So what does a Chief Collaboration Officer (CCO) do? 

I spoke with Dr. Mark Adkins, the CCO at a collaboration vendor called ThinkTank.We used ThinkTank to conduct the interview.

ThinkTank is an outgrowth of a meeting facilitation or GDSS (Group Decision Support Systems) I worked with about 20 years ago called GroupSystems.GroupSystems has gone through many iterations since then. Dr. Jay Nunamaker started the company at the University of Arizona while doing some seminal work for the Federal Government with a grant from IBM.  He formed Ventana Corp., which in 1989 became The group moved to Colorado in 2000 and created a web-based version of ThinkTank, which was based on a client/server model.As the internet infrastructure got more sophisticated, they began to offer their software as SaaS. Some government and military installations still required the on-premises versions.

A Background in Collaboration

Adkins worked with Jay’s group in Arizona in the 80’s and holds a Ph.D. in Communications. He worked for IBM after graduation, then Gestalt software (acquired by Accenture), and then to Accenture for seven years. At Accenture he focused on XD (experience design) agile scrums and developing custom collaboration technologies for specific Accenture government clients. This included delivering software for a 24/7 operational environment at the Air Force Fighter Command, working with the Navy on a collaboration room deployed on the Battleship Coronado first, and then on ships throughout the fleet. He also worked with the UN on Humanitarian Assistance Planning.

Adkins has worked on a variety of large scale, enterprise-wide engagements across organizations with 10,000 people. Many of these experiences were multinational, so he has experience in dealing with many of the cross-cultural pitfalls in collaboration.

A CCO in Action

In Adkins' words a CCO “is a dedicated resource to make collaboration a part of the daily doings of a company.” Collaboration usually gets assigned to a CIO or an HR person as an ancillary duty -- not as a critical function. A 2010 Harvard Business Review article by Morten T. Hansen and Scott Tapp described the need for the role of CCO to encourage enterprise wide collaboration. CCOs see collaboration challenges cutting across all roles in an organization. In general these ancillary positions do not support gamification or mapping collaboration to critical processes.

But Adkins wanted to move beyond his development job. With his extensive experience with end user organizations, he became the CCO for ThinkTank. Today Adkins uses both his technology and behavioral backgrounds for his work.As CCO he works directly with ThinkTank partners like PWC, EY and Deloitte as well as working with larger ThinkTank clients in industry and government.

Learning Opportunities

As an evangelist for collaboration, Adkins not only ensures ThinkTank maintains it academic rigor but he also helps market this new collaboration platform. He handles crowdsourcing, running multiple panels and helps to guide the collaboration conversation with clients. Adkins believes that collaboration is critical to an organization’s strategy, and does not work across information silos. His goal is to capture an organization's most valuable asset -- people.

Now that capital can be geographically distributed, he looks at critical processes and how collaboration can be applied as a “force multiplier.” ThinkTank is developing, packaging and delivering many of these collaboration–based processes as templates. For example, in the audit process (which Deloitte, PWC and EY all do) you want to be able to stitch all of the workflows together to help reduce complexity, cut cycle time, and keep the users in the same (common) context.

As CCO (especially for a vendor) Adkins appears to be the Swiss army knife of collaboration. CCOs should look not only at technology, but at people, process and place. It would be more likely to find this title in a very forward looking larger organization, because collaboration is a “C” level role, it affects everyone inside and outside of the organization. Since organizational structures are usually based on the way people communicate (hierarchical -- run it up the chain of command), the use of collaborative tools usually flattens these hierarchies, while making the organization more agile and flexible.

It takes a unique set of talents to be a CCO. You need a strong knowledge of the technology, the use cases in your organization, great at change management, and conversant with both behavioral and ethnographic studies. Not many people exist with backgrounds that span this breadth of knowledge who can also think strategically.