Picking the Right Approach to Digital Collaboration

Many software solutions promise to facilitate teamwork — but what suits close-knit colleagues may not help those who need to make connections across the organization.

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Consider this paradox about digital change: Although it increases the need for collaboration 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.1 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.2

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.



1. P.H. Christensen and T. Pedersen, “The Dual Influences of Proximity on Knowledge Sharing,” Journal of Knowledge Management 22, no. 8 (December 2018): 1782-1802; and M.R. Tagliaventi and E. Mattarelli, “The Role of Networks of Practice, Value Sharing, and Operational Proximity in Knowledge Flows Between Professional Groups,” Human Relations 59, no. 3 (March 2006): 291-319.

2. P.M. Leonardi, “Social Media, Knowledge Sharing, and Innovation: Toward a Theory of Communication Visibility,” Information Systems Research 25, no. 4 (December 2014): 796-816.

3. L. Argote and Y. Ren, “Transactive Memory Systems: A Microfoundation of Dynamic Capabilities,” Journal of Management Studies 49, no. 8 (December 2012): 1375-1382.

4. P.M. Leonardi, “Ambient Awareness and Knowledge Acquisition: Using Social Media to Learn ‘Who Knows What’ and ‘Who Knows Whom,’” MIS Quarterly 39, no. 4 (December 2015): 747-762; P.M. Leonardi, “Social Media and the Development of Shared Cognition: The Roles of Network Expansion, Content Integration, and Triggered Recalling,” Organization Science 29, no. 4 (June 2018): 547-568; P.M. Leonardi and S.R. Meyer, “Social Media as Social Lubricant: How Ambient Awareness Eases Knowledge Transfer,” American Behavioral Scientist 59, no. 1 (January 2015): 10-34; and T.B. Neeley and P.M. Leonardi, “Enacting Knowledge Strategy Through Social Media: Passable Trust and the Paradox of Nonwork Interactions,” Strategic Management Journal 39, no. 3 (March 2018): 922-946.

5. Names in this article have been changed to ensure individuals’ and companies’ anonymity.

6. J. Cummings and C. Pletcher, “Why Project Networks Beat Project Teams,” MIT Sloan Management Review 52, no. 3 (spring 2011): 75-80; and N.B. Ellison, J.L. Gibbs, and M.S. Weber, “The Use of Enterprise Social Network Sites for Knowledge Sharing in Distributed Organizations: The Role of Organizational Affordances,” American Behavioral Scientist 59, no. 1 (January 2015): 103-123.

7. P.M. Leonardi, “The Social Media Revolution: Sharing and Learning in the Age of Leaky Knowledge,” Information and Organization 27, no. 1 (March 2017): 47-59.

8. Management professor Shoshana Zuboff has written eloquently about how vendors monetize digital exhaust and use it to construct digital footprints that predict and shape our behavior. See S. Zuboff, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power” (New York: PublicAffairs, 2019).

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