Almost all organisations require many different disciplines to deliver their products and services to their customers. To do this, organisations recruit many individuals with varying skills and disciplines. This means that these individuals must collaborate by either working in a team or as an individual that delivers a set of outputs to others. This has been the case throughout the history of time
This seems straight-forward, but more and more we are all reading and hearing stories about ‘lack of collaboration’ or ‘silos’.
At OTM we believe Collaboration must be designed for. One cannot fully achieve maximum collaboration with singular improvement initiatives, projects or IT infrastructure improvements. Given the right environment or ecosystem, human beings will find a way to collaborate, if it benefits them in some way.
The five best practices described here ideally all need to be in place to achieve the maximum degree of collaboration (unless you are lucky enough to accidentally improve cross functional collaboration!).
In order to collaborate, people need effective methods of doing so.
There is an abundance of collaborative software platforms on the market today. There is also plenty of debate as to which one is best. I personally believe that there is no ‘best’, but instead each is suitable for different industries and organisational cultures. Most popular platforms today are cloud-based which ensures they can be accessed across devices, locations and time-zones.
I will leave the ‘Slack, Google, Office 365, etc.’ debate out of this article. Instead, the most important message is that whichever system is adopted needs to work with minimal error and difficulty. If these tools are too cumbersome to use, then individuals will simply resort to utilising personal tools such as saving files on local drives or running parallel data repositories. This means other individuals are unable to collaborate on the same files.
More and more knowledge work is being done digitally. If you fail to put the tools in place for collaboratively working digitally, you are preventing collaborative working.
This approach is probably the ‘smallest bang for your buck’. This is because collaborative systems are enablers. If in place, they will aid collaboration but will not necessarily drive behaviour to be collaborative. It simply removes some roadblocks.
Most large organisations have multiple offices. This creates geographic boundaries that can inhibit collaboration. An effective way of enabling collaboration is by thinking carefully about who needs to collaborate with whom and co-locate those individuals. This makes working together easy for people as they can simply walk over to the other person to work with them.
Taking this further, you can even consider office design and layout to ensure individuals are co-located in the same area of the building. This removes as much geography as possible, which can prevent individuals from working together.
There are some trade-offs with this solution related to costs. For example, you might want sales and accounting to be co-located. But if sales resources are in New York and accounting is somewhere with cheaper operating costs, then the organisations need to make a deliberate strategic choice of what it is prepared to bear in terms of low collaboration verses cost of physical space. This can be challenging, as establishing metrics to measure to how effectively staff are collaborating can be difficult.
In the event that geographic co-location is not feasible, then implementing collaborative systems as discussed earlier becomes even more critical. There are some great meeting platforms available today, which aim to remove as many of the barriers presented by virtual working as possible.
Some people are better at collaborating than others. There are many reasons for this cited in literature but here is not the place to go into them. Some organisations have a ‘culture’ of collaboration where others do not. Culture manifests itself as a series of collective human behavioural norms. Within an organisational setting, this begins to show up at the team level and builds from there.
Knowing this, we are able to change the culture. One way to do this is hiring and promoting for collaboration. Hiring for collaboration can be difficult, but in the recruitment field there is a lot of work being done to identify and test candidates in this area. Recruiters are focusing on ‘how’ people achieved what they did rather than ‘what’ they achieved. This requires candidates to demonstrate how they achieved what they did. Candidates that demonstrated working with others during their accomplishments would be more suitable in a pool of candidates than those who did not.
Promoting and rewarding existing staff for collaboration is easier, because it can be directly observed rather than needing to be tested for. Over time people will see the value of collaboration, because those are the individuals that succeed, are rewarded and publicly recognised for their collaboration.
More often than not, organisations that complain about the lack of collaboration or ‘silos’ are organised functionally. For example, sales people report to a sales executive, product development people report to a product development executive, and so on. Reporting lines matter and when you are looking to please your boss, you will work on achieving your functional goals first. This pushes all cross-functional collaboration up to senior levels.
Instead, why not organise people around work from start to finish? This creates a team that can deliver a product or service on its own, rather than needing several teams working together. The multi-disciplined individuals can also report into the same place.
Doing this not only changes the organisation's reporting structure, but also changes behaviour.
Shared objectives mean that individuals succeed or fail together. For example, several individuals are given the same objective of delivering a product to a customer on time and without errors. Usually individuals focus on their piece of the process ensuring it is completed. They may even complete it well, but it is the pass-off that suffers. This is where errors occur: deliverables are passed off poorly and placing blame starts to take place.
If a shared objective were in place, then all of these individuals would fail together. Knowing this ensures staff work together and collaborate to ensure that the objectives are met. In the event of poor performance, discussions can take place as to where the problems were in order to fix them, rather than whose fault it was in the first place.
On the other hand, in the event of good performance, it is important to celebrate achievement of these objectives as this contributes to the cultural norms and will encourage others.
Coupling this with cross-functional teams as discussed in point number three can be a very powerful way of improving cross functional collaboration.
These five individual methods of increasing collaboration vary in cost and difficulty. In a perfect world, all five of these things are included as features of the operating model. If they are, then you will be close to achieving a ‘culture of collaboration’.
As an Organisation Design practitioner, I often reflect on the complexities of issues such as these and believe that the discussion is just as much about organisation design as it is about human nature. Humans, just as all living things, adapt and thrive in their environments. After-all, if a giant mountain range sprung up between me and another group of people I needed to work with without any way of crossing it, this would certainly prevent me from collaborating and even communicating with them.
In conclusion: Set up the appropriate environment for individuals to collaborate in or you will not get a collaborative environment.
Adam Redshaw is a Consultant at ON THE MARK. OTM’s experience and passion for collaborative business transformation that’s supported by pragmatism, systems thinking, and a belief in people is unparalleled. OTM has been in business for 29 years and is a global leader in collaborative organisation design.