Why We Still Don’t Collaborate Well in Businesses

Posted: July 25, 2013 in Collaboration
Tags: , , , , ,

collaborationI’ve been thinking the past few days about something that’s bothering me.  As someone whose work the last several years has focused primarily on promoting and managing the use of collaborative tools inside the enterprise – specifically SharePoint (2008-2011) and our enterprise social network (2010-present) – I think I’ve finally come to a realization I don’t like.  There is nothing earth-shattering about the conclusion and, in fact, I’ve had the thought before.  This time, however, there are more years of background and experience behind it to give it weight.

First, some background…

We hear regularly about the need to collaborate more in companies.  It’s true that improvement in this area is an ongoing need in many organizations, so I’m not picking on my company here.  Over time, though, it seems that companies attempt to answer the question “How can we collaborate more effectively?” with a series of attempts to throw more tools and portals at the problem rather than address the more likely, weightier hindrances to collaboration which are personal and interpersonal.

In response to recognition that better collaboration is needed, typical responses include: create a task force to study the issue, install a new platform such as SharePoint, install an enterprise social network, upgrade the virtual meeting tools available, create a custom portal that gathers data and resources from various platforms, research other companies’ platforms and tools, etc.  Depending on who is involved with such solutions, the proposed recommendations can be rather predictable.  As someone who spent most of his adult career in IT, I can assure you that if you have mostly IT people studying the problem, their proposed solution will be another software install or development project.  That won’t solve the problem.

While there is great value in having the right tools for collaboration in a company (and I recommend having any of the above that help accomplish the business goals), at what point does leadership inside a company stop and ask “Why are we still not collaborating like we think we should?  We’ve introduced all these tools into the enterprise year after year, yet we find our collaboration lacking.  Why is that?”

May I suggest the following to any company that finds itself in this situation:

You already have all the tools you need to collaborate.  What you lack is the will, leadership and culture to do so.

If people want to collaborate, they can do so with or without the latest tools.  Give me a group of people eager to collaborate but with no technology in hand, and we can do a fantastic job of collaborating with nothing more than time spent communicating with one another while taking notes on pencil and paper.  However, if you give me a group of people unwilling to collaborate or who do not see such collaboration modeled by their leaders or who are not rewarded for such collaboration intrinsically or extrinsically, then no software installation or upgrade in technology is going to change that attitude and make it happen.

For collaboration in an enterprise to become the norm, several things need to be true that have nothing to do with technology:

  • You must have the right people on board.  Let’s face it – not everyone is inclined to be a team player.  If that’s the case, find a role for them where they can be a Lone Ranger, or let them go if they are unwilling to change their attitude and behavior.
  • Collaboration must be modeled from the top down throughout the organization. It can’t just be talked about.  For example, do leaders involve others in the decision-making process, or do they hand down edicts that foster resentment?  Are employees being told (mandated) to collaborate better, or are they being shown how to do so by example, experiencing the benefits first-hand?
  • Time must be allotted in projects for such collaboration to happen.  Anyone who has ever succumbed to the thought “If I want it done right, I’ll just do it myself” isn’t going to be inclined next time around to work with others on a similar task.  That may sometimes appear to be a quicker solution, but it’s rarely the best long-term solution or what’s best for the enterprise.
  • Successes at collaboration must be shared for others to want to share in that same kind of success.  That takes intentionality and time.
  • People need to experience the “What’s in it for me?” results, either via internal satisfaction or external recognition and reward systems built in to ongoing evaluation methods.

Until companies address the people and time matters above, the same problem will continue to be identified year after year – “We need to collaborate better” – and the same worn out and ineffective response of throwing another tool or portal at the people will waste time and money to little avail.

Don’t misunderstand my point.  Having great tools available can facilitate such collaboration.  When tools are used well, they can help reduce the time it takes to complete projects.  The social interactions possible via some tools can result in more innovation and success, but the mere presence of the tools cannot guarantee that success.  Social tools such as enterprise social networks, raise the bar of what is possible in an enterprise that recognizes the value of “working out loud” and collectively solving business problems.  But they must have many champions within the company at all levels to be adopted and used to such potential.

We can do better, but we will only do so when we choose to do so.  Cultures can change, but it takes a while, especially for large organizations.  It will take unrelenting determination from those who understand the value of the desired end result.  People at any level can make a positive difference and be a leader, modeling collaboration.  You don’t have to be in a management role to be that kind of leader.

I’m committed to modeling and promoting a culture of collaboration where I work.  What about you?

Related reading: “Is Social Business All Talk and No Trousers?

  1. Patrick says:

    Thanks Jeff – This is a powerful declaration of the the challenges we face in building a more effective and efficient culture built on trust. “Thrive Together”

  2. Anonymous says:

    Spot on the money!

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