Building a collaborative workplace
Author: Shawn Callahan, Mark Schenk, Nancy White
Date Published: 21-Apr-08
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Today we face an entirely new environment for innovation and getting things done. The days of the lone genius quietly toiling away in pursuit of that Eureka moment to revolutionise an industry are all but over. We are now in the days of asking and listening to our customers and working with them in our innovation cycles. Innovation demands collaboration. So does production. In the past we could focus on a single task in an assembly-line fashion, handing our completed activity to the next person who would in turn do the same, until the job was ﬁnished. Now the jobs change fast, requiring learning new skills rather than merely repeating the old. We have to seek out people who have other pieces of the puzzle and work with them to tackle increasingly complex issues at a much faster pace.
In November 2002, a large number of atypical pneumonia cases occurred in Guangdong Province, China. By July 2003, just seven months later, this new virus, known as SARS, had infected over 8,000 people in 26 countries and resulted in 774 deaths. China’s initial reluctance to share information is considered a signiﬁcant factor in the rapid spread of the disease and the initial failure to control its spread. In March 2003, when it became obvious that SARS represented a global crisis, a network of 11 leading laboratories in nine countries formed to collaborate in identifying the cause of SARS and how to combat it. The network was connected by a shared website, email and daily teleconferences to identify the SARS coronavirus. Research was shared in near real-time. Within one month, this international collaboration was able to discover the new coronavirus that caused SARS and swiftly complete the genetic sequencing of the pathogen. It had taken the international community three years to discover that HIV led to AIDS. Identifying the cause of SARS led to an understanding of its modes of transmission, and enabled the development of guidance for managing the outbreak.
Today we all need to be collaboration superstars. The trouble is, collaboration is a skill and set of practices we are rarely taught. It’s something we learn on the job in a hit-or-miss fashion. Some people are naturals at it, but most of us are clueless.
Our challenge doesn’t stop there. An organisation’s ability to support collaboration is highly dependent on its own organisational culture. Some cultures foster collaboration while others stop it dead in its tracks.
To make matters worse, technology providers have convinced many organisations that they only need to purchase collaboration software to foster collaboration. There are many large organisations that have bought enterprise licences for products like IBM’s Collaboration Suite or Microsoft’s Solutions for Collaboration who are not getting good value for money, simply because people don’t know how to collaborate effectively or because their culture works against collaboration.
Of course technology plays an important role in effective collaboration. We are not anti-technology. Rather we want to help redress the balance and shift the emphasis from merely thinking about collaboration technology to thinking about collaboration skills, practices, technology and supporting culture. Technology makes things possible; people collaborating makes it happen.
This paper has three parts. We start by brieﬂy exploring what we mean by collaboration and why organisations and individuals should build their collaboration capability. Then, based on that understanding, we lay out a series of steps for developing a collaboration capability. We ﬁnish the paper with a simple test of your current collaboration capability.
WHAT IS COLLABORATION?
Think back to a meeting when you had a handful of people gathered around a whiteboard and one person is drawing and talking, explaining what she means. In mid ﬂight, a colleague grabs another pen and adds to the drawing, suggesting another perspective. A new train of thought emerges. Everyone pitches in and the conversation is electric with ideas, and with each word progress is made toward their common objective.
How about when you had a thorny problem at work and remembered someone from your professional association who had talked about a similar problem? You decide to go to the monthly meeting and seek advice, and come back charged up with fresh new ideas from others in the community.
Today, we can cast our collaboration net even wider by putting a query online and get answers back from people we don’t even know. And they can be good answers. Just look at the network of programmers contributing to Open Source programs, or the wealth of knowledge poured into Wikipedia. We can forge new alliances beyond the walls of our own organisations.
