The paradox of collaborative efficiency

Yesterday, I finally started reading The Firm as a Collaborative Community - Reconstructing Trust in the Knowledge Economy / Charles Hecksher & Paul S. Adler. I've already found an idea worth sharing with you. 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. We we can see that, efficiency is a paradox that transcends logical pursuit of a single conclusion.


  1. "Collaborative enterprises cannot be efficient in the bureaucratice sense" | Yes!

  2. And bureaucracies cannot be efficient in the collaborative sense without destroying their resourcefulness and value to the network. Thanks Harold!

  3. Thank you so much for the very interesting discussion. I wonder if we can find a better vocaburary than the overused "efficient," or "efficiency."

  4. Asako: Thanks for adding a comment here. By "efficiency", I mean "with a minimum of response time, wasted effort and procedural distractions". Other terms like productivity, efficacy or competency don't suggest those characteristics, at least in my uses of the terms.