What happened? 100 years of organisational collaboration

Th way we work turned upside down in the last century. Work shifted from the clock-regulated assembly line to deciding and executing collectively. This article unplugs you from the desk chair and takes you on a birds view to recap what changed in the last 100 years.

A story of organisation theory, problem-solving and collaboration.

The way we work today has its roots in the industrial world. At the beginning of the century, the U.S. was among the most dangerous places to work. Human rights were defined as having 12-hour workdays, working 6 days a week, and a 30-minute break for lunch. Workers were two to three times more likely to be injured or killed than in western European countries. Therefore researchers began studying different safety factors like ergonomics, behavior, and workplace lighting.

The Rise of Behavioral Studies and Human Relations

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The Hawthrone studies in the late 1920s marked the beginning of organizations first seeing the value of taking care of their people. The researchers concluded that socio-psychological factors such as the feelings of being important, recognition, participation, non-directive supervision, etc. held the key for higher productivity. It underlined the core idea of human relations: Taking care of the people pays off.

After World War II there was an increase in employment in the private sector and the military. These changes resulted in a more human approach in organizations because there was an increase in well-educated workers who stood up. The workweek in most of the industrialized world dropped steadily to about 40 hours. Policy deals in different countries came after long fights and demands by the workforce.

Advertising and Creative Problem Solving

The scale in manufacturing also demanded scale in marketing. Radio, television networks, and magazines arose to help companies get the masses to buy. The 1950s could be called the advertiser's dream decade. Prosperity seemed like a sure thing. People were ready to buy products to validate their leisurely lifestyles. Remember Marlboro Man? He had its first appearance in 1954.

BBDO brainstorm session - late 1950s.

In the same decade, Brainstorming was popularized. Advertising executive Alex Osborn wasn't happy with the campaign ideas resulting from individual work. In response, he began hosting group-thinking sessions back in the 40s. He first termed the process as organized ideation. Later participants rather used "brainstorm sessions". Calling the concept after the use of "the brain to storm a problem." (The last decade showed growing skepticism around the approach: 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015.)

Meetings and T-groups

As the century pushed forward, companies grew to bigger sizes. Coordination became a common organizational challenge and companies embraced a culture of long and frequent decision-maker meetings.

Meanwhile, the industry started to use T-groups (training group). The idea is that participants learn about themselves through their interaction with each other.

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They rely on feedback, problem-solving, and role-play to better understand oneself, others, and the group. In many ways, these were predecessors of team building and corporate culture initiatives.

"[...] T-groups were the most powerful educational innovation of the 20th century. We would argue that this methodology is even more relevant in the 21st Century since learning to develop effective interpersonal relationships and high performing teams [...] is among the most critical competencies a leader needs in this era of globalization and interdependence" (2016, Stanford Graduate School of Business Source)

Teams as we know them today? Not yet.

In northern European countries like Sweden, Denmark and also the Netherlands, the concept of teamwork experienced a rise in the 1980s. Leading professionals in Organizational Development later stated that the personal growth of individuals within an organization is linked to the overall well-being of the group as a whole.

But in most of the industrialized world teamwork was more promoted by behavioral scientists and management consultants than it was practiced in business. Back at the time, American corporates dealt with strong competition, restructuring, shareholder pressure and accelerating technology. Teamwork was considered nice but not critical for the success of the business.

The Tipping Point

Enough case examples of successful teams were provided. Toward the end of the twentieth century, the battle was won. Researchers were no longer justifying the value of teamwork. Now businesses were adapting them.

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Also, the Scrum process was born in the early 1990s. The term came from rugby. It referred to the idea of a team working toward a common goal. The recipe for better results was small and self-organizing teams focusing on given goals rather than specific assignments. The team had the freedom to find the best way of meeting those goals. Scrum also defined time-boxed cycles whose goal was to deliver working software in iterations.

The new century: Teams are the new superstars

In the 2000s teamwork was established as a critical aspect of business strategy. It was clear that effective teamwork can produce tangible benefits for people and organizations. As the Internet has grown, new communication and collaboration techniques have rapidly increased. Social networking, web conferencing and instant messaging have rapidly grown to huge proportions, enabling widespread business collaboration. Companies began to think about unassigned seating, shared spaces, open concepts and new ways of increasing productivity from an employee’s perspective.

The 2010s - Flexibility and the Talent War

Lots of adjustments that companies did in the next decade have to do with the competition to attract talents in most industries. One of the resulting trends was flexibility. Whether allowing for full-time remote, partial work-from-home flexibility or simply easing the strict schedules of traditional offices. Bill Gates recently commented: "The competition to hire the best will increase in the years ahead. Companies that give extra flexibility to their employees will have the edge." (Source)

The smaller the talent market, the more organizations show off to attract talents. The file-hosting service Dropbox as an example offers transportation, breakfast, lunch, dinner, on-site fitness, meditation classes, snacks, catered events, haircuts, and probably a bunch of other small things. The talent acquisition struggle is real.

Final Thoughts

It's fascinating to see how and why things evolved in the workplace. Be it influenced by technology, crisis, talent shortage, growth or scientific findings. Our professional lives today are dominated by hyper-collaboration yet movements towards a calmer approach are getting louder. Is there a new trend for the next decade? The next 100 years are open to being explored.

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