Collaboration: Who Needs It?

Published: 19 March 2012

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by Auguste Coetzer: Founding member, shareholder and director of Talent Africa, a leading provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development.

by Marietjie Van Der Walt: An independent executive coach and one of the pioneers of coaching psychology at senior management level.

Collaboration has become a business buzzword, a strategic requirement and a career-enhancing skill in a remarkably short time. Until recently, terms like ‘execution-focused’ and ‘outcome-driven’ featured high on the ambitious manager’s Curriculum Vita. Today, ‘proven collaborative skills’ is the attribute the savvy candidate is apt to highlight in the quest for a top job.

At the same time, executive coaches find senior managers increasingly seek guidance on how to foster a more collaborative culture or adapt to one.

What’s going on?

Follow the money and the reasons for the collaboration focus become clear.

Turning ideas into value through workplace collaboration is a core competence at successful 21st century companies. This model helped Apple drive earnings per employee to $419 528 in 2011. The figure at Google is $335 297 per head.

Substantial corporate gains were also spotlighted by a meta-analysis at Gallup Research Centre.

Researchers scrutinised 199 studies across 26 countries, 44 industries and 152 organisations. They found high employee engagement via collaboration and greater connectedness drove up profitability by 16% while productivity rose 18%. Quality rocketed by 60% and customer loyalty moved 12% higher.

It’s no accident that technology companies are among the first beneficiaries as they are close to collaborative communication tools like social media and collaborative software (groupware).

In the private sphere, LinkedIn, FaceBook and Twitter build personal networks, tap new input from friends and foster the evolution of ideas and projects. In the business world, collaborative platforms and practices can help companies achieve similar benefits.

Essentially, business collaboration is a cooperative arrangement enabling several parties to achieve common objectives. Collaboration can be limited to specific projects or extended into multiple spheres.

It can entail cooperation with outside parties (external collaboration) or collaboration within an organisation (cross-sectional collaboration) when people from different units or disciplines work in tandem, often by adopting e-tools.

Collaboration involves more than just team work. Forums or mechanisms for idea-sharing usually have to be created.

Consensus-building across groups becomes important in the formulation of plans that then develop strong momentum on the back of organisation-wide buy-in.

Fundamental changes in the relationship between leaders and employees may occur. Management styles are often affected and a major cultural shift may be necessary.

Departmental responsibilities may expand or require redefinition. Human Resource departments may have to take on new roles and introduce new forms of training and performance measurement.

Closer Human Resource and Information Technology cooperation is usually called for as well.

All the literature on this new approach to running a business makes the same point: collaboration is not for everyone.

So how can the currently non-collaborative company tell if it needs collaboration?

As a rule of thumb, if you answer ‘Yes’ to the following questions you should at least consider a move toward greater collaboration.

Is your business slow to bring innovations to market and is regularly upstaged by more nimble competitors? Are you sometimes aggrieved to find that good ideas have ‘slipped through cracks in the desk’ or have languished in ‘File 13’ for months before coming to your attention? Does productivity lag industry benchmarks or world norms despite persistent efforts at improvement?

If you nodded to all three, you have to mull over some important additional questions.

What improvements might be achieved by creating a collaborative workplace? Is there a compelling business case for such a shift?

How much collaboration might you need? Will it be project-specific or organisation wide?

What investments in e-tools are needed?

What employment and recruitment practices need to change to bring on board talented people who will thrive in a collaborative environment?

What obstacles to collaboration are there? Some top performers might be collaboration-resistant. Some specialists and mavericks don’t work well in groups.

Are you prepared for collaboration’s dark side?

Often, collaboration adds to the workload. Time spent collaborating with colleagues may have to be made up by putting in extra time on an individual’s core job.

Instant accessibility via email, SMS, cellphones and other mechanisms can upset work-life balance. Consulting colleagues and bouncing ideas off your peers can eat up your working day, evenings and weekends.

What about collaboration overkill?

Engagement and consensus-seeking can lead to long discussions, meetings and follow-up meetings. At its worst, collaboration deteriorates into a perpetual indaba.

How will you cope if frustration sets in and important contributors complain that collaboration means all talk and no action?

Many South African companies have already weighed the pros and cons and are ready to adopt the new model.

Some directors and senior executives have developed a consensus of their own. They increasingly acknowledge that collaborative leadership is the wave of the future and they are joining their organisations in a great collaborative leap forward.

Did they jump or were they pushed? It won’t much matter if they secure anything like the leap in profits and productivity that has been recorded by high-flying collaborative companies worldwide.