Imagine I told you about a wonderful family vacation I’d just enjoyed. Duly inspired, you book the same hotel, same excursions and visit the same restaurants. But your family finds it a drag. Why? Because your family is different — maybe they don’t like museums, or wanted more nightlife. 

It’s the same with collaboration: for every success story you read, there will be dozens of companies that try the same thing and find it flops. For example, Altimeter Group founder Charlene Li recently reported that only 36 percent of companies said their large-scale collaboration platforms such as Jive and SharePoint were used by "many employees."

Your Collaboration Culture

One reason why collaboration doesn’t always work is that organizations have different collaboration styles, but the tools are built around tacit assumptions that don’t fit. This is why Yammer flies in some organizations but is seen as irrelevant by others. I’m going to show how you can work out what’s best for your organization, but to begin we need to get beyond a sweeping “get the culture right” statement.

Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn, two researchers from the University of Michigan, developed a useful way to understand this in their "Competing Values Framework"* which I’ve adapted below.

collaboration cultures

Collaboration cultures (adapted from Cameron & Quinn 2011)

The Sharing-Control dimension reflects the attitude of information openness.

The Integration-Differentiation is about a preference to either unify information with what already exists vs. seeking out what is new. It also relates to inward vs. outward-looking: is the focus on what the organization is doing or what the market is doing?

The model's appeal lies in that it is both based on extensive research and easily explained.

To understand the different quadrants, think about how a question might get answered in the four cultures:

Innovation — Companies with this culture focus on what is new and are receptive to fluidity and change. The answer to a question might be “Let’s have a brainstorm” and you’ll get five new ideas, but they will be untested. This is typical of start-ups and research-driven environments.

Results — A results culture is all about what makes a company different. Typical of sales and marketing-driven organizations, it emphasizes unique selling points and comparison with the competition. But they want the pitch to be consistent, so the answer to a question may come as “Here’s the standard sales deck, make sure we have the same messaging to all out prospects.”

Information Control — This one is about formal rules, policies and standards. Anything new has to be integrated with what has gone before. It can be seen in engineering and highly regulated environments where energy goes into alignment and information reliability. The answer to a question might be “Follow procedure 10076b, the current version is 2.1.1.”

Relationships — This culture is all about people and solidarity. Networks are strong but little gets documented. You might see it in vocational workplaces where harmony and inclusion are highly valued. A question asked here would lead to “You need to meet Joe, I bet he knows. Let’s get a coffee and I’ll introduce you.”

Collaboration that Fits

Mapping collaboration approaches onto the framework, we can see that some will be a more natural fit than others: Relationship cultures will appreciate enterprise social network (ESN) tools and rich profiles as a basis for making connections, but would resent the document-based, version-controlled world of SharePoint that Information-Control cultures might embrace. In turn, the Innovation culture would find it frustrating if they had to suppress new ideas on social media so that customers had the consistency that the Results culture desires.

If we overlay common collaboration tools onto the model, we get something like this:

Collaboration tools

Collaboration tools matched to collaboration cultures

It’s Not About Changing Culture

Some commentators talk about changing culture to support the introduction of new collaborative tools, or even claim that you need to "get the culture right" before you start. My own belief is that it is hard enough to change people’s ways of working, so matching the approach to the current collaboration culture is the best approach. If there is a really strong organization-wide push to change culture, then yes, collaboration tools may support that, but they won’t drive that change on their own.

You’ll see that some tools fall into multiple quadrants. It’s not the tool that makes the difference but how you use it, which is why adoption planning is so important. You can’t just show people the tool, you also have to model how you expect them to use it. For example, if an ESN becomes the place where people discuss their weekends, it will alienate an Information-Control culture, but could be the reason an ESN takes off in a Relationships organization.

My Company Sits in Multiple Quadrants

Larger organizations can often straddle multiple quadrants. It would be normal, for example, for Research and Development departments to show Innovation characteristics but for the rest of the organization to be different. However, Cameron and Quinn note that effective organizations almost always have a dominant culture.

This makes sense if we think about culture as shared values and norms: to collaborate effectively, we need to make some assumptions about other’s expectations and what is acceptable behavior. If the norms aren’t clear, people become hesitant and collaboration breaks down. For example, Joe may disagree with a decision, but he feels unsure if it is acceptable to challenge in an open forum. Sally may have a good idea for modifying a process, but she can’t tell if she should just go into a wiki page and add it or seek permission first.

Crossing Borders Creates Collaborative Friction

What happens when teams from different quadrants need to work together? There will inevitably be some friction, but a conscious effort to build bridges can really help. Some of this will be about manual effort to transfer content between preferred tools, others may be about facilitation styles.

For example, when Relationship and Innovation cultures work together, proactive moderation might be needed to ensure participants challenge each other in the right way. In high Sharing environments, don’t expect people to naturally document things. Instead, assign explicit resources to make sure it happens, otherwise teams with a high Control preference will feel like nothing ever gets decided.

Where Does SharePoint Fit?

Some of the bigger collaboration suites will also straddle multiple quadrants. However, their heritage often tells you what their natural fit is. SharePoint, for example, has its roots in team and document-based collaboration, so fits in the lower half of the framework. In 2010 and 2013 it started to offer more social sharing, but it was an ungainly fit. Yammer, coming very much from the upper quadrants, is effectively pushing SharePoint back down again. Jive, too, has roots in a sharing mindset, but can struggle in environments where a "single version of the truth" really matters.

So next time you find that promoting collaboration in your workplace is an uphill struggle, ask how well the tools, approach and cultures fit together. And if they don’t, perhaps it’s time to plan that family vacation instead.

*My thanks to Martin White for bringing the original framework to my attention in a paper by Chun Wei Choo “Information Culture and organizational effectiveness” (2013), which also influenced this article.

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License Title image by  hyekab25