Cooperation and hierarchy in the collaborative firm

Book: The Firm as a Collaborative Community – Reconstructing Trust in the Knowledge Economy / Charles Hecksher & Paul S. Adler.

Tom Haskins has been reading the book, and took extensive notes. The book seems full of provocative, sometimes counter-intuitive insights.

Chapter Two: Bureaucratic vs. Collaborative Efficiency

“In the second chapter, Charles F. Sabel contrasts the efficiency of bureaucratic hierarchies with the efficiency of collaborative communities.

In my view, bureaucracies efficiently employ enormous workforces to execute the same routines everyday. The staggering amounts of conformity successfully avoids both the high cost of deviant conduct and the expensive impacts of high maintenance personalities. Sabel shows us how these efficient organizations function inefficiently when faced with crises. The conformity to foregone routines need to be dropped while new problems get defined, new solutions get proposed, new evaluations get completed and new changes get fully implemented. Collaborative enterprises handle crises much more efficiently. He calls this “A Real Time Revolution in Routines”.

Collaborative enterprises cannot be efficient in the bureaucratic sense. Their functioning involve extra efforts, unforeseen expenses and necessary duplications to arrive at different “path dependent” outcomes. Collaboration is more improvisation than routine. What collaborations can do efficiently is explore options, decide on the least-worst alternative and make changes. Collaborations are inherently resourceful, enterprising and responsive to unfamiliar situations.

When we’ve adopted a collaborative outlook, efficient bureaucracies appear stagnant, slow and unresponsive. When we’re chasing after cost efficiencies and economies of scale, collaborations appear costly, unmanageable and plagued by exceptions to the rule. Because these two mindsets are incompatible, “skunk camps” were created in the eighties to launch new products within big corporations. The team that developed the Macintosh computer stayed away from the rest of Apple. More recently Clay Christensen has advised us to “apply tools of separation” to any disruptive innovation developed internally, rather than seek consensus or majority vote in favor of the disruption.

Bureaucracies and collaborations are both efficient in their own way and strike a good balance between them both.”

Chapter Three: Peer Learning as Weakness

“I’ve been assuming that P2P learning would link together learners who are close in their level of current comprehension and curiosity for furthering their mutual development. Maccoby is a psychoanalyst who has given us great insights into workforce motivations in previous books: Why Work and The Gamesman. He suggests that this latest generation has developed an interactive social character that contrasts with previous bureaucratic predispositions. He makes psychological connections to the widespread texting, tweeting and accumulating of fans, followers and friends online. He’s related behavior patterns I call “approval seeking” and “people pleasing” to their feeling abandoned by both working parents. He connects their absence of longer communications and deeper relationships to the the pressure-cooker nature of their own jobs as well as the emotional disconnect from both parents.

Maccoby cast Gen Y’s predisposition toward collaborative endeavors as a weakness. He implicated some of my assumptions about peer learning as a set-up to fail, infect others with incompetence and get stuck easily. He thankfully provoked me to rethink peer learning immediately.”

Chapter Five: Hierarchies can collaborate


“In Beyond Hacker Idiocy – The Changing Nature of Software Community and Identity, Paul S. Adler reveals how huge software development projects evolve into collaborative dynamics. Bureaucracies don’t necessarily rule out the inefficient and serendipitous process of innovative collaborations.

In my own language, there is a process of acculturation of the “cowboy coders” to do both the “work and the paperwork”. Once they see value of leaving a paper trail of their own thinking, work and changes to the project, they begin to value the required reporting process. They switch from complaining about so many “rules and regs” and think instead about how to improve them.

When collaborative dynamics emerge among the software coders, they work together to improve the processes, policies and design standards they work under. They get more buy-in to the imposed constraints because they have participated in their formulation and final selection. The outcomes of collaborative efforts yield less rework, cost overruns and schedule slippages. They realize some “best of both systems combined”: top down controls and bottom up innovations.”


“According to Paul S. Adler’s Chapter Five in The Firm as a Collaborative Community, work processes gradually mature. The way work gets done migrates from informal to formalized and externalized. Others can then move out the learning curves for those processes more quickly. The quality of the work improves as individual conduct becomes more consistent with everyone else involved. When these processes mature into formalized procedures and standards, a surprising thing occurs: collaboration emerges!

This emergent collaboration reveals a pattern of vanishing three kinds of chronic management conflicts:

1. staff/line conflicts over authority and compliance issues

2. horizontal conflicts over expertise and access to special knowledge

3. vertical conflicts between managing up to please higher ups and managing down to protect underlings

When collaboration emerges from mature work processes, those involved with production then work together with those who look after quality measures, schedule slippage and budget overruns. They benefit more from colleagues in other disciplines who bring different viewpoints to undefined problems. They realize more of both what they don’t yet know and what they need to learn from “inhabitants of other silos” who attend different conferences, meetings and trainings. They also find fewer incidents of higher ups reverting to authoritarian supervision styles. This means they need to protect their brood less from mismanagement raining down from above. There is far more listening to, trusting and respecting each other up and down the levels of the hierarchy. This suggests to me that it is possible to realize the best of both kinds of efficiency by investing in the maturity of work processes.”

1 Comment Cooperation and hierarchy in the collaborative firm

  1. AvatarRotkapchen

    “conformity successfully avoids both the high cost of deviant conduct and the expensive impacts of high maintenance personalities”, also known as innovation and flexibility to adapt.

    Thanks. You’re saving me the time of reading this book.

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