When Mark was working for an engineering ﬁrm in 2005, an engineer in Perth was asked by his Department of Defence client, “What risk management software is Defence using?”. Defence is so big even Defence employees don’t know what they are using. There were many other engineers from this ﬁrm working in Defence across Australia, so the employee posted a message to the organisation’s project management list server. Everyone interested in project management within the ﬁrm received the email. Within an hour he had responses from three other colleagues, advising that Defence was reviewing its risk management software and was likely to adopt a new standard risk management application within a few months. Coincidentally, the ﬁrm had worked on the evaluation of the new software and a copy of the evaluation was provided. In February 2006, another engineer posted a message to the group, advising that the new software standard had been formally adopted. The client in Perth was impressed at the comprehensive, timely and accurate information the consulting organisation was able to provide.
Collaboration is a process through which people who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible. And today it’s more than groups of people working together as teams and communities. Collaboration generates new ideas and new solutions that emerge from the interplay of these perspectives, experience and knowledge that help us get work done, coming from people both inside and outside an organisation, well-known and, yes, even strangers. We can have long-lasting collaboration—or short-term, formal or ad-hoc.
THREE TYPES OF COLLABORATION
Older models of collaboration tended to focus on teams and formal, structured collaboration. We have more options now. Here we explore three types of collaboration and how we might approach them as an organisation.
In team collaboration, the members of the group are known, there are clear task interdependencies, expected reciprocity, and explicit time-lines and goals. To achieve the goal, members must fulﬁl their interdependent tasks within the stated time. Team collaboration often suggests that, while there is explicit leadership, the participants cooperate on an equal footing and will receive equal recognition. An example is a six-member team working together to develop a new marketing strategy in a month, with a deﬁned set of resources. Team collaborations can also occur with external partners, but there is always a clear mandate and deﬁned roles.
In community collaboration, there is a shared domain or area of interest, but the goal is more often focused on learning rather than on task. People share and build knowledge rather than complete projects. Members may go to their communities to help solve their problems by asking questions and getting advice, then taking that advice back home to implement in their teams. Membership may be bounded and explicit, but time periods are often open or ongoing. Membership is often on equal footing, but more experienced practitioners may have more status or power in the community. Reciprocity is within the group, but not always one to one (“I did this for you, now you do this for me”). An example might be a community of practice that is interested in the type of marketing mentioned in the team example above. A member of that team may come to her community and ask for examples of past projects.
Rio Tinto’s Bengalla mining operation is located in the Hunter Valley in Australia. One of the operation’s ﬂeet of bulldozers had an intermittent problem with the brakes failing. This was a serious safety issue and months of effort were expended trying to resolve the issue—without success. The mine superintendent was on the verge of removing this multi-million dollar machine from operations when he decided to look more widely for a solution. On 18 January 2007 he posted a message to Rio Tinto’s collaborative forum, outlining the situation and seeking assistance. The following day, an engineer in California replied with a comprehensive solution to the problem… a problem they had battled with for over a year before ﬁnding resolution. “We had the same problem… it’ll drive you nuts.” The solution was applied and the dozer was returned to normal operations.
Community collaborations may also give rise to more formalised team collaborations. As people get to know each other, they can identify good ﬁts for team members and draw new talent into their teams.
Network collaboration steps beyond the relationship-centric nature of team and community collaboration. It is collaboration that starts with individual action and self-interest, which then accrues to the network as individuals contribute or seek something from the network. Membership and time-lines are open and unbounded. There are no explicit roles. Members most likely do not know all the other members. Power is distributed. This form of collaboration is driven by the advent of social media (tools that help us connect and interact online), ubiquitous internet connectivity and the ability to connect with diverse individuals across distance and time. It is a response to the overwhelming volume of information we are creating. It’s impossible for an individual to cope on their own. So networks become mechanisms for knowledge and information capture, ﬁltering and creation.
An example of network collaboration might be members of the team in the ﬁrst example above bookmarking websites as they ﬁnd them, using a shared or ‘social bookmarking’ tool. This beneﬁts their team, and possibly their related communities of practice if they are also sharing bookmarks. But it also beneﬁts the wider network of people interested in the topic. At the same time, team members may ﬁnd other bookmarks left by network members relevant to their team work. This sort of network activity beneﬁts the individual and a network of people reciprocally over time. The reciprocity connection is remote and undeﬁned. You act in self-interest but provide a network-wide beneﬁt.
