Editor’s note: this post is a collaboration. After all, to truly understand the cannibalization of a once-innocuous concept like “collaboration,” one has to experience it first-hand, to step inside its proverbial bloody, desiccated skin and walk around for a bit. So I asked UK marketing consultant Bruno Diaz to help chart the use and abuse of “collaboration” in what he calls the “digital workhouses” of the modern office. Together, we will wade into the goo-filled paddling pool that is the Keywords for the Age of Austerity 22: Collaboration. That is, just as soon as he gets me my coffee.
1) “United labour, cooperation; esp. in literary, artistic, or scientific work.”
2) “traitorous cooperation with the enemy”
“Collaboration” is an idea as old as human endeavor. Today its use is similar to that of “flexibility”, or “creativity”–concepts adapted as values for the successful, organization or businessperson, purified of the stench of sweat and labor and relentlessly focused on the always-working, ever-productive self. As the collective allusion in “united labour” suggests, though, collaboration doesn’t focus on the individual, and as the rest of the OED’s first definition makes clear, intimates labor of a more creative, mutual sort.
It has become an overarching philosophy for consumer-focused consultancies and for much of the diffuse (often poorly compensated) open-source labor of the web, which like the “flexible” employee is competitive and pliable, bendable to the will of the employer. And like these other re-interpretations, collaboration has become a method of organizing the contemporary workplace, both spatially and intellectually, in many cases masking hierarchical discipline with the veneer of egalitarian voluntarism. So Bruno, that coffee’s not going to pour itself now, is it?
[Shrugs indifferently]: Blue collar work has long involved “squads” and “gangs”, reflecting the OED’s first meaning of “[u]nited labour, cooperation”. “Teams”, with their clearly delineated roles and strict hierarchy – from utility player to captain to tough-love coach – have in the last few decades transitioned seamlessly to tertiary workplaces like Starbucks and Target. But it’s only recently that this collectivised jargon has bled into the white collar world, sneaking in not only through sports references like those used in the service sector, but also via allusions to intellectual pursuits singled out by the OED as collaborative – “literary, artistic, or scientific” – and linguistic nods to the organisational structures of nature.
Over the last 15 years consultancy departments have become “teams”, “pods” and “hubs”; staff appraisals and meetings have been transformed into “catch-ups”, “workshops” and “huddles”. It’s a seductive shift in language. Who wants to go to a stuffy, long-winded meeting when they could be in a chatty “catch-up”, a touchline “huddle”, or an artistic “workshop”? Wouldn’t everyone prefer to be a frolicking dolphin in the “money pod”, or to join the “accounts hub” instead of the eye-glazingly-named “Finance Department”? The playful mix of informal pally-ness, organised fun, and creative value denoted by these terms also tells us that we are all in this together, working collectively towards the same meaningful goals.
Above: A recruitment video on posted on Target’s website: “Every day,” reads the description, “our team members bring their talent, commitment and diverse perspectives to work—making our communities and company much better.”
This renaming of a business’s human capital mirrors a reorganisation of contemporary office space. As meetings became “huddles”, they were liberated from corporate conference rooms. Instead of the board room seating plan, and its chain of command, “catch-ups” and “workshops” now take place in coffee shops, on roof tops, and even during walks in the park. Or in meeting rooms with names like Space Lab and the Imaginarium, all of which have natural light, pastel walls, a horseshoe of colourful beanbags, and a plethora of brightly-coloured, whackily-shaped post-it notes. One London consultancy even has a super-kingsize bed in the office; employees are encouraged to use it for micro-naps and meetings with clients.
As you’d imagine, the atmosphere in that place is somewhat sexually charged. A lot of the employees there have had sex in the office at least once. Ironically, usually not on the bed.
It’s a company that takes pride in regularly changing its office lay-out. It was there that I first encountered “hotdesking”, which is now common in the UK, even in the public sector.
It means no one, no matter their seniority, has a permanent desk, and there are no exec. wash rooms, no corner offices, etc. It’s a way of cutting costs as consultants are usually out of the office two or three days a week running workshops or working from home. But it also allows the ideas of transparency and democracy found in the century-old open-plan office to run wild. The whole workplace – from the wastepaper baskets to the modern art on the walls – is not yours or mine but ours. Company founders rub shoulders with interns in a “flattened-hierarchy” where the receptionist theoretically knows as much about business as the CEO, and everyone has to listen to the boss’s jokes. In a way, this isn’t such a bad thing – hopefully it makes senior management more likely to treat those further down the food chain with a modicum of empathy.
But at the same time, junior staff can be persuaded they are important parts of a larger cooperative effort, rather than employees whose time and expertise are sold to clients at a huge margin. Encouraged by the playful language and collegial use of space, they “step up” and take responsibility for work outside their comfort zone, job description, and pay grade. It’s not unusual for junior members of staff on £25k a year to run whole projects and present final debriefs to senior clients at blue chip multinationals. Such situations often pertain for years before employees are promoted or given a raise. In the meantime, any grievance is placated through gestures such as up-titling (a few companies even let employees create their own job titles. Rockstar, Her Majesty, Inventor – I’ve seen them all on junior consultants’ email signatures) and city breaks masquerading as team-building awaydays.
