The article is stimulated by a Harvard Business Review cover article on "collaborative overload" and a new book, “Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World” by Cal Newport.
Minor point. I think the article title, "The collaboration curse: The fashion for making employees collaborate has gone too far" is a misnomer (at least in terms of the way academics think about collaboration). I don't think most meetings are actually about collaboration, but rather discussing, deciding on, communicating, and implementing policies.
But, I do think the pressure to collaborate, particularly across research groups, disciplines, departments, and institutions has gone too far. But, that is not the biggest problem...
Here are a few relevant quotes from the article.
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.
whereas managers may notice the benefits of collaboration, they fail to measure its costs. ...
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.
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.
Why have organisations been so naive about collaboration? One reason is that collaboration is much easier to measure than “deep work ...
A second reason is that managers often feel obliged to be seen to manage: left to their own devices they automatically fill everybody’s days with meetings and memos rather than letting them get on with their work.
Helping people to collaborate is a wonderful thing. Giving them the time to think is even better.