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Getting collaboration right can transform the way a business operates by leaps and bounds.

Insights, knowledge and culture are all shaped by positive collaboration. But collaboration is tricky to get right, because employees can be reluctant to collaborate and they tend not to share as much as they should — or as much as their employers would like.

Yet the problem can be a much larger one. Employees may wonder why they should act altruistically and make sacrifices for the common good.

When individual employees think about sacrificing something — whether it’s time, resources, budget or something else — they see it as a risk that could have a negative impact on them personally. And more often than not, it’s easier to identify the negative involved in a sacrifice than it is to see the opportunities that arise when collaborating with others. Does human nature get in the way of collaboration? How can organizations encourage collaboration? And to what extent can digital workplace technology help?

Here is an overview of some of the common impediments to collaboration, along with suggestions for encouraging the practice in earnest.

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Selfish Human Nature?

Sharing for its own sake will not carry much weight in a world where we expect a quid pro quo, a world where knowledge has value. Why should we share?

At work, people will have many reasons or excuses to not share, including:

  • I don’t trust the individual/group I’m being asked to share with.
  • I will be relinquishing control of this concept/content.
  • I think the information is sensitive and shouldn’t be shared.
  • I’m not ready to share the content yet — it’s not as good as I think it could be.
  • Someone else may prosper from my knowledge or effort.

Putting the Cart Before the Horse?

Deploying tools in the workplace to enable and improve collaboration is a relatively quick and easy thing to do. Instilling a culture that embraces and supports altruism as opposed to individualism, however, is much harder and takes more thought.

In essence, to foster a collaborative culture, companies must first make clear the guidelines for collaboration and offer incentives to collaborate. However, do companies really put in the time required to understand why collaboration in their business matters and what opportunities it can bring about?

Paradoxically, the modern workplace gives us more avenues for collaboration than we ever had before, but too often we fail to get it right. More often than not, we fail to understand the context or get the “where” of collaboration right — which involves picking the technology best suited to your audience or your teams’ needs.

This is vital to get right. Here are some collaborative “platforms” we are all familiar with:

  • Social networks: For large groups and less formal content.
  • Email: For closed audience communications; email isn’t the best option for ongoing conversations.
  • Mobile chat: For casual, quick comments and decisions.
  • Workplace chat tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack: In many ways a mix of all of the above. When used properly, workplace chat tools can allow for one-to-one chats, as well as large or small group conversations, file transfers and ongoing discussions.
  • In-person interaction: The human race’s trump card — though not all content will be captured and recorded.

With so much technology at our disposal, we collaborate all the time, often without even knowing we’re doing it. Too often, those “water cooler” moments can produce the best insights, yet they remain mere moments. How can we stop and make sure we are better at capturing any outcome of our interactions in a systematic way?

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Building Reputation and Trust

Many take the phrase “knowledge is power” too literally — to the point where the desire to retain sole control of knowledge can impede the even more important task of finding ways to impart and share it more widely.

If I give up my knowledge, will my reputation decline?

The fear of losing kudos does need to be overcome. Finding ways to promote positive behaviors — such as giving credit to others and citing the source of a piece information — is an important step toward encouraging people to share information with others. Digital workplace platforms can help greatly in the promotion and bolstering of reputations.

Quality, Not Quantity

One could argue that we are encouraging too much collaboration and that we’re compromising on quality. Amid the push for collaboration, it’s equally important that we individually have the space to focus and the privacy required to develop ideas on our own before sharing them publicly. Sometimes it’s important for ideas to be properly formed before they are shared. This is perhaps one problem with relying on technology to encourage collaboration: The decision to use collaborative tools arises in part from the assumption that everyone is prepared to work openly, even though some solo activities might require more time for consideration and thought.

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Create Incentives to Promote Collaboration

Here are some ideas for fostering collaboration in the workplace:

  • Establish and make clear the “why” of collaboration: Help employees understand why they should share, and why their colleagues need access to more information. It’s important for employees to be able to see the benefits of collaboration and how those benefits affect them as individuals.
  • Demonstrate collaboration in practice: Show real examples of collaboration, highlighting individual sacrifices that led directly to the completion of a project, the attainment of a goal, etc.
  • Show how employees can build their reputations through collaboration: Demonstrate how working with others can benefit the individual first — not the company! Most employees will buy into the bigger picture, but they will put their own well-being first.
  • Reward excellence: Rewarding employees for collaborating can foster further collaboration. But choose your approach wisely — gamification and badging can be effective, for example, but the model has to be the right fit for your organization.