Some consultancies draw people in by creating a permanent “last day of school” atmosphere. This goes well beyond the now ubiquitous ping pong and table football, and involves a cornucopia of snack food available at all times, employees’ Spotify playlists pumping out through semi-professional soundsystems, and £2k happy hours at the local pub charged to the boss’s credit card. One company hold a regular mud-wrestling contest where employees donned in Lycra duke it out in a goo-filled paddling pool while their colleagues look on whooping and goading.
Sounds intense. All this talk of snack-food and goo is making me hungry. And thirsty. Bruno, about that coffee.
Well, as a matter of fact, the reframing of low-wage or unpaid service work as “collaboration” has even filtered into the way companies and consultancies engage with consumers. No longer is customer involvement limited to focus groups or surveys. Consultancies have taken mid-noughties “crowdsourcing”, with its combination of low (or no) financial rewards and fan culture, and come up with “co-creation”. This claims to combine the experience and knowledge of consultants, clients, and customers as equals in the creation and development of brands and products.
Increasingly, such “collaboration” occurs not only in the real time and space of a “workshop”, but through online research communities and apps. These function as sort of digital workhouses in which consumers get tiny fees to undertake tasks relating to the client’s business problem – keeping video diaries of their laundry routine, for example, or choosing the words that best describe their emotional relationship with craft ale. It’s a process that, from a certain perspective, makes a lot of sense – why develop your business purely on spec. when you can harness the passions and desires of potential customers to create things they actually want? However, the disparity in outcomes between the consumers – who get paid “incentives” usually between £50 and £100 – and the consultancy and client company – who use the consumers’ ideas to build multimillion-pound brands and products – calls into question the fairness of such a system.
Wow, imagine paying someone practically nothing for their work on a project and then claiming everything they do as your own?
Actually, I can imagine it all too well.
The cheap purchase of consumer’s labor under the banner of “co-creation” points to the weirdest aspect of the contemporary use of “collaboration,” since it deviates most obviously from the laboring emphasis of the word’s OED definition: as a practice, not of production, but rather of consumption. One Forbes writer defines such “collaborative consumption” is a method by which “[consumers] get what they need from each other instead of … large organizations.” Here, “collaboration” is an ideological plank of the so-called “sharing economy,” proposing a shift in power from cartels and conglomerates to consumers and entrepreneurs via apps and digitized services.
The irony, of course, is that such “collaboration” is both atomized and hierarchical, not “collaborative” by any normal dictionary definition. Uber drivers, for instance, never meet other Uber drivers, and their interactions with passengers are transactions, their friendliness or accessibility ranked and reviewed for future customers. The so-called “teacherpreneurs” of lesson-plan marketplaces likeTeachersPayTeachers.com sell their lesson plans to other teachers around the country, while the site takes a 15% cut–a commodification of the routine sharing that teachers do all the time. It’s also an example of how the low pay and exhaustion of one set of workers becomes an exploitable angle for a “sharing economy” entrepreneur (that is, if teachers were paid well and their expertise was respected, such sites would have no reason to exist). Like the “united labor” of the creative workshop, these digital factories resemble what Marx called “a productive mechanism whose parts are human beings.” Redefining consumption as collaboration leads to stunningly obtuse inversions. “Money lending,” for example, morphs into the “sharing of money,” as this extremely busy infographic by a “collaborative economy thought-leader,” Jeremiah Owyang, suggests:
And the very service providers that supposedly facilitate this move away from large corporations have themselves become highly profitable businesses, who can be said to use the warm fuzzy language of “collaboration” and “sharing” to cloak their rapacious pursuit of profit. AirBnB, for example, controversially books its sizeable UK sales through Ireland to take advantage of lower business taxes.
Collaboration’s new meanings, then, are similar to those found in the OED, but with important historical and semantic shifts. While consultancies might eschew the OED’s “united labour” allusion to industrial collectivity, the world of beanbag chairs and bright meeting rooms would definitely see the dictionary’s citations of creative pursuits such as art and science as relevant to their business model.
The OED’s other definition, “cooperation,” once often referred specifically to factory work: “the new power that arises from the fusion of many forces into one single force,” as Marx defined it. “Cooperate” is active and specific, “collaboration” intellectual and abstract. The latter summons a fantasy of equality realized in the hubs and pods of the progressive office, and through the apps that connect consumers directly with informal service providers. These worlds converge, creating an elitist pastiche of solidarity where digital tools and casual workplaces are thought to break down boundaries and rank, summoning the more egalitarian socio-economic model of “sharing.” So, Bruno, really dying for that coffee about now.
“Collaboration”, therefore, is decentralizing, efficient, and (seemingly) anti-hierarchical. CEOs and graduate trainees, producers and consumers, Uber passengers and AirBnB hosts – all get caught in the feeling they are partners in a shared, lateral enterprise. The problem of labour is addressed by scattering it across isolated nodes in constantly shifting, interlinked networks – the “hotdesked” business, the internet, the atomised Uber drivers in any major city. Thus it renders work liminal, intangible, and easily expendable. Christ, JP, can’t you take a hint?
In part two, we will discuss “collaboration’s” second meaning, that of “traitorous cooperation with the enemy.”