The value of collaboration

How organisations collaborate was recently identified as a major driver of business performance. John Gundry argues that HR can lead in making collaboration, particularly e-collaboration, a value-generating organisational capability

How much organisations collaborate was recently identified as a major driver of business performance. John Gundry argues that HR can lead in making collaboration, particularly e-collaboration, a value-generating organisational capability

A survey published in June this year, sponsored by Verizon Business and Microsoft, identified the impact of collaboration on company performance. Written by consulting firm Frost and Sullivan and titled Meetings Around the World: The Impact of Collaboration on Business Performance, the survey took in 950 information technology (IT) and business decision-makers in companies in the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific with more than $6.5 million each in annual revenue. Response data were analysed to calculate the extent and components of collaboration and relate this to business performance and process.

The survey found collaboration in these companies accounted for 36 per cent of their overall business performance. Collaboration had over twice as much impact as the nearest other factor (how aggressively the company pursued its markets).

Furthermore, profitability, profit growth and sales growth were the performance indices most strongly impacted by collaboration. The three operational areas that were most strongly impacted by collaboration were customer satisfaction, productivity and product quality. For these it was by far the strongest influence.

This survey takes the wraps off collaboration as a source of business advantage. We might always have expected this, especially over the past decade with the increasing emphasis on teaming and enterprise-wide information sharing, which have their roots in collaboration.

But now these findings confirm that those who collaborate best, perform best. The relevance for HR is that when we examine the enablers of collaboration we find that most lie within HR’s remit. There is a great opportunity for HR to drive collaboration to build business value.

The collaboration that counts is e-collaboration

Before we look at the enablers of collaboration we need to identify its scope. It’s obvious that the collaboration measured in the survey – the collaboration that is driving business performance – isn’t occurring only between people sitting in the same office. This is collaboration across cities, countries and continents. This is confirmed by the survey finding that for two-thirds of the sample, collaboration involved people from different locations, and that a driver of collaboration was the use of collaboration tools. Thus, the collaboration that counts is electronic collaboration.

However, e-collaboration is different to face to face collaboration. Many of the factors that sustain collaboration are missing when one is remote. They include personal knowledge of one’s collaborators, clarity of coordination, and knowing how one’s work is being used and how it will affect one’s reward and advancement.

What virtual teaming tells us about enablers of e-collaboration

The good news is that we have a decade’s worth of best practice, experience and theory on e-collaboration. The technical term for the practice and this body of knowledge is virtual teaming. The term emerged in the mid-1990’s to describe people collaborating at a distance, using collaboration tools, and today it has a number of synonyms such as remote teaming, distance teaming, geographically-dispersed teaming and online collaboration. Virtual teaming gives us a racing start in understanding the enablers of e-collaboration.

A culture of openness

The Meetings Around the World survey found that collaboration was highly dependent on a culture of openness, which made a 36 per cent contribution. The survey’s descriptors of a culture of openness were “the ease of talking to anyone within the organisation, the regularity of cooperation between units within the organisation, and the accessibility of persons to those in other departments”.

There is more we can say here about a culture of openness. Such a culture is critical for today’s knowledge-based and agile enterprises. Although the enablers of such a culture are still being identified, four factors at least are important.

• Are the vision and goals of the organisation compelling and attract commitment? Does one love the company sufficiently to contribute everything one can, possibly irrespective of any obviously direct reward? We know quite a lot about team spirit; organisational spirit is similar, on a grander scale.

• Individuals’ perception of whether sharing their knowledge and expertise with others is a source of personal risk (for example, whether someone else might use that knowledge for benefit without attribution). This is dependent on the level of trust ascribed to (or learned about) others in the organisation and the strength of mutual social bonds.

• Visible, pervasive and rigorously cascaded organisational goals that allow everyone to understand how their contribution makes a difference.

• The example set by senior officers; turf wars are contrary to cross-enterprise collaboration and send a strong negative signal.

Organisational design and process that make it easy to collaborate

The survey states that collaboration was dependent on a decentralised management structure (16 per cent impact). However, a decentralised structure would necessarily demand greater collaboration, so it is not clear whether this is cause or effect. Nonetheless, decentralisation is a hallmark of enterprises that value collaboration.

Collaboration is aided by having only a few levels of hierarchy so that managers operate over a wide span with many reports. Then, cross-organisational collaborations fall within the remit of fewer managers, and the potential for competition is reduced.

Another factor enabling cross-organisational collaboration is whether it happens easily. Three practical steps are required which HR can lead. First, compiling an organisation-wide capability directory so that people with particular skills and knowledge can be identified wherever they are. Second, making it easy for a contributor’s effort to be booked to multiple and geographically and organisationally distant cost centres. Third, having an ombudsman function that managers can use to decide on the allocation of resources over which they are in competition.

Together these are the basis of a knowledge marketplace.

An equitable and aligned reward system

People need to feel that a knowledge marketplace is not only fulfilling the organisation’s goals, it is fulfilling theirs. They need to feel that their reward from collaborating on (possibly multiple) teams and projects, which may be run from the other side of the world, is equitable and aligned with their contribution.

For HR, this implies a reward system based on relative geography and or multiple performance reviews, taking input from all the parts of the organisation to which someone has contributed. Such a reward system should reward collaborative, teaming behaviour rather than competitive behaviour. For consideration, it should also include rewards based on the performance of the organisation as a whole.

Finally, systems need to be in place to ensure the careers of remote collaborators are not disadvantaged in comparison to those who are local. E-collaborators often suffer from lack of visibility: for them, out of sight is truly out of mind.

Training in virtual teaming

Virtual teaming, or e-collaboration, is sufficiently different to its face to face counterpart that specialist training is required. Manager behaviour that most usually needs to be remedied includes not re-designing communication and collaboration processes, failing to be inclusive of distant contributors, and not attending to trust, social bonds and team spirit at a distance.

Remote collaborators themselves need new skills and mind-sets to work comfortably and effectively with people who they may never see face to face.

Standardised collaboration tools

When collaborating at a distance, our tools of face to face collaboration are taken away. What should replace them? The survey found that the extent of collaboration was dependent (again, a 16 per cent impact) on using collaboration tools to accomplish the organisation’s work.

The most appropriate technology solution for e-collaboration appears to be a small and stable suite of both same-time and anytime tools. Their role is to provide shared spaces for project, team, community and organisation-wide collaboration.

It is important that this suite of tools be available and standardised across the organisation. Such a standard, common denominator group of tools allows people to collaborate in shared spaces not only irrespective of where they are but also irrespective of the organisational unit they belong to.

An issue that many organisations are grappling with is how to provide a standard range of collaboration tools to partners and associates outside the organisation so that they can, when required, work together with internal staff.

While the tools themselves would be implemented by IT departments, HR can be involved in establishing requirements and driving their adoption, especially in a change management role.

E-collaboration as an organisational capability

The argument here is that e-collaboration - the reality of collaboration at a distance in today's enterprises - is too important to be dealt with in point solutions by managers who find they need resources outside the line of sight. The Meetings Around the World findings challenge organisations to build e-collaboration as an organisational capability.

There will and should be many stakeholders in building this capability. But the nature of the factors at the root of enabling e-collaboration - culture, OD, capability directories, reward systems, training and change management - give HR the opportunity to play a pivotal if not driving role.

Dr John Gundry is director of UK-based virtual teaming and remote working consultancy Knowledge Ability. He is co-chair of the Going Virtual conference (www.goingvirtual.com.au) to be held in Melbourne in October this year.

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