Collaboration – Why the Fuss?

November 02, 2018 Share this article:

by Richard Sterling, Managing Director AltoPartners Australia

I was the keynote speaker at a recent forum of senior executives who were asked to rank the value of collaboration. It got a unanimous 10 out of 10, that is very valuable. The participants were then asked to rank how much they like to work in teams and the score was spread from a few who absolutely most probably loathe it (score of 1) and another few who can’t live without it (score of 10). The majority floated somewhere at just above the mid-point (score of 6 to 7.5).

The participants agreed that collaboration has many benefits such as productivity efficiencies, value creation, improved stakeholder engagement, ability to better satisfy business objectives and innovation just to name a few but … and this is a big BUT… collaboration also doesn’t come easily.

It is one thing to talk about collaboration, but a very different matter to actually collaborate

Given that collaboration has been around since the dawn of civilization, and perhaps before, it is interesting that there is so much focus being placed upon it today by so many corporations.

Why the fuss?

The answer seems to rest in the complexity of the myriad of challenges businesses have to tackle. Here are some of the major issues that confront business which, when layered over each other as is often the case, create degrees of complexity leading to the formal use of collaboration:

  • More and more businesses, big or small, are globalised to some degree - think supply chains, outsourcing, cloud based systems,
  • Now consider diversity in the broadest possible sense - gender, language, culture, age, physical ability, political belief, ethics,
  • Then there are the professions which are constantly fragmenting into a growing array of expertise and specialisms which potentially give rise to more silos,
  • Consider the matter of fluid talent pools, virtual workforces and contractors,
  • Add to this climate change, government policy, war, volatile markets, Brexit (EU & UK), One Belt (China) and many other trading blocks that are moving towards a state of flux,
  • Let’s not ignore the impact of digitization, big data, automation, social media and AI,
  • Finally, overlay the impact of customer, shareholder, community and activist pressure on companies to have and maintain authentic social license and sustainable practices.

challenges are growing in velocity, complexity and risk - to address them we must learn how and when to embrace the power of collaboration across all manner of internal and external boundaries

A business survives and prospers because it has customers which are won against the efforts of the competition. The profitability of a business rests on a host of factors but it is its ability to collaborate effectively and appropriately across various boundaries and increasingly so, externally that can help drive competitiveness, earn hard-dollar bottom line improvements, enhance the social license and importantly, address the innumerable challenges of modern business.

So What is Collaboration?

Perhaps commencing with what collaboration is not is easier.

It is not about workplace democracy - it is not about doing or running a business by consensus and it is not about having win-win outcomes each and every time.

Collaboration is teamwork towards accomplishing a common goal. It may involve people within the same business, although from different divisions, or people who are outside the business per se such as contractors and suppliers. Perhaps, not in the too distant future it may involve people collaborating with some form of artificial intelligence.

Effective collaboration requires a teamwork mindset that permeates throughout the culture of a business. It is not easy, it has risks associated with it but when done well it becomes a significant key to unlocking measurable value across the business, the supply chain, the customers, the employees and the communities in which the business exists.

All of this then brings up the question of Collaboration and Leadership. What sort of skills should business leaders (the c-suite, heads of function) possess, build and improve to initiate, manage and deliver an effective collaboration?

The 6 Skills Leaders Need for Effective Collaboration

#1 Getting On With It

Maturity and confidence of knowing when not to collaborate. There are always times when it is appropriate for each division, each employee to get on with doing what they do best.

#2 Providing Clarity

Granted that most people collaborate in some form or another to get their job done, but in the context of more formal collaboration it is imperative that a framework be put into place so that there is clarity for all involved.

Unambiguously articulating the common goal of a collaboration is essential.

Setting well-defined objectives, clear roles, lines of authority and governance along with transparent conflict resolution processes underpinned by an atmosphere of trust are the building blocks for effective collaboration framework.

The framework become vitally important when the collaboration requires working with teams that are virtual or contractors or the employees of a supplier. Retaining the foundations for an effective collaboration over a sustained period of time demands a strong focus on clarity and trust.

3 Acceptance (tolerance)

Multi-culturalism and gender diversity in a business are the obvious subjects when the word acceptance is used. However, acceptance needs to be applied far more broadly.

Creating a team means assembling individuals together who will have an endless catalogue of differences ranging from values, perspectives, work methods and communication styles just to name a few.

Being able to accept these differences and to create an overall atmosphere of acceptance is essential. The last thing any collaboration needs is the distraction of covert or overt prejudice.

#4 Direct Communication & Consultation

In part, effective collaboration is the result of continuous communication. It needs to be direct and cognisant of how language impacts understanding.

While the language across the team may be English for example, the words spoken and written do not always result in the same understanding. This can be exacerbated by having cross-border teams in which English is not the first language and not every word written or uttered will have a direct translation or the sense of meaning you intend.

Hand in hand with communication is consultation – reaching out and seeking information and advice. It recognises that effective collaboration requires having deeper conversations that can lead to insights which have the potential to facilitate innovations or efficiencies, great or small.

If both the communication and consultation is done well then the atmosphere is set for a robust sharing of information and importantly ideas. The ability for anyone in the team to feel comfortable enough to ask the ‘what if’ questions and pose the ‘what if’ scenarios is crucial.

#5 Tech Savvy

Technology whether it is in-house or in the clouds plays its part. The ability to bring data, automation, digitisation and AI to a collaboration is undoubtedly valuable. However, knowing when and how to apply these technologies is far more crucial. A face to face discussion with, for example, an external group of stakeholders has the potential to provide more useful information to the team than just the data analysis.

#6 Breaking Down Boundaries

Working for the same company doesn’t automatically mean that you trust your peers or that they trust you. Trust in each other’s abilities, expertise, professional standards, ethics, project management (to list a few) all comes in to play in a collaboration.

Collaborating with external parties such as a supplier or contractor or a joint venture partner moves trust to another dimension. Trust that the sharing is open and complete, that the common goal is indeed the common goal, that no one is trying to gain an unfair advantage and so forth.

The key to this trust is building relationships across the multitude of stakeholders that make-up the value chain of a business. As a senior executive the building of relationship by breaking down the boundaries and that modern day working life imposes needs to be a daily habit.

The Consensus

At the end of the day whether we are conscious of it or not we collaborate with many others to get our job done.

However, formal collaborations such as those required by a specific project or more complex collaborations such as those involving a joint venture partner or suppliers require that those leading the collaboration have well developed and practiced skills to do so effectively.

Collaborations, for the foreseeable future, are people working together. Learning how to collaborate certainly provides benefits for the business but for the people who are participating there is a benefit beyond the job at hand.

Don Tapscott, is a Canadian business executive and a leading authority on the impact of technology on business and society sums up the importance of collaboration this way:

“… learning to collaborate is part of equipping yourself for effectiveness, problem solving, innovation and life-long learning in an ever-changing networked economy.”