Collaboration and your company: Seven steps to get started

28th Sep 2011

If simply implementing collaboration tools isn’t the way to increase collaboration, what is? Graham Hill provides an introduction.

In an earlier post on I described ten principles for effective collaboration. And why just implementing collaboration technology would not improve collaboration. Worse, how it would make you into an ‘Expensive Old Organisation’; with all the costs of the new technology, but none of the desired benefits. If simply implementing new technology isn’t the way to increase collaboration, what is?

Fortunately getting started with collaboration is much easier than you might think. In fact, you are probably doing some of it already.

Seven steps to build collaboration

Building a solid foundation for collaboration is not difficult. Without it collaboration will probably not take hold and flourish. Here are seven steps that will help you get started with collaboration:

  1. Step one: Get connected to the real world. Over time, company results tend towards the average for their industries. The best and the worst companies all become more average. And even during times of rapid growth, a significant percentage of companies are expected to go out of business. Coping with continuous changes in the business environment is not easy. The winners are those that can align their organisation to the market. Effective collaboration starts with understanding how your market works, what your customers want and what new trends could potentially disrupt your business.
  2. Step two: Understand how work gets done. Companies exist to organise work better than either customers can do by themselves or markets can do it for them. Ronald Coase won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 1991 for this insight. Collaboration helps work get done more effectively by bringing the right information, at the right time, to the right people, to make better work decisions. To improve collaboration you must first understand how work is actually done. And then reengineer the work so that it can be done more collaboratively in the future. As Michael Hammer said at the start of the reengineering revolution, ”Don’t automate, obliterate!
  3. Step three: Design a collaborative organisation. Collaboration isn’t just something you add to improve how work is done. It also requires that you look at how you should be organised to do work more effectively. Improving collaboration often involves restructuring the organisation. That might mean redeveloping work teams to improve information flows, redesigning jobs to make better use of that information, or incentivising collaborative behaviour. Once you have thought through how work should be done in the future, you should develop the organisation to support it. ‘Form follows function’, as organisation developers say.
  4. Step four: Help managers drive collaboration. Flat organisations are all the rage in collaboration circles. The thinking goes that increasing collaboration enables front-line staff to ‘self-organise’ their own work. That is fine for day-to-day activities, but not for those that require different people, work groups, or even departments to work closely together. These usually require the type of coordination and cooperation that managers provide. Mangers provide an important role driving collaborative work, just as they do today. And let’s not forget that it is managers who ultimately decide what work gets done and critically, how you get rewarded for doing it. As more information flows into the hands of front-line staff, the role of managers needs to be rethought so that they can support, mentor and drive effective collaboration.
  5. Step five: Make sure staff are empowered too. Just giving front-line staff more information, even the right information at the right time, doesn’t automatically make them more collaborative. Or the company more effective. This requires new knowledge, skills and the opportunity to practice collaboration. Staff should be trained, supported and mentored to help them learn how to work more collaboratively. They also need to practice their new collaboration skills back in the workplace so that they become the new daily business, not just the latest management fad.
  6. Step six: Align support systems. One of the best ways of driving change is to engage front-line staff in redesigning how their work will be done in the future. Another is to align their goals, rewards and feedback mechanisms so that they are motivated to work more collaboratively. Although it is a dirty word in some circles, providing the right incentives (and they don’t have to be monetary ones!) can help the adoption of a collaborative way of working. As Reeves & Reed show in the insightful book Total Engagement so could ‘gamifying’ the introduction and adoption of collaboration.
  7. Step seven: develop a culture of collaborative entrepreneurship. As we saw in the first step, collaboration is as much about sensing and responding to changes in the business environment as it is about improving how we achieve today’s shared business goals. Leading collaborative companies like credit card issuer Capital One have developed a collaborative, entrepreneurial culture to help them spot opportunities in the market that might only be open for a couple of months and respond to them with brand new products in as little as a couple of weeks. As visionary computer scientist Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”.

How to select the right collaboration technology

The seven steps outlined here provide an organisational foundation to get you started with collaboration. “But what about collaboration technology?” I hear you ask. A very good question. The right technology is undoubtedly a powerful enabler for collaboration. Once you have started to make your organisation more collaborative you should go through a proper requirements analysis process to guide the selection of the right collaboration tool.

Building collaboration from the ground up will give you unique insights into future requirements that traditional requirements analysis based on use cases never could. The best way to capture the requirements is in the form of collaborative work jobs-to-be-done. This looks behind the façade of what users do to the jobs they are trying to get done and the outcomes they are trying to achieve. Unlike use cases, it does not limit you to looking at how work is currently done. You can then use the resulting jobs to select just as much technology as you need to enable them. And not one bit more. Every bit of unnecessary technology will cost you dearly in the future.

Are you ready for collaboration?

Improving collaboration is a journey of discovery rather than a destination. With each step on the way your company will become a little better at doing today’s work, at adopting to tomorrow’s changes and as a result, more successful. The hardest part of the journey is often taking the first few tentative steps.

If you are wondering whether this is the right journey to take right now, ask yourself one simple question. “Can you think of a single occasion when not having the right information at the right time and not working effectively together resulted in a bad decision being made?”. I bet you can! Improving collaboration will help stop that happening in the future. If it was a big decision, improving collaboration might help ensure that you have a future.

Graham Hill is a customer-centric innovator and partner at customer value management specialists Optima Partners. Follow Graham on Twitter.

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