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This post is third in an enterprise collaboration series, in which we explore how knowledge workers, IT departments and business leaders can boost productivity, increase efficiency and transform their organizations with the power of collective wisdom.

Microsoft’s main message about Office 365 has been that it enables people to “work better together.” Indeed, Office 365 and other cloud-based, collaboration-focused software solutions are making it easier to work with colleagues, nearby or far-flung. But realizing the benefits of true collaboration—innovation, creativity and engagement—involves more than access to the latest technology and instruction on how to use it effectively. The key ingredient is behavior change: participants need to be willing to cooperate and compromise, and management must make it a real priority, not simply a stated one.

The ability to work with others—to cooperate and compromise to achieve a common goal—is a core skill. From an early age, children learn the importance of working together—for example, when a preschooler doesn’t play well with others, flags are raised, parent conferences are called, and behavior modification plans are devised.

Fast forward to adulthood, to many workplaces, where the ability to work with others is part of the job description, but the technology and policies are not in place to encourage it. Flags aren’t raised, conferences are not called, and no plans are made to modify behaviors.

Companies like these need to recognize that the ability to collaborate is the most valuable, intangible asset, according to Robert J. Thomas. In his 2011 article for Harvard Business Review, Thomas explains that it’s the “willingness on the part of people to work together to solve problems when they could just as easily pass them along to someone else that forms the core of most things we call collaboration. It’s the decision that someone makes to share an idea or to spend the extra hour helping out—not the regulation or contract that requires it—that usually means the difference between ‘good enough’ and ‘outstanding.’”

Companies need to recognize that the ability to collaborate is the most valuable, intangible asset.

Gartner predicts that by 2017, 25 percent of organizations will lose their market position due to this “digital business incompetence,” or a lack of a holistic response to how consumerization trends change how work is best accomplished.

Every business leader is aware of the growing importance of collaboration (even the ones who fail to take action) and technology is certainly making the behavior transformation a little easier—using today’s software, a person in Warsaw can edit a document simultaneously with a colleague in Wichita—but getting people to work together, not just to cooperate, remains a challenge.

In a 2013 blog post, Gartner VP Craig Roth suggested creating a “cat herding” application to tackle the problem. Although Roth is suggesting the impossible—that there’s a precise formula for modifying human behavior and that cats can be herded—his humor helps to ease the frustration many people face when trying to work on projects with multiple people from different departments.

In an April HBR article, author Ron Ashkenas takes a more serious approach. In his piece, he acknowledges the challenges businesses face when attempting to improve collaboration. Getting people from different departments who are focused on their own departmental goals to work together for a larger organizational purpose is much harder in practice than it is in theory, he writes.

He also notes a distinction between true collaboration and simple cooperation: “It takes much more than people being willing to get together, share information, and cooperate. It more importantly involves making tough decisions and trade-offs about what and what not to do, in order to adjust workloads across areas with different priorities and bosses. And despite all the well-meaning cooperative behaviors, this is often where interdepartmental collaboration breaks down,” he writes.

Ashkenas suggests a solution in two steps:

  1. “First, consider the goal you’re trying to achieve. Map out the end-to-end work that you think will be needed to get the outcome you want. What will your team be responsible for? What will you need from other teams in the organization? As you create this map, sketch out the possible sequencing of activities and timing that might be required. You want to create an explicit framework that will serve as a collaboration contract. When people know what’s needed, in what form, and by when, they can then tell you whether it’s possible or not, and then you can have a real dialogue about what can be done.
  2. “Second, convene a working session with all of the required collaborators from different areas of the company to review, revise, and make commitments to this collaboration contract. One of the biggest mistakes that managers make is trying to foster what we might call ’serial collaboration’, i.e., going from one function to the next and trying to cobble together an agreement. Not only is this time-consuming, but it rarely works since each change affects the next. The better alternative is to get all of the needed collaborators in the room together as early as possible to work through the plans, make adjustments, and find ways to share resources and align incentives. In fact, in the manufacturing case cited above, it was only when the product manager brought together key people from all of the critical functions and disciplines into a two-day workshop that she was able to finalize the customized design.”

Changing how people work is an imposing task, but it isn’t impossible, especially when Gartner gets involved. At the research firm’s recent Digital Workplace Summit, held May 18-20 in Orlando, the concentration was on “designing a digital workplace focused on engagement,” and topics included user experience, collaboration tools, analytics, technical architecture and knowledge management.

Perhaps that’s a sign that business is starting the long process of recognizing the value of those intangible assets.

ALSO IN THE SERIES: Using what you’ve got: Knowledge-Centered Support systems capitalize on IT’s greatest asset | A swarming trend: Why IT’s shift from tiered support to a collaborative, customer-focused model is good for the end-user, and for IT

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