There seems to be general agreement that better collaboration will result in better business performance. There is evidence that this is actually not always the case, but for now let me go with the collective wisdom.

So when business performance decreases or someone makes an ill-informed decision, the view is taken by senior managers (who seem rarely to collaborate) that something needs to be done about improving collaboration. The answer, according to these managers, is to introduce better technology. Indeed, when a business case is made for SharePoint (which it rarely is, of course), the justification is that it will improve collaboration. I can say for certain that it will not because no one in the organization has ever measured collaboration performance. This is like building a by-pass for a town without first measuring journey times and congestion of the traffic using the current road network.

The Complexity of Collaboration and Communities

Communities are not necessarily about collaboration, but about sharing, which is not the same thing at all. At the core of collaboration is a shared purpose in achieving a successful outcome in which everyone involved has something at risk and something to gain. Collaborative working is not something that was invented by Lotus or Microsoft but has been taught in military academies for hundreds of years. In the 20th century, the development of organizational psychology and sociology has provided us with some fundamental precepts about the way in which teams form, function and fail.

When I am working with clients who have a keen interest in improving collaboration, I start asking questions about the extent to which either HR or training departments are able to offer the skills of an occupational psychologist, who not only could provide many insights into the process of collaboration, but also has the research skills to determine the nature of the assumed problem. A degree in computer science is not an acceptable alternative. If training in effective collaboration is not available, then why is that the case? Organizations realize the importance of training in health and safety, so why not in collaborative working? I come across this paradox time and time again.

Collaborate to Compete

Although I find the insights on collaboration from Michael Sampson invaluable, I also turn time and time again to a book by Robert Logan and Louis Stokes entitled Collaborate to Compete. Published by Wiley in 2004 but written in 2002/2003, this book predates the current assumption that social media and social intranets are the solution to better working practices. Some sections of this book are now dated in terms of technology, and the authors can be a little too pedantic at times, but they do get to the heart of the matter. It’s worth browsing through the bibliography to see just how much research on team working was carried out in the 1990s, to a large extent catalyzed by the publication of The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge in 1990.

There are four elements in the analytical framework developed by Logan and Stokes:

  • The Collaboration Quotient, which measures the willingness and ability of individual employees to collaborate.
  • The Manager’s Collaboration Quotient, which measures the level of support for collaboration from senior managers, and whether they practice what they preach.
  • The Organizational Collaboration Quotient, which measures the degree to which the organization’s current systems, policies and infrastructure support collaboration.
  • The Collaborative Commerce Quotient, which assesses the extent to which the organization enters into collaborative relationships with customers, suppliers and other business partners.

In this short column, I can’t get into how these are measured, but just look over the top of your desktop and start thinking about how your organization might score on these four dimensions.

The Role of a Chief Collaboration Officer

In any organization, if something is important, then someone will have it as his or her job title. I have come across organizations that have invested millions of dollars in collaborative technologies, but there is no Chief Collaboration Officer. The core roles are to stimulate measure, assess and support collaboration by taking an organizational view of benefits and barriers, and having the authority to do something about the barriers to achieve the benefits. Reporting into HR may be appropriate in a service business, or into a VP-Operations in a manufacturing business. Where this role really has an impact is when a business is bought or a new division is formed. New links have to be created and new styles of collaboration introduced if the benefits of the organizational change are going to be realized.

Action This Day

Go back to the four quotients above, and perhaps with a group of colleagues, score your own organization out of 10. A score of 20 or less and you ought to put your collaboration technology back into its box. Get the enterprise psychology right before investing in enterprise technology.

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