Has the desire for collaboration gone too far?

The Economist recently wrote on the collaboration curse:

A growing body of academic evidence demonstrates just how serious the problem is. Gloria Mark of the University of California, Irvine, discovered that interruptions, even short ones, increase the total time required to complete a task by a significant amount. A succession of studies have shown that multitasking reduces the quality of work as well as dragging it out. Sophie Leroy, formerly of the University of Minnesota (now at the University of Washington Bothell) has added an interesting twist to this argument: jumping rapidly from one task to another also reduces efficiency because of something she calls “attention residue”. The mind continues to think about the old task even as it jumps to a new one.

A second objection is that, whereas managers may notice the benefits of collaboration, they fail to measure its costs. Rob Cross and Peter Gray of the University of Virginia’s business school estimate that knowledge workers spend 70-85% of their time attending meetings (virtual or face-to-face), dealing with e-mail, talking on the phone or otherwise dealing with an avalanche of requests for input or advice. Many employees are spending so much time interacting that they have to do much of their work when they get home at night. Tom Cochran, a former chief technology officer of Atlantic Media, calculated that the midsized firm was spending more than $1m a year on processing e-mails, with each one costing on average around 95 cents in labour costs. “A free and frictionless method of communication,” he notes, has “soft costs equivalent to procuring a small company Learjet.”

Mark Bolino of the University of Oklahoma points to a hidden cost of collaboration. Some employees are such enthusiastic collaborators that they are asked to weigh in on every issue. But it does not take long for top collaborators to become bottlenecks: nothing happens until they have had their say—and they have their say on lots of subjects that are outside their competence.

The biggest problem with collaboration is that it makes what Mr Newport calls “deep work” difficult, if not impossible. Deep work is the killer app of the knowledge economy: it is only by concentrating intensely that you can master a difficult discipline or solve a demanding problem. Many of the most productive knowledge workers go out of their way to avoid meetings and unplug electronic distractions. Peter Drucker, a management thinker, argued that you can do real work or go to meetings but you cannot do both. Jonathan Franzen, an author, unplugs from the internet when he is writing. Donald Knuth, a computer scientist, refuses to use e-mail on the ground that his job is to be “on the bottom of things” rather than “on top of things”. Richard Feynman, a legendary physicist, extolled the virtues of “active irresponsibility” when it came to taking part in academic meetings.