COLLABORATION SUCCESS FACTORS
Our experience tells us of certain factors for success in all three types of collaboration. That said we have also been surprised in cases where success factors were missing or even operated counter to our expectations, yet the collaboration was successful. So we offer these lists in the spirit of those things we believe are important, but they are neither deﬁnitive nor comprehensive. Our purpose is to provide an understanding of the type of culture required to support collaboration.
UNDERSTANDING YOUR COLLABORATIVE CULTURE
Does your organisation have a culture that works for the team, community and network types of collaboration? Or are you ﬁghting against a culture that stiﬂes collaboration? Stiﬂing culture may include a singular focus on individual achievement, a culture that does not value sharing knowledge or expertise, or simply ignoring the network.
THE ROLE OF LEADERSHIP
Leadership is a keystone for establishing supportive collaboration cultures, especially in teams and communities. This is based on how leaders mainly embed their beliefs, values and assumptions in the fabric of their organisation. There are six main behaviours that leaders display that mould the organisation’s culture.
The best way to foster a value is by example. Here’s an instance of how leaders can demonstrate that they value collaboration. Leaders need to change their behaviour so that these types of stories circulate within their own organisations.
An Australian pharmaceutical organisation faced a major dilemma. The Swedish arm of the organisation had advised that a key drug would be in limited supply for a considerable period. This drug was a life-saving antibiotic used in intensive care to treat severe infections. “If you are an intensive care physician and you need it, you don’t want to be told that there is none on the shelf.” The GM insisted that company employees be proactive and engage with their customers to tackle the issue. Sales, marketing and national accounts all worked together to develop a strategy based on identifying the hospitals most at risk. First action was to engage with Sweden to examine global issues and to get an adequate allocation of the available stock. Next, “we phoned over a hundred directors of pharmacy and intensivists and had a discussion with them to identify needs and how they might change their internal protocols to use the available production as effectively as possible. They were really appreciative of the engagement.” The organisation had lots of positive feedback… “We hated the fact that you were out, but we really appreciated the fact that you bothered to talk to us beforehand.” Staff involved in the issue described how “our GM led the way, engaging with everyone and making sure everything was kept out in the open, despite others insisting that we ‘keep it quiet’. At the same time there was another example with a competitor: the pharmacists and clinicians told us, ‘We didn’t ﬁnd out about this until six weeks after the fact’. So it was a good example of a global action, local action at the hospital and also internally coordinating those activities.”
Much community collaboration is voluntary, so the issues of status and reputation carry a different weight than within teams and formal organisational structures.
Team collaboration requires a culture that values and supports speciﬁc interdependencies between people. In other words, we look out for each other and we can’t succeed without each other. Do your organisation’s teams have clarity around the following?:
Much community collaboration is voluntary, so the issues of status and reputation carry a different weight than within teams and formal organisational structures. Communities can be challenged because they don’t have the ‘stick’ of ‘do this work or you won’t get paid’, and the status of organisational role may not be relevant. So community leaders often lead from their own passion. They either gain the support of members, or they are rejected. Members engage and build their own reputation through contribution, which may later indirectly reﬂect back in their rise within the organisation. Some things to examine in your organisation’s community collaboration culture include:
Networks are reliant on stimulation of various points or nodes rather than centralised leadership. A need is expressed and, somewhere, someone in the network who can respond to that need replies. Some factors to consider in supporting network collaboration in your organisation include:
A FEW WAYS TO STRENGTHEN THE COLLABORATION CULTURE
Today’s organisations can consider not only how to support traditional team-based collaboration, but can also adopt community and network collaboration where it serves their needs. Many of the things you can do can echo across all three types of collaboration, while some are unique to one type. Here are some possibilities.
