square peg being forced into a round hole
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C-level managers are the worst collaborators. This finding came from a survey I conducted in 2016 looking into communication and collaboration trends in the workplace. Yet the same survey found that most employees wanted more transparency and better access to communicate with company leaders. 

Given all of our technology advances, why is this so? 

Let's start by defining collaboration. My definition for the last decade has been, “Two or more people (or machines), working together for a specific purpose or goal.” It is a very general definition, but one with which we can start to explore this problem.

Some might say C-level executives either don’t know or don’t care about collaboration. However a yearly survey IBM conducts with company executives worldwide asks the same question every year: “What are your biggest challenges for the coming year?” Responses vary from unknown competitors, to increasing productivity. Yet "better collaboration" has been one of the top five issues executives have named for the last decade. 

Clearly C-level managers are aware of the importance of collaboration. So why has neither productivity nor collaboration really increased?

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Where Are the Collaboration Metrics?

Peter Drucker once said, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t improve it.” 

To that end, we really don’t have good metrics for collaboration. Some tools measure metrics like the number of messages in versus the number of messages out, and look at this as the level of collaboration for each individual in a network. But what about the quality of the messages? If you have a lot of “yes” and “no” messages going back and forth, is that really collaboration?

Other metrics can include chat messages, the number of messages in a project workspace, or the number of emails sent and received. These gross metrics don’t really give you a good idea of the level of collaboration, at best they can tell you who communicates with whom, and how often.

I created a self-reporting metric for collaboration called TCEP (Technology, Culture, Economics, Politics) as these four factors have the highest impact on collaboration. With this metric, many C-level executives self-reported the lowest level of collaboration was between themselves and those who work for them. The same survey found multiple departments reporting interactions with leadership were less than needed, and the level of transparency less than wanted.

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Other Collaboration Metrics

Tools like activity-based costing, process reengineering, or total quality measurement (TQM) are good at measuring linear processes, but not good at looking at network productivity. Various types of network analysis (social network analysis, value network analysis) have come out of academia, but they focus more on individuals in a network, rather than the interactions between them.

McKinsey suggests that mapping work networks and analyzing the economic impacts of the key interactions to see where collaboration is breaking down is the best way to determine the value of collaborative interactions. Others suggest that focusing on team metrics (rather than individual), such as cycle time, is the way to go. 

ROI of Collaboration

Others suggest measuring the ROÍ of collaboration. I previously wrote about the question in “The ROI for Collaboration Is Fools Gold,” where I argued asking what was the ROÍ of collaboration is the wrong question. The right question is what value does collaboration provide. You could find value easily within the context of a process. In those specific process cases, cycle time can be a good metric for collaboration.

Looking at process metrics like time to launch a new product, or the number of new products launched, is not only a measurement of collaboration, but of creativity. For that matter you could look at a company stock price as a very gross metric for collaboration. Looking at more indirect metrics like; the level of absenteeism or turnover as indicators of the level and strength of collaboration in an organization, may give you some relevant information, but is not really a good measure of collaboration.

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Collaboration in the C-Suite

We can all agree collaboration, which is indirect and intangible, is hard to measure directly. Is it because of these elusive metrics, that we can’t improve collaboration? Is it really getting better, but we don’t know it because we don’t have a good way to measure it? I agree metrics are important, but they are not the most important factor in determining better collaboration.

The real issue here is not so much metrics for collaboration, but how to foster better collaboration between and within the C-suite, and how to promote greater transparency with the rest of the organization.

I would suggest that having a collaborative mindset is the most critical factor for successful collaboration. This mindset is hard to explain, but easy to see from an example. John Chambers, former CEO at Cisco, is one of the most collaborative leaders I know. While CEO, he would not only use the collaboration tools Cisco made, but he encouraged everyone (both within and outside Cisco) to use them also. He wasn’t just about the technology, but about the spirit of working together towards a common goal or initiative.

My suggestion here is for those in the C-suite to examine their own collaborative behaviors. Begin asking questions like: Do I have a collaborative mindset, or am I just out for myself and looking to protect my turf? Are my interpersonal communication skills all they should be? Do I practice non-violent communication? Do I shame and blame others, and worse yet, do it publicly?

How much time do I spend in meetings, and is all that time where I am being the greatest value to the organization? (Hint: I asked that of a CEO of a 200-person company: he told me he spent two-thirds of his time in meetings, and only 5 percent of that time was he contributing his highest value.)

To add to this collaboration problem, millennials have become the dominant cohort in the workplace, and collaboration for many of them is texting each other. Looking for a silver bullet from technology is not going to solve this problem, although new collaboration technologies come out every day. This is a tough problem to solve, because it requires a change in mindset, and ultimately behavior. And behavior is not an easy thing to change — just ask anyone who has tried to lose weight or stop smoking.