teams of people in a workspace
To compete in the digital economy, organizations need to adopt new strategies that support collaboration. PHOTO: Creative Sustainability

Enterprise collaboration improves workplace performance and leads to happier, more engaged employees.

But effective collaboration requires more than broad strategies and endless meetings, which leave employees with too little time for the critical work they must complete on their own.

Rather positive, effective and efficient collaboration policies should be incorporated into the workplace through technology, processes and organizational culture — goals most companies still haven't mastered.

Those are key findings from a new study on collaboration by SAP and Oxford Economics, a global advisory firm founded in 1981 as a joint venture with Oxford University's Templeton College.

Researchers surveyed more than 4,100 people — 2,050 executives and 2,050 employees — in 21 countries during the second quarter of 2016 on behalf of SAP Success Factors, a maker of cloud-based human capital management technology.

Defining 'Digital Winners'

The study focused on what an elite group of managers from top performing companies called “Digital Winners," which represented around 16 percent of the sample, did right. These include:

  • Enabling decision-making closer to the point of impact via flatter organizational structures
  • Fostering an across the board willingness between employees to share information and expertise
  • Encouraging managers to lead by example
  • Nurturing global workforces to generate wider perspectives

Of course, Digital Winners wouldn’t be winners unless they also scored highly on the bottom line. And they did:

  • 38 percent of the winners were more likely than others to report strong revenue and profit growth (76 percent versus 55 percent)
  • All had quantifiably more mature human capital strategies for hiring skilled talent (85 percent versus 64 percent), building diversity (56 percent versus 48 percent) and succession planning (72 percent versus 50 percent)
  • Winners had more satisfied employees (87 percent versus 63 percent)
  • Winners were more likely to retain employees (75 percent versus 54 percent)

Getting Serious About Collaboration

While collaboration is a key success factor in digital workplaces, it still ranks low on lists of company values, the survey found.

Oxford Economics found only 24 percent of executives and 20 percent of employees indicated their organization rates collaboration as a fundamental skill. Moreover, workers rated their managers poorly in areas like approachability and openness to new ideas. These attitudes harm companies more than what might be readily apparent, making it difficult for workers to work well both internally as well as with external with business partners and customers.

To compete in the digital economy, organizations need to adopt new strategies that support the concept of collaboration — and the lessons have to flow from the most senior leaders.

Digital Winners tend to have more managers with strong collaboration skills than lower performing companies. In addition, 74 percent of these top performing companies plan to actively nurture the concept of collaboration within their organizations over the next few years.

SAP collaboration study

Create the Right Culture

Speed, access to information and collaboration are keys to success in the digital, real-time world. But many of today’s corporations weren’t designed with the requisite transparency in mind.

The survey found almost half (44 percent) of mid-level managers lacked the authority to make decisions that have an impact on relationships with customers, suppliers or partners. Not only that, but they also indicated there was little or no transparency around the information needed to make those decisions.

Workers and managers from organizations characterized as Digital Winners fared much better. More than half of managers and workers in that group indicated decisions are transparent to those affected by them and distributed across the organization.

In the digital economy, employees, managers and even their bosses can’t sit around waiting for others to read and sign off on decisions that could have been made in real time days or weeks earlier by workers who understand the opportunities and the risks. Digital Winners have flatter organizational structures so decisions can be made at the point of impact.

Collaboration in the Technology Stack

Oxford Economics took a close look at the application layer of the technology stacks used by the employers of survey responders, asking the question, "What are your organization’s primary strategic uses for technology?"

Most executives ranked process improvement, innovation, data analytics and the customer experience in front of collaboration, real-time decision-making and communication. The researchers, though rather subtly, questioned the wisdom of this.

“Doing business successfully requires companies to stave off new and established competitors, rethink products and services, and streamline processes — and collaboration is at the heart of all of these initiatives,” they wrote.

SAP collaboration study: technology stack

Collaboration as an Employee Benefit

In an era where about 70 percent of employees are disengaged is high and millennial workers are begging for constant feedback and attention, collaboration could solve some problems. But should it be part of the employee benefits package?

This is one assertion Oxford Economics researchers made that was little hard to swallow.

But they are not alone in their thinking. In a January article, Human Resources Today noted that today’s millennials don’t care as much about office perks as they do opportunities for mentoring from senior management and effective collaboration throughout their workplaces.

Maybe Oxford’s researchers are on to something.