two different directions
When businesses recognize collaboration's different modes, they can take a more strategic approach to it PHOTO: Robert Couse-Baker

When we talk about collaboration we typically assume it's a single behavior — we either collaborate or we don’t. 

But by treating collaboration as a check box that's ticked off when we roll out a suite of digital tools, we leave it to the fates if collaboration will magically happen ... or not.

At Innosis we have identified two very different modes of collaboration. By understanding them, we can develop a more strategic approach to collaboration as a culture, and the tactics that can produce it.

So what are these modes and why do we care?

Passive Collaboration

Consider how people approach social collaboration tools. Their first instinct is to pull in knowledge when they need it. For example, when I’m working on a task, I need input right now. I don’t want to waste hours searching the intranet, Googling or making phone calls to work out how to do something. So I post a question on the collaboration platform asking colleagues across the company if they can help me out.

This is a good use of the tool. I’ve seen some brilliant examples of answers arriving within minutes of a question being asked.

Similarly, we might be able to answer a question raised by someone else. All of this is contributing to the organization's productivity.

But it’s a limited use of these tools and will only improve productivity incrementally. It is also very transactional, like a bank account. We either withdraw knowledge from our colleague network, or deposit it. 

We have a name for this transactional mode of collaboration: passive. Pulling knowledge off the network to get a job done. A "me" focused, task-centric approach to using collaboration tools.

When Passive Collaboration isn't Enough

But what happens when we need more than just answers or expertise, when we want to go beyond just swapping and consuming knowledge for day to day tasks?

Organizations correctly expect these tools to enhance and grow knowledge, with an end game of raising the organiation's cumulative smarts and significantly increasing and improving the level of product or service they offer their end customers. They want their people to bring in diverse knowledge from outside. They want their workforce to not only share answers and expertise, but to go to the next level and become more innovative.

This is bigger than just incremental improvement. This is an exponential lift in an organization’s ability to grow, become smarter and compete in an increasingly competitive environment. It's also the first step towards a culture of genuine, everyday innovation.

So let’s now talk about the other mode of collaboration.

Active Collaboration

Active collaboration isn’t just about getting a job done. It is driven by vision rather than task. It's about pushing knowledge out, not just pulling it in. It seeks to introduce new knowledge, to build and enhance existing knowledge.

Active collaboration is what you do when knowledge lands on your desktop, or enters your space, and you determine to add value to it. Not because a task might demand it, but because you see it as contributing to your workgroup's, or the organization’s, broader vision and goals.

How do you enhance knowledge? Well, that’s the great thing about social collaboration platforms and what they have introduced over the last few years. We now have very effective ways to build and enhance knowledge across an organization, new ways to address challenges, big and small, and generate smart solutions.

For example, we can @mention individuals anywhere across the organization, no matter who they are or what their role is. Imagine a few years ago, a production line worker with an interest in robotics who comes across a great insight into the topic. How on earth would she be able to put this in front of a senior manager? A phone call? Email? Set up a meeting? 

She probably just wouldn’t bother. But today, assuming a culture of open working exists in her organization (and why would you introduce a social platform if you didn’t want that?), she can @mention a senior manager, provide a link and even add her own take on it.

Building an Organization's Intellectual Capital

That’s just one example. Others include sharing or posting knowledge to a specific group; adding related knowledge or suggestions to a conversation via the comments section; acting on suggestions raised in the comments section; organizing ad hoc online efforts to solve problems. All of these actions are underpinned by trust — the confidence of being allowed to surface a problem. 

In such an environment there are many, many ways to move and build knowledge organically.

We can also follow individuals or Groups who are discussing topics that might effect us, and participate if we have something to add. All of these actions directly contribute to building the organization’s intellectual capital without being constrained by workplace boundaries. Making the organization smarter, end-to-end. All accomplished with the tools we have today.

Why You Should Care

Collaboration isn't a single check box. It isn’t a case of we either do it or we don't. 

We can collaborate just to do our jobs, or we can more actively push the organization towards its goals. It is a complex, dual-layered set of interactions which, when we get the mix right, collectively manifest as a culture of sustainable collaboration — with the best possible customer result at the end of it. 

That's why everyone in the modern business world should care.

The exciting news is, once we recognize these two modes, formulating an overall collaboration strategy becomes less intimidating. We are not trying to solve "collaboration" in one fell swoop. Each mode requires it's own clearly-defined set of tactics: Clear and finite steps to build an organization's collaborative future.