctional one.  We all protected our work, our ideas, anything that could help us get noticed favourably by the boss.  Why?  Because it was survival of the fittest. 

Those who proved their worth were rewarded with trust, respect, status security and money.  Outwardly we were all friends but professionally we were, perhaps partially subconsciously, always competing.

The irony, which wasn’t lost on any of us, was that our business was focussed on supporting businesses to collaborate more effectively.

And this has largely been the experience of everywhere I have worked, some slightly more and some less.

Obviously I’m not saying it’s a myth based on my own experience. 

My main argument stems from believing that workplaces reflect the society we live in.  And within Australia, and much of the developed world, that is one based on an ever more extreme capitalist philosophy.

You often hear that human beings are social by nature.  But research would suggest this isn’t the case anymore.

An article at the weekend described Australia as “a nation of individuals, prone to narcissism, jingoism and chauvinism”.

And there’s a wealth of research that says the rise and rise of things like social media, celebrity culture and the internet has led to a generation of narcissists, obsessed with building self-esteem.

Winning seems to be everything in today’s culture. You only have to go as far as the weekend’s boxing bout to see the glorification you can receive through being a pathological narcissist.

If this is what we are exposed to and what our society is nurturing, then trying to reverse this thinking in the workplace is simply a futile exercise that people, as I did in my job, will disingenuously play along to.

The well-known marshmallow challenge is testament to this thinking; where people are asked to work together and build a tower out of spaghetti and other bits, with a marshmallow on top.  It’s the kindergarten children who invariably excel and build the highest structures while the graduates / CEOs, business MBAs fail miserably to work effectively with their peers.

Workplaces are, therefore, fighting a huge battle when it comes to instilling unfacilitated collaboration; because it’s battle against people’s natural state of behaving. 

Without systemic cultural change within our societies, collaboration will only be achieved if it’s coerced, forced, part of the ‘rules’. 

But are the figures correct?  Do we need people to voluntarily work with each other?  Does collaboration supress individual ability and diminish the contributions of thought leaders?  I’m sure there is a case to say that an organisation full of Floyd Mayweather’s, the embodiment of capitalism, would be hugely successful.

As I said at the start, I do think workplaces are right to focus on collaboration. 

But organisations need to find a way to create a culture that is independent from the outside world.  And communicators have a key role to play in this.  We need to stop sending mixed signals, both in our messages and the way we do things. 

And fundamental to this is rethinking the ‘independence’ criteria when it comes to valuing good work and instead promote and reward those who excel in collaborative behaviour.



Nick Barnes is Director of Coral Communications. Special thanks to Nick and the Coral team for conceptualising and working with us to organise the talk55 event.