by Mike Altendorf

The art of effective collaboration

Nov 13, 20125 mins
Cloud ComputingIT LeadershipIT Strategy

The subject for today’s diatribe is collaboration. Not the Vichy Regime type (although I suspect in many corporations today it is regarded with the same level of suspicion) – the sharing type. It’s a subject I have written on before and one I suspect I will write on again because (in my humble opinion) it is an absolute must for ANY business, large or small, trying to be successful in today’s ‘social’ environment. Effective collaboration both between companies (to build innovative partnerships) and internally (focused on creating a more open and agile workforce) will become critical to profitable growth or in many cases, simply survival.

Last week I was asked to deliver a presentation at the CIO Technology Transformation Summit on successful business collaboration and that forced me to sit down and really think about what it is (and isn’t), why it is important and what is required to do it properly.

So let’s start at the top. What is collaboration? The dictionary definition is that it is ‘the action of working with someone to produce something’. Pretty simple you think – and yet when you apply it to the business world (and you get management consultants involved) all of a sudden it becomes very complicated and very expensive.

Perhaps it is easier to start with what it isn’t. What it definitely is not is a tool or a process. No matter what any software vendor or technology company tries to tell you, you cannot create a collaborative environment by installing an IT platform – even if it has the word social or portal in the product marketing.

Collaboration has to start with people and culture. This is not to say that tools and technologies aren’t important, but you have to start by creating the kind of environment that encourages people to work together. Paul Dawson, partner at Fluxx my co-presenter on this occasion, said that ‘collaboration starts with celebration’. What he meant was that people are naturally collaborative in many aspects of their lives but it hasn’t always been something that has been encouraged in a work environment so leadership teams need to make sure that it is understood that collaboration is not just accepted – it is actually celebrated. The key is to accept that ideas are not something to be owned – indeed they are usually made better if they are shared and built upon.

Understanding that the words ‘work’ and ‘collaboration’ have not always sat well together is important because it means that sometimes a little push is required. As Dawson puts it – it’s a bit like blind dating. Sometimes it’s a good idea to force people who have never met before together because a beautiful thing could come out of it. It won’t always work but once you have done it a couple of times you also find that it’s not scary anymore and sometimes it’s actually quite enjoyable.

Mike Altendorf: Social media – the IT equivalent to free love?

While you never start with a tool or technology that doesn’t mean that they aren’t important. They are critical in fact. Why? The step change in the technology evolution is that most people for the first time have better technology at home than they have at work and are already using it to collaborate across different aspects of their lives. Social media channels have people collaborating across geographies and communities all the time; mobile devices mean they communicate at any time, from anywhere. The tools that we use in our personal lives (and in the case of LinkedIn – manage our professional lives) are in most cases far more advanced than those that enterprise software houses will try and sell you. If you want people to collaborate in a work environment you need to provide the tools they are already using, which in most cases is no longer email, or at least implement some that work the same way.

Mike Altendorf: Create an environment in which collaboration is rewarded

The third piece of the collaboration jigsaw is the data. If you are asking people to work together on something they all need to understand what that something is, have access to the same information about it and be able to find, understand and share insights from it. Traditionally the way we have approached the management of information within a company has been similar to how we use a library. Data is catalogued and filed – requests are made and individual sets of data are supplied. That structure doesn’t fit when we are talking about collaboration. We have to move away from linear structures towards something that is more mind map than library. Ontology might sound like the name of a hospital department but I suspect it’s a word you will come across more and more in the coming months.

So having started with the idea that collaboration is simple it seems that keeping it simple is actually quite complicated. There is a lot that goes in to creating the right environment. But collaboration IS important. It drives innovation; it brings people together with a shared sense of purpose and so encourages creativity and improves productivity. Fundamentally it also makes people happy. This is why we are all doing it all the time in our personal lives. And with that I will leave you with thatfountain of wisdom  that is Dogbert. Over and out.