A. FOSTER COLLABORATION LEADERSHIP AND SUPPORT
Establish a collaboration coordinator
Establishing a collaboration capability requires someone to foster its development. People would think you’re crazy if you suggested an organisation establish a sales capability without sales people, or a human resources capability without an HR team. Yet we have seen many examples of organisations seeking to enhance their collaboration capability without identifying or resourcing people responsible for developing and nurturing it. Wishful thinking is not enough. Giving the role of collaboration coordinator as an ‘extra task’ to people who are already good collaborators can have unintended negative consequences, such as sending the message that the reward for being a good collaborator is getting more work to do. So time and resources must be allocated to the role, even if you start small. In fact, Peter Block is fond of saying that the projects that best succeed are the ones that are ‘slow, small and underfunded’. We reinterpret this to mean, ‘think in small steps, iterate and grow as you learn’.
The role of the collaboration coordinator (evangelist, manager, specialist—the title doesn’t really matter) could include:
The collaboration coordinator can’t do this job alone, so she should gather a group of supporters to help. Here is how the US Defense Intelligence Agency did it.
Following 9/11, US intelligence agencies reassessed the way they worked, and the US Defense Intelligence Agency embarked on a culture-change project aimed at developing the Agency as a knowledge-based organisation. The approach was based on three principles: 1) the change mechanism needed to exist outside the line management, because the current culture would thwart innovation, but at the same time the project needed sponsorship; 2) a focus on practice and making a difference to the people doing the real work; and 3) working in a climate of limited funds.
Their solution was network-based. Each of the 27 divisions nominated a person to join a cooperative (called the Knowledge Lab), which would champion knowledge-based change. The Knowledge Lab leader interviewed each nominee, and the successful candidates then identiﬁed ﬁve to ten peers in their division to support them. This created a network of 119 change agents. The Knowledge Lab conducted a social network analysis with its members to ﬁnd out the connectors, bridges and peripherals in DIA’s 8000 strong workforce.
The Knowledge Lab is conducting a series of pilot projects, and has seen some remarkable changes and the formation of new social networks.
Collaboration supporters are your best option for tapping into the full power of both team, community and network collaboration. And they use a variety of skills and talents. So pay attention to what each person can bring and channel them into the area where they can best make a difference. For example:
Recruit and promote collaborative people
We used to recruit people based on their university degrees and years of experience in a speciﬁc ﬁeld. Now, in the days of rapidly shifting work and knowledge, we need to recruit learners and collaborators.
B. COMMUNICATE THE FRUITS OF COLLABORATION
Initiate communication with leaders
Don’t wait for the boss to ask for documentation of collaboration success, especially if they have invested in collaboration. Coordinators should start by telling success stories to senior leaders, then back these up with reasoning and data. Use the context of a story to engage. Leading with data and reasoning reinforces current ideas about the utility of collaboration, which is ﬁne if those ideas are positive. But if you need to convince people of the value of collaboration, starting with the stories reduces the impact of our human tendency to look for any reason to conﬁrm our current opinion, negative or positive (known as the ‘conﬁrmation bias’).
Don’t forget that learning also comes through those things we dread to voice— FAILURES. Use failures to learn, and show how changes made in the system can mean improvements going forward. Collaboration that fears failure will never fully function. Failure is a part of the system!
Go beyond the leadership
Collaboration involves your whole organisational system. Staff may or may not perceive the value of collaboration, or understand how it works. So share the stories of success and learning from failures with the wider community, as recognition of their work and to reinforce that this is not just important to the bosses.
Celebrate both the people who have collaborated and the fruits of their work. Raise the visibility of collaborative leaders and followers. Be careful, however, about explicit rewards for collaboration, because this can backﬁre and collaboration will be done only for the reward, rather than being driven by the motivation to deliver value, having pride in doing good work, and the joy of working with others to create what was impossible for any single individual.
