Building a more collaborative workplace



Siloed operations, technology for technology’s sake and weak company culture can all have a detrimental impact on workplace collaboration.

“If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself,” said Henry Ford. As the man who revolutionized teamworking through the car assembly production line, he’s certainly qualified to make such a statement – and data bears him out.

Two-thirds of respondents to a Harvard survey cited having a siloed operation – the opposite of Ford’s vision – as a barrier to successful collaboration across their organizations. It beat every other obstacle, including a lack of leadership vision, tools and workplace skills. This is despite a proliferation of digital tools designed precisely to enhance teamworking. Low-cost or no-cost cloud collaboration software, cloud document management and inexpensive video conferencing platforms have smudged the traditional divisions within even the largest organizations and, used well, can give staff a sense of influence that they’ve long lacked. When employees have the power to affect change, even within boundaries, it fosters job satisfaction and a sense of worth and belonging that can reduce the long-term costs of managing staff turnover.

Yet tools alone aren’t the answer: more often, the solution is one of establishing an appropriate mindset among C-Suite members. Before turning to technology for solutions, experts say that organizations need to consider to what extent its leaders prioritize teamwork. After all, if managers don’t communicate with employees or listen to their ideas, meaningful collaboration between coworkers is ultimately going to be unlikely. Furthermore, the addition of a new tool is unlikely to have a positive effect on the ways teams work together, as underlying processes and policies are likely to be where the problems lie.

...organizations need to consider to what extent its leaders prioritize teamwork.

While the burden of implementing the necessary tools may fall on IT, the department can only work within the parameters of the business and, if it’s to succeed, it requires support at the highest levels.

“The CIO is in a unique position because [they see] across the entire organization. For example, marketing sees the world through a marketing lens. The CFO sees the world through a finance lens. But the CIO is the only person who has responsibility going across every single function in the company. That breadth is a double-edged sword because the CIO is exposed across the company and is very visible. And with great opportunity comes great responsibility,” says analyst Michael Krigsman.

“That visibility is one reason why the CIO job is under so much pressure. If the CIO is not focused on the business and overly focused on infrastructure, then [they] will fail… success happens when the CIO understands the business and is part of the business.”

We’re all part of IT now

As Microsoft US CMO Valerie Beaulieu explains, Microsoft’s own marketing teams are “recruiting people with a data and analytics background… in your team you need to have the balance between creative folks with data scientists. Whichever role you’re recruiting, everybody needs to be data-savvy enough to make sense of all the data points and to drive these customer journeys.”

Data-savvy workers needn’t understand the fundamentals of the data’s collection or warehousing: they only need to know how to extract actionable insights that will drive the business forward. Developments in low-code and no-code analysis are helping, by empowering teams to analyze data themselves, rather than handing off to a separate department, which might understand the code required to process it, but not the business rationale behind it.

Kevin Spurway, at low-code platform developer Appian says, “it’s like Lego blocks assembling applications,” allowing staff without specialist coding experience to extract meaningful insights as and when required and, in doing so, reducing the number of internal divisions and the potential for friction within the organization.

Collaboration and the cloud

As departments better understand the power of data, they’ll push for ever-greater access, which will catalyze change at the infrastructure level. Key players like Adobe with Marketo, and Microsoft with Azure, are developing data-driven marketing frameworks that can help teams analyze customer data to deliver more personalized material.

Similarly, within HR, finance, sales and support, greater access to a company’s digital resources, as well as the intuitive tools that will help them analyze it, will reduce claims of “ownership” and the potential for individual teams or team members to dominate specific business functions by being the only ones with access to a data resource.

At the same time, data is increasingly moving off-site as bandwidth-based billing and no-notice contracts make cloud an irresistible alternative to hosting resources locally. With it comes the ability for staff to work wherever is required – or wherever suits them best. As well as making corner offices moot as a status symbol, this facilitates agile working and improved collaboration. Ad hoc, online meetings, which can be shorter since they no longer need to justify the participants’ travel time, are increasingly becoming the norm, and the barriers to informed communication are falling as participants all have access to the required resources, wherever they happen to be.

Adopting SaaS and swapping physical for cloud infrastructure brings us back to Krigsman’s warning about CIOs whose focus on infrastructure takes their eye off the business itself.

Trust is the key

A workforce that collaborates is frequently more productive and often more innovative – and everyone, from staff to customers, benefits in turn.

Such collaboration is easier when organizations are young but, as they mature, they tend to compartmentalize. Teams that collaborated in the start-up phase can become siloed as the organization grows, and that sense of separateness becomes magnified as new starters arrive and adapt to the prevailing culture. Little wonder business leaders want to encourage better internal communication wherever they can.

Such collaboration will only be possible for organizations in which teams trust one another, discuss the rationale behind the decision to take a particular action – or inability to do so – and don’t perceive collaboration to be encroachment upon their purview. None of this is possible without active, effective communication.

As Forrester’s Keith Johnston puts it, “informal meetings, one-to-one discussions, a shared vocabulary, team building and collocation are all prerequisites to establishing empathy and trust. Trust is the ingredient to any success.”