Why #collaboration is not simply “working together”

Along with productivity, innovation and employee engagement, collaboration is fast becoming the new mantra for businesses seeking growth and/or competitor advantage. But while collaboration can take many forms, the mere act of “working together” does not of itself lead to sustainable collaborative outcomes.

The theme for last week’s inaugural class of Melbourne’s Slow Business School was “How to collaborate effectively with other businesses”. Hosted by Carolyn Tate and facilitated by Richard Meredith, the class did not arrive at any prescriptive processes or techniques for collaboration. But, as one student wryly observed, our discussions took the form of a dance without choreography, which is perhaps the highest form of collaboration. However, we did identify a few core attributes without which successful collaboration would be unlikely, if not impossible:

  • Shared values among the players
  • Defined roles
  • Common purpose or vision
  • Mutual trust between all participants
  • Voluntary (i.e., parties choose to be here)
  • Equitability (e.g., recognition of each contribution)

I would also add that from my experience, collaboration does not happen unless there are opportunities for the participants to be co-located at least some of the time.

Which leads me to those activities that are NOT collaborations:

  • A routine or regular project (“BAU”)
  • Outsourcing
  • Commissioning
  • Remote teamwork
  • Shared services
  • Trading transactions

For example, if I commission an architect to design a house, even if I am intimately involved in all the detailed decisions about materials, specifications and aesthetic choices, it is not a collaboration – it’s a transaction between client and professional. However, if I was a heating engineer, and I used my knowledge and experience to work with my architect to come up with some new energy-saving solutions (that could be used in future projects) that would be a collaborative outcome.

Collaboration certainly cannot happen if organisations operate within silos, but nor does it come about by happenstance – there has to be a deliberate and conscious decision to collaborate, even if at the outset there is no specific product or solution in mind other than a desire to collaborate (“Let’s see where the dance takes us”).

One aspect of this approach is “co-creation”, where companies embed themselves in their client’s world to identify what problems they can work on to solve together. In this way, collaboration leads to the outcome. Clearly, to be effective, co-creation would be backed by some formal product development or service design techniques, agreed ground rules and even a game plan – whether that is a lean canvas business model methodology, an iterative prototyping process, or a defined supply chain framework.

In any collaboration, one party may try to force the pace, but if this is not reciprocated, the mutuality will be lost – it becomes just another transaction (or a series of mis-timed steps). The best partnerships and joint ventures are founded on the commonalities of purpose, process and participation. Further, a successful venture will know when it has run its course – even if this means having those “difficult conversations”, which the class felt were also a vital feature of the best collaborations.

By strange coincidence, the same day Slow Business School was in session, Deloitte Access Economics published a research report commissioned by Google Australia. It concluded that greater collaboration by Australian companies could be worth $46bn to the local economy, based on increased productivity and reduced costs/wastage. Although the report reads more as an OD approach to collaboration (linked to the productivity, employee engagement and innovation mantras) it nevertheless offers some empirical evidence that companies who get it right will see benefits across a range of KPIs. If nothing else, employees who are given more opportunity to collaborate will display greater job satisfaction (this is part of the philosophy behind etaskr, about which I have written before).

For me, there are a few interesting data points in the Deloitte report:

  1. While technology has been important in enabling increased collaboration, the right workplace culture, management structure and team members are seen as paramount.
  2. Although “shared electronic resources” were seen as the single most important tool for effective collaboration, “common areas for staff to socialise” was not far behind, and “more meeting rooms” scored higher than “open plan office”, while having more technology solutions (collaboration software, video conferencing facilities and social media) all rated lower.
  3. Finally, just over a third of respondents reported that “collaboration helps them work faster” (and nearly a fifth said “their work would be impossible without collaboration”), but nearly a quarter felt that collaboration meant their work took longer.

So, a paradoxical interpretation of the report could be:

  • fewer open plan offices (but more meeting rooms);
  • more technology (but not just productivity tools); and
  • more teamwork (but not at the expense of getting my own work done).

A final thought: If we think that the prerequisite for collaboration is the “willingness to co-operate”, then this can get murky, as participants will only be prepared to operate at the level of trading favours (and only because they’ve been told they have to play nicely) rather than entering into the venture with enthusiasm and without ulterior motives.

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