Collaboration is a hot topic in business today. Companies are recognising that effective collaboration is critical to future business success. Many are hoping that if they just buy collaboration technology, a miracle will happen, and they will become collaborative companies. The bad news is: they won’t! Companies need to develop their collaborative capabilities first, BEFORE, implementing collaboration tools. Otherwise the old saying will apply… Old (Un-collaborative) Organisation + New (Collaboration) Technology = Expensive Old (Un-collaborative) Organisation!
The good news is any company can increase the effectiveness of their collaboration by building it on a foundation based on ten simple principles. Before we look at the ten principles, we had better look at what collaboration is.
What is Collaboration?
One of the best descriptions of collaboration can be found in Beyerlein & Harris book ‘Guiding the Journey to Collaborative Work Systems’. They describe collaboration as the “collective work of two or more people where the work is undertaken with a sense of shared purpose and direction that is attentive, responsive and adaptive to the environment”.
Collaboration is not difficult, but it does require a conscious effort to create a way of working that promotes cooperation between different parts of the company to achieve their shared business goals. It is not the same as openly sharing information across the organisation, as many promoters of ‘activity streams’ seem to suggest.
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Activity Streams are NOT Collaboration
Activity streams are a great idea, up to a point. They are great at providing people with almost real-time information about everything that is going on within the organisation. But they suffer from three serious disadvantages. Firstly, they can easily create information overload as people are overwhelmed with huge volumes of incomplete and distracting information. Faced with a fire-hose of information people are likely to largely ignore it, including the few key bits that could really help them to be more effective.
Secondly, they don’t help people to reach outside the organisation to people that have missing knowledge, skills & experience. The sweet spot for business not only requires that internal groups collaborate better together, but also that ‘structural holes’ are closed by collaborating with key people outside the organisation.
Finally, they don’t pull all the levers required to work more effectively. Giving people the right information at the right time helps makes them more effective. But that isn’t enough. Collaboration requires that a number of other complementary organisational levers are pulled at the same time, not just the information lever.
Ten Principles for Collaboration
If companies want to build collaboration, they need to look beyond activity streams at getting the basics right. Here are ten principles that research has shown provides a foundation for effective collaboration:
- Focus on Achieving Business Results
Collaboration is not a business end in itself. It is a means to an end. And that end is better business results. Collaboration should focus on where it can have the biggest impact on achieving business results. These are typically those parts of the business where there is lots of dynamic information, where decisions are complex and where those decisions have far-reaching consequences. Collaboration shouldn’t be shoehorned into every discussion, dialogue and decision if it isn’t warranted to get the desired results.
- Treat Collaboration as a Capability
Collaboration is a capability. That means it is a complementary combination of processes, business rules, systems, data flows, organisation roles, staff responsibilities and so on. Only when you bring the right combination of these components together does a company create the ability to collaborate. As you increase each of the components, you need to increase each of the others accordingly if collaboration is to increase. A little extra collaboration can be used to improve business results in many different ways.
- Align, Authority, Information & Decision Making
Collaborating doesn’t mean that everyone gets to decide. This isn’t a new age commune! On the contrary, it means that the authority to make critical decisions is aligned with the information required to make them. That means the right information must be made available to the right decision maker at the right time. This can be a real challenge in companies where people routinely hoard information and where information is power.
- Promote Personal Accountability
Collaboration only works when people within the company act collaboratively. It should be the responsibility of each individual to support collaborative working wherever it is appropriate. If people act collaboratively then work teams will act collaboratively too. And if work teams act collaboratively then the organisation will automatically become more collaborative. And will achieve better business results.
- Promote High Standards for Discussion, Dialogue and Information Sharing
We are all used to attending meetings. It sure beats working for a living! But power politics, hidden agendas and information hoarding doom most of them to failure as collaboration enablers. Staff should be encouraged, trained and rewarded for adopting the highest standards of discussion, dialogue and information sharing with their colleagues. These are life skills that will help staff at home and at play, as well as at work.
- Exploit the Rhythm of Divergence & Convergence
Organisational life has a rhythm that at times converges, e.g. think of the sales funnel with many leads converging to a few sales, and at times diverges, e.g. think of the marketing communications funnel with a few products diverging to many different communications. Just like a good conversation, collaboration has similar rhythms too as information is first sorted and then developed. Companies should recognise this rhythm and not seek to railroad information flows or decisions inexorably towards a fast first solution. Sometimes the best business results emerge from the rhythm over time.
- Manage Complex Trade-offs
Collaboration isn’t always about moving towards one universally best solution. Even with increased discussion, dialogue and information sharing, complex trade-offs sometimes still need to be made. Making complex trade-offs requires empowered, informed decision makers. Collaboration provides the tools for the right decision maker to get the right information at the right time.
- Articulate and Enforce a Few Strict Rules
Much behaviour that outwardly seems hugely complex can be defined through a few simple rules. For example, the flocking behaviour of birds can be completely defined through three simple rules. Companies should define a simple set of rules for how staff should behave to support the development of effective collaboration. And the rules should be strictly enforced if collaboration is to become part of normal behaviour.
- Design Flexible Organisations that Promote the Required Collaboration
Beyerlein & Harris’ definition of collaboration highlights the importance of companies being “attentive, responsive and adaptive to the environment”. Being able to sense and respond to changes in the environment requires a hybrid organisation; one that blends together efficient, effective hierarchy to get things done with flexible, responsive networks to decide what to do. Collaboration is the glue that holds the hybrid organisation together. And that delivers the best business results in fast-changing environments.
- Align Support Systems to Promote Ownership
It may seem a paradox too some that collaboration requires ownership. But the reality of organisational life will always be based on ownership: of information that needs to be shared, of a dialogue that needs to be started and of a decision that needs to be made. Supporting collaboration technology should be employed to promote ownership of these things. And of their sharing. As the old saying goes… what gets managed gets done! Ownership will always be part and parcel of management. And of collaboration.
This post started with the suggestion that just buying collaboration technology won’t automatically make a company collaborative. But that doesn’t mean that technology doesn’t have a role to play in effective collaboration. Quite the opposite. Technology that enables discussions between people in different locations, open dialogue amongst communities of interest and real-time sharing of relevant information are an enormous help.
Companies should start to develop their collaboration capabilities before purchasing collaboration technology. This will ensure that the technology really fits the style of collaboration that has already been developed.
The pace of business is getting faster and faster. Today’s competitors may not even have existed a few years ago. Improving effective collaboration is one of the few insurance polices that companies have in these hyper-competitive times.