C. IMPLEMENT COLLABORATION TOOLS
New tools can help support all three types of collaboration. The key here is to identify what collaboration activities you want to support, and then match the tools to them. Be careful to start simply and not go overboard. Bells and whistles look nice, but they can also be off-putting, especially to busy people who are not tech-fans in the ﬁrst place! Here are the basic technologies that might be useful for collaboration, but which will be doubly important for people who are geographically dispersed, something that is becoming the rule rather than the exception these days.
Many of the above features have been combined in commercial and open source collaboration software tools. They often also include features like group calendar, discussion threads, and photo and video sharing.In terms of network collaboration, many people in organisations are unaware of how network collaboration tools work or understand their value. So the starting point is to make these tools available and help people to use them. Start with social bookmarking and show early adopters some tools like ‘delicious’ (http://www.del.icio.us), which enables people to bookmark and tag web-pages. Unlike individual bookmarks or ‘favourites’, anyone can see everyone else’s bookmarks. Here are Shawn’s bookmarks: http://del.icio.us/unorder. However, the real value is in the ‘tag’ associated with each bookmarked page—the word or label that indicates what the web-page is about, and a way of ﬁnding that web-page again. Encourage people to perform a search on delicious for a tag they want to keep track of. I track the tag ‘storytelling’. The search results has its own RSS feed to which you can subscribe with your ‘information aggregator’. Ron Lubensky, one of our commenters on the Anecdote blog, explains that this means that whenever someone tags a web-page with your tag (word/phrase) of interest, you are immediately notiﬁed.
D. START COMMUNITIES OF PRACTICE
Developing communities of practice is an organic activity. You never quite know what is going to happen or whether it will succeed entirely. This is why a big bang approach is a mistake. To herald to your entire organisation that you are going to develop a community of practice on topic X is likely to cause pain if the initiative fails to gain sufﬁcient support. We have seen this happen, and it is even more common when the organisation has just invested in community technology which has forums functionality—“We must get CoPs going so that people are using this forum functionality”.
We recommend you take a more gentle approach.
Once the group starts to develop a rhythm (meeting regularly), suggest they think of small tasks to work on together that might improve their practice. Only when the group members say things such as, “How are we going to share these documents?” or “Can we discuss this online?” do you investigate technology support. Some groups will get to this point faster than others will, and it does not matter one bit.
Keep a look out for indicators that suggest your community is making progress. But whatever you do, don’t let management turn these indicators into targets! You don’t want a situation where management, for example, is mandating that the community post X number of messages or have Y number of people attend the community meetings. Indicators are useful. Turning them into targets creates perverse behaviour.
Testing the likely adoption
Before you start on the journey of creating a new community of practice, we recommend you conduct the following simple test. When someone says, “I would like to start a community of practice”, simply ask, “Can you describe the potential members by completing the following sentence? ‘I am a ...’.” If they can fill in the blank with a word or phrase that people can passionately identify with, then there is a chance a community might emerge. Let me give you an example. I was helping the Department of Defence design a community of practice for project managers. I asked the sponsor to complete the test sentence and the answer was, “I am a project manager”. It was a strong descriptor, so we knew we had a chance of establishing a CoP. During the design process, the client had another job type for which they wanted a community. The job type was called ‘technical’. “I am a technical” failed the test and we knew it didn’t have a chance.
1. B. Gray, Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989).
2. Rio Tinto. Coal Australia. Stories from the Coal Face (Rio Tinto, 2007). This story is also available online as a video at http://www.riotinto.com/whatwe produce/376_video_library_6891.asp
3. E. H. Schein, Organizational Culture and Leadership (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2004), p. 246.
4. P. Anklam and A. Wolfberg, “Creating Networks at the Defense Intelligence Agency”, KM Review, volume 9, 1 2006.
5. E. Mendizabal, “Understanding Networks: The Functions of Research Policy Networks”, (Overseas Development Institute, 2006).
6. D. Westen, The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation (New York: PublicAffairs, 2007).
7. A. Kohn, Punished by rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes (Boston: Houghton Mifﬂin Company, 1993).