What Does It Mean to ‘Collaborate’ in an Organization?

WalkWe have been having a lot of discussions recently about the definition of collaboration. For most of our clients, increasing collaboration is one of their ultimate goals. But what does it mean to increase collaboration? At first thought, it would seem obvious what it is: increasing the amount of communication exchange among team members in order to identify new opportunities to increase business. The natural next step that sprouts from this conclusion is to invest in technology solutions that allow for an exchange of information: CRM, instant messaging, collaboration sites like Sharepoint.

These tools facilitate collaboration, but they don’t in and of themselves create or inspire collaboration. Collaboration is at its core a cultural phenomenon. Collaboration springs from the development of a community that has shared interests and common goals, and clear visibility of the path to take to reach those goals.[more…] Organizations need to develop a culture where everyone buys into the idea that sharing information benefits the greater good of the firm. Leadership sets the cultural agenda, by creating principles and providing guidance on expected behaviors.

At this point in the conversation is when we start to lose our more systematic-minded peers, who object to the abstract direction of the discussion. In their view, people by nature want to collaborate but there are systemic barriers that prevent the free exchange of information. They feel that these barriers can be broken down with the use of technology. They state examples of how new media has expanded the ability to share information which, in the cases of Wikipedia and Twitter for example, are being done with little financial incentive. It’s human nature to share.[more…]

It’s important to try to balance the two dimensions; they work in tandem. You can have an organization where everyone buys into the benefits of sharing information, but without the tools that enable a free, relevant, and targeted exchange, people will easily give up. In firms with the right culture but the wrong systems, people will want to collaborate, they can’t, and they will feel guilty about it everyday. Alternately, you can have an organization that spends millions of dollars on any variety of tools to talk to each other, but no cultural transformation to buy into a broader benefit, then the investment is completely wasted. Worst of all, these are usually recurring costs.

The leadership of any organization needs to understand how interrelated these are and have a coordinated plan to address them. In the simplest terms, they represent the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of collaboration.

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