Collaboration v Control

In my experience managers and HR practitioners hold the view that collaborative cultures and controlling cultures are opposites and, for the most part, hold the perception that collaborative cultures are 'better' than controlling cultures. Assuming that I am correct I submit that looking at cultural labels in such black and white terms misses the point that the two cultures are focused on differently, so collaborative cultures focus on relationships, while controlling cultures focus on monitoring. Thus

  1. Either culture is right if it is successfully supporting delivery of the business strategy and provides the conditions for 'good work' 'Good work' means work that is of high quality (excellent), socially responsible (ethical), and meaningful to the worker (engaging). See the Good Work project for more on this.

  2. Neither culture is right if it is unsuccessful in supporting the business strategy, and is not providing the conditions for 'good work'.

  3. Both cultures contain characteristics of the other – a collaborative culture has points of control, and a controlling culture has points of collaboration.

Take the example of a controlling culture from an article 'What's So Special About Special Ops' in the Winter 2009 issue of strategy+business. It describes the methods of recruiting, training, leading, and maintaining the US military's elite special operations forces in a culture which is highly focused, disciplined, and controlled – not just by legislation (It is a legal requirement to follow the orders of superior officers) – but also by formal and informal systems.

Even though this organization is very highly controlled it is also allows for teamwork (described as 'ultimately a matter of life and death'), collaboration, 'independence and flexibility'. Teams are 'able to rapidly make decisions and adjust to conditions on the ground without interference or second guessing'. Team members believe their work is high quality, meaningful, and conducted to high professional and ethical standards.

Wholefoods, the supermarket chain, is a collaborative culture if the quote by Gary Hamel in a Financial Times article is anything to go by:

"Imagine a retailer where frontline employees decide what to stock; where the pressure to perform comes from peers rather than bosses; where teams, not managers, have veto power over new hires … Try to envision a company where everyone knows what everyone else gets paid, and where senior execs limit their pay to 19 times the average wage."

Even with this level of collaboration there are hosts of controls – how else would shelves get stocked, customers get good service, hygiene standards be adhered to and so on. And it is a culture that fosters good work as one team member reports:

'Whole Foods Maret is a place where I am proud to work. I am proud to work for a company that I can believe in what they are selling. I actually enjoy my job and enjoy going every day. It's a great place to work because they care about their employees and the environment".

The two examples illustrate that the orientation towards more collaboration or more control is dependent on the organization and what it is trying to achieve – neither one is 'better' than the other in any objective sense.