Thursday, August 11, 2011

Designing a Collaboration Strategy

Many organizations want to develop greater collaboration across their geographic, business, and functional borders.  What do they hope to accomplish?

We have to understand that collaboration can mean different things to different people in different contexts, but, in my view, organizations are usually seeking benefits in one, or more, of the following:

Productivity: As more jobs become increasingly interdependent, greater cooperation and collaboration is required between individual knowledge workers across borders.

Coordination: More and more work is being carried out by project teams of distributed knowledge workers, and greater collaborative efforts are needed to ensure the efficient and effective functioning of these teams.

Solutions: Many business problems today cannot be solved with limited individual expertise or one- dimensional thinking. Expertise collaborating across the organization – and even with those ‘outside’ of the organization, e.g., customers, suppliers, partners, distributors – is often required to solve the ‘wicked’ problems and dilemmas resulting from today’s complex business environment.  

Game Change: Innovation is high on the list of many businesses because today’s competitive advantage can easily be tomorrow’s old news. Diverse thinking and perspectives working together help generate game-changing ideas and create new competitive spaces and sources of revenue.  

Different metrics are required for each of these areas of performance. For example:

Productivity: Speed, cost, quantity and quality of knowledge outputs, e.g., data gathering and analysis, reports, technical or customer support.

Coordination: Speed and cost from project initiation to project completion; quality of project outputs; knowledge sharing, learning, and application rates; process improvements identified and implemented.

Solutions: Speed and cost from problem identification to quality solution creation and implementation.

Game Change: Speed, cost, and quality of new innovations generating new competitive advantages.

One way of looking at these different areas of performance is to think of them as being on a spectrum between Surface and Deep Collaboration:

Surface                                                                                                                                                 Deep

Productivity                        Coordination                     Solutions                             Game Change

In developing collaboration strategies, we need to be thinking about what is most important for us to accomplish along this spectrum – now, short-term, and long term. Do you know which benefits of greater collaboration are most important to your organization, in what timeframe, and when and how they can best be realized?

Before going further, let’s think about some of the potential elements of a collaboration strategy (1):

Culture: How to develop shared values, assumptions, norms, and behaviors that support collaborative mindsets. 

Structure: How to organize to achieve our goals more efficiently and effectively through greater collaboration, e.g., power/authority distribution, roles and responsibilities.

Processes: How to manage flows of activities and communications between knowledge workers and groups to generate collaborative advantage.

Incentives: How to create rewards and recognition systems to support the difficult balancing of competitive and collaborative behaviors.

Talent: How to identify, develop, and sustain competencies needed for working and leading in a collaborative environment.

Technology: How to utilize new technologies/platforms to enable quality cross-border collaboration.

Now, all of these elements can be important contributors to a collaboration strategy, but given the benefits you are seeking – and over what timeframe – which elements might it be best to focus on. For example, changes in the organizational culture are likely to be needed over time, but culture change is very difficult to accomplish. If quicker results are needed, in productivity say, it is probably best to focus your immediate collaboration strategy on technologies, talent development, and most importantly, incentives.  By incentives, I don’t just mean financial rewards, but those that support intrinsic motivational factors like “engagement, communication, and a sense of common purpose and identity.” (2)

There is no easy formula for deriving the benefits of greater collaboration, but be sure to think carefully about what benefits you are looking for, whether they require surface or deeper collaboration, what elements of a collaboration strategy will help you achieve those benefits now and in the short/long term, and if you have appropriate measures to support your efforts.

(1)    Elements inspired by Jay Galbraith’s Star model of organizational development.

(2)    Quote from “The Unselfish Gene” by Yochai Benkler in the Harvard Business Review, July-August, 2011.

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