Here we are, 2014 and still wondering what the future of collaboration is -- as if we didn't know already.
Despite all efforts to trump it or get rid of it altogether in favor of other noble concepts like cooperation, the hard truth is that collaboration has always been here. And it will continue to be here for many years to come. It's a human trait. It's our capability of getting work done together. Effectively.
So why is it that even today we are still questioning its inherent value within the business world? Is it because of technology? Or certain business processes? Maybe it's the people after all? In reality, it's none of these. It's because of Human Resources and its inability to get it right by empowering knowledge workers to excel at what they already do: collaborate sharing their knowledge more openly and transparently.
We human beings cannot deny helping others when in need. It's in our genes. It's part of our DNA, always has been. Yet, in a business environment, knowledge workers typically keep hoarding and protecting their own knowledge as an opportunity to not relinquish their own power (i.e., that very same knowledge), thinking that the less knowledge they share, the more indispensable they become.
But it's not really all that. It's because all along, knowledge workers have been encouraged to compete with one another versus helping, caring or collaborating with one another. It's easier to manage individuals than to facilitate communities and/or networks working together towards a common set of objectives. And that changes the entire game, because when both technology and business processes are no longer a barrier, there is still a bigger hurdle: incentives.
An End to Unhealthy Competition
That, to me, is the biggest challenge of the future of collaboration. And HR is at the forefront of determining whether collaboration will keep flourishing with the emergence of social technologies or whether it will bury it for good. I am not saying that to be an effective collaborator you need to be incentivized. I am saying that for collaboration to be effective within the workplace HR needs to fast forward into the 21st century and understand that the only effect of recognizing the performance of the individual versus the group is to evoke unhealthy competition.
We have had that for decades. And it's probably the main reason why we are still questioning collaboration today and its inherent value. Yet we all understand we can't get work done anymore by ourselves. We will always need the help and support of others, and this is where political games, managing up, bullying or even extortion (to a certain degree), amongst several other issues, keep playing a key role in terms of how and why we do not collaborate as effectively as we could and should. And because it's happening inside the firewall, the vast majority of knowledge workers don't notice. Or care.
HR is at a critical crossroads in terms of figuring out how it's going to transform itself to recognize people for doing their work collaboratively. And while that takes place there is an even greater pressure out there that's going to help accelerate that shift: your customers.
A Challenge, An Opportunity
With the emergence of social networking tools the good old concept of the firewall is becoming thinner and more porous than ever, because more and more customers are demanding (and rightly so!) to participate actively on the collaboration AND co-creation process with other knowledge workers. And all of that corporate kabuki around internal politics, the constant stabbing between teams, the always awkward hoarding of one's knowledge are now becoming -- at long last -- a thing of the past.
Why? Because it's all exposed beyond the limits of the firewall not only to their clients and business partners, but, more importantly, to their potential competitors. And eventually knowledge workers understand that in order for them to be more successful to meet and address their customers' needs, open knowledge sharing and collaboration is a must. No longer a nice-thing-to-have but an imperative to getting work done.
It's that massive tidal wave of co-creation with your customers and business partners in the external world that's demolishing HR's stronghold position in terms of how they evoke bad behaviors that, if anything, keep slowing businesses down. It's no longer the IT department, or sales, or marketing, but HR that needs to be at the forefront of the Social Business transformation journey. HR needs to understand that collaboration is at the epicenter of this journey and this requires a new method and business principles, perhaps a new business ethos, of how evaluation of overall performance and business outcomes would be delivered and recognized by those networks of true hard working professionals.
An interesting emerging (or worrying) trend -- for HR especially -- is that if it fails to inspire a work ethos of "How can I help you today?" (versus the good old standby "What do you want?"), knowledge workers will start looking for opportunities to move on to greener pastures, the ones where they can focus on providing business value to their customers rather than fighting an obsolete, corrupted system, sponsored by HR, that fosters unhealthy competition that takes focus away from what our goals and mission should be in the first place: delighting our clients with not just better products, but better conversations, too!
It's a fascinating challenge for HR to embrace. While everyone else keeps watching out for how social technologies and business processes can help collaboration flourish and move forward from its current impasse, I will focus on what I feel is the future of collaboration itself: the tremendous transformation that Human Resources needs to go through to become, once and for all, Human Relationships, because that's where collaboration begins …
Title image by VladislovGudofskiy (Shutterstock)