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Volume 20, Issue 1;   January 1, 2020: Disjoint Awareness: Assessment

Disjoint Awareness: Assessment

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When collaborators misunderstand each other's work and intentions, they're at risk of inadvertently interfering with each other. Three causes of misunderstandings are complexity, specialization, and rapid change.
Agricultural silos

Agricultural silos. These structures are used for storing grain. As a metaphor for organizational structures, silos are regarded as being relatively independent of each other. But the silos in this image clearly are not. For example, they share a loading mechanism, parts of which are clearly visible at the top of the line of silos. Not visible are the structures that keep the silos aligned with each other, so as to prevent their shifting from distorting the members of the loading mechanism.

So it is with organizational silos. Although we regard them as independent, and although they often seem to be working at cross-purposes with one another, they are linked, often in ways that are outside the awareness of the people who operate them.

As we discussed last time in more detail, disjoint awareness is a state in which the people of an organization collaborate using inaccurate mental models of each other's work and intentions. That is, there is a mismatch between their awareness of what each other is doing (or intending) and what those people are actually doing (or intending). Disjoint awareness is problematic because it causes collaborators to interfere with each other. For example, two different projects might contend with each other for the same scarce resource. Or two projects might waste precious resources trying to achieve the same goal.

When a significant number of people in an organization make similar errors in constructing disjoint awarenesses of what their collaborators are doing, one must consider three possibilities. First is a set of factors related to how well people can assess and project the activities of their collaborators. Second, the system in which these people find themselves might play a significant role. Finally, there is the possibility that psychological phenomena can contribute to the errors. In this part of our exploration of disjoint awareness, we explore factors that affect how well people can assess and project collaborators' activities. Three examples of such factors are complexity, specialization, and rapid change.

Complexity
When a collaboration is addressing problems that are unusually complex, some collaborators might find difficulty in grasping what's needed to create useful mental models of what others are doing. So even if they have access to the information they would need to create useful mental models, the task can be challenging and time consuming.
One common way of coping with complexity is an organizational structure known as siloing. In siloing, we decompose the responsibilities of the organization into semi-independent parts. This enables the people in each part to focus on their own mission, which is well defined by the siloing. Decomposing the organization in this way corresponds to the analysis phase of solving problems by means of analysis and synthesis. Unfortunately, the silos aren't always as independent as we assume they are, which is what leads to disjoint awareness on the part of the people in the silos.
Worse, most people When a collaboration is addressing
unusually complex problems, some
collaborators might find difficulty
in grasping what others are doing
regard as low priority any activity involved in understanding what others are doing. At even lower priority is the task of communicating to others what those others would need to know if they wanted to avoid interference. Each person regards his or her "own work" as more important. The result is that the collaborators don't know enough about each other to avoid interfering with each other. These priority issues can resolve themselves if the schedule has sufficient slack.
Specialization
As often happens in this age of specialization, the collaborators might not have a technological or educational background adequate for understanding each other's efforts. These barriers can add to the difficulty of understanding the work of their collaborators, which can create problems for understanding how their own work might interfere with the work of others.
The consequences of specialization can also afflict the collaborators as they try to explain their own work to their colleagues. What might seem like communication problems can actually be the result of knowledge or educational gaps. Understanding that the collaboration is a group of specialists can help its members communicate in terms simple enough and general enough to be understood by all.
Rapid change and chaos
If complexity and technical specialization aren't enough to prevent collaborators from understanding each other, a rapid pace of change bordering on chaos can be. By the time one collaborator understands another's plans, the situation might have changed so dramatically that the recently acquired understanding is no longer valid, and interference between the two efforts is inevitable. Ironically, the inter-collaborator interference can itself be a driver of chaos or rapid change.
Chaos within the collaboration — or in the context in which it occurs — can therefore be a self-sustaining phenomenon. Repair and maintenance of the disjoint awareness is an essential step in recovering smooth operation of the collaboration.

Next time we'll examine system-related factors that contribute to creating and maintaining disjoint awareness within collaborations. First in this series  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Disjoint Awareness: Analysis  Next Issue

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