posted 19 Dec 2008 in Volume 12 Issue 4
Masterclass Part 1
The spectrum of collaboration
Three well-known collaboration experts begin a series of three masterclasses with key points supported by real stories.
By Shawn Callahan, Mark Schenk and Nancy White
Today we face an entirely new environment for innovation and getting things done. The days of the lone genius quietly toiling away in pursuit of that ‘
We are now in the days of asking and listening to our customers and working with them in our innovation cycles. Innovation demands collaboration. So does production. In the past we could focus on a single task in an assembly-line fashion, handing our completed activity to the next person who would in turn do the same, until the job was finished. Now the jobs change fast, requiring learning new skills rather than merely repeating the old. We have to seek out people who have other pieces of the puzzle and work with them to tackle increasingly complex issues at a much faster pace.
Today we all need to be collaboration superstars. The trouble is, collaboration is a skill and set of practices we are rarely taught. It’s something we learn on the job in hit-or-miss fashion. Some people are naturals at it, but most of us are clueless.
Our challenge doesn’t stop there. An organisation’s ability to support collaboration is highly dependent on its own organisational culture. Some cultures foster collaboration while others stop it dead in its tracks.
To make matters worse, technology providers have convinced many organisations that they simply need to purchase collaboration software to foster collaboration. There are many large organisations that have bought enterprise licences for products like IBM’s Collaboration Suite or Microsoft’s Solutions for Collaboration which are not getting good value for the money, simply because people don’t know how to collaborate effectively, don’t know how to use the software, or because their culture works against collaboration.
Of course, technology plays an important role in effective collaboration. We are not anti-technology. Rather we want to help redress the balance and shift the emphasis from merely thinking about collaboration technology to thinking about collaboration skills, practices, technology and supporting culture. Technology makes things possible; people collaborating makes it happen.
This is the first of three articles on collaboration. In part one, we start by exploring what we mean by collaboration and why organisations and individuals should build their collaboration capability. In parts two and three we explore the role leadership and culture plays in creating a collaborative workplace and we include a simple test of your current collaboration capability to get you thinking about what might need to be done. We finish with a series of steps for developing a collaboration capability.
What is collaboration?
Think back to a meeting when you had a handful of people gathered around a whiteboard. In your recall one person is drawing and talking, explaining what she means. In mid-flight, a colleague grabs another pen and adds to the drawing, suggesting another perspective. A new train of thought emerges. Everyone pitches in and the conversation is electric with ideas, and with each word progress is made towards their common objective.
How about when you had a thorny problem at work and remembered someone from your professional association who had talked about a similar problem? You decide to go to the monthly meeting and seek advice and come back charged up with fresh new ideas from others in the community.
Today, we can cast our collaboration net even wider by putting a query online and get answers back from people we don’t even know. And they can be good answers. Just look at the network of programmers contributing to Open Source programmes, or the wealth of knowledge poured into Wikipedia. We can forge new alliances beyond the walls of our own organisations.
Collaboration is a process through which people who see different aspects of a task, goal or problem can constructively explore their differences and perspectives to jointly search for solutions that go beyond their own limited vision of what is possible. The best collaborations happen when people volunteer to work with one or more peers to create something they care about. It’s impossible to force anyone to truly collaborate.
Today it’s more than groups of people working together as teams and communities. Collaboration generates new ideas and new solutions that emerge from the interplay of these perspectives, experience and knowledge that help us get work done, coming from people both inside and outside an organisation, well-known and, yes, even strangers. Collaboration can be a form of learning. We can have long-lasting collaboration – or short-term, formal or ad hoc.
Three types of collaboration
Traditional models of collaboration tended to focus on teams and formal, structured collaboration. Formal teams, for example, often had their collaboration structured around job functions and reporting structures. We have more options now. Here we explore three types of collaboration and how we might approach them as an organisation.
In team collaboration, the members of the group are known, there are clear task interdependencies, expected reciprocity, and explicit time-lines and goals. To achieve the goal, members must fulfil their interdependent tasks within the stated time. Team collaboration often suggests that, while there is explicit leadership, the participants expect some explicit recognition commensurate with their contribution. There is that ‘quid pro quo’. An example is a six-member team working together to develop a new marketing strategy in a month with a defined set of resources. Team collaborations can also occur with external partners, but there is always a clear mandate and defined roles.
In community collaboration, there is a shared domain or area of interest, but the goal may be focused on learning rather than on task. People share and build knowledge rather than complete projects. Members may go to their communities to help solve their problems by asking questions and getting advice, then taking that advice back home to implement in their teams.
Membership may be bounded and explicit, but time periods are often open or ongoing. Membership is often on equal footing, but more experienced practitioners may have more status or power in the community. Reciprocity is within the group, but not always one to one (“I did this for you, now you do this for me”). An example might be a community of practice that is interested in the type of marketing mentioned in the team example above. A member of that team may come to her community and ask for examples of past projects.
Community collaborations may also give rise to more formalised team collaborations. As people get to know each other, they can identify good fits for team members and draw new talent into their teams. Team projects may emerge and be fully contained within the community, and then the teams disband back into the community when the project is done.
Network collaboration steps beyond the relationship-centric nature of team and community collaboration. It is collaboration that starts with individual action and self-interest, which then accrues to the network as individuals contribute or seek something from the network. Membership and time-lines are open and unbounded. There are few or no explicit roles. Members most likely do not know all the other members. Power is distributed.
This form of collaboration is driven by the advent of social media (tools that help us connect and interact online), ubiquitous internet connectivity and the ability to connect with diverse individuals across distance and time. It is a response to the overwhelming volume of information we are creating. It’s impossible for an individual to cope on his or her own. So networks become mechanisms for knowledge and information capture, filtering and creation.
An example of network collaboration might be members of the team in the first example above bookmarking websites as they find them, using a shared or ‘social bookmarking’ tool. This benefits their team, and possibly their related communities of practice if they are also sharing bookmarks. But it also benefits the wider network of people interested in the topic. At the same time, team members may find other bookmarks left by network members relevant to their teamwork. This sort of network activity benefits the individual and a network of people reciprocally over time. The reciprocity connection is remote and undefined. You act in self-interest but provide a network-wide benefit.
Collaboration success factors
Our experience tells us of certain factors for success in all three types of collaboration. That said we have also been surprised in cases where success factors were missing or even operated counter to our expectations, yet the collaboration was successful.
So we offer these lists in the spirit of those things we believe are important, but they are neither definitive nor comprehensive. Our purpose is to provide an understanding of the type of culture required to support collaboration.
Common purpose or goal;
An outcome that is valued;
Pressure to deliver (a due date);
Complex problems or opportunities that a single person could not resolve on their own;
Some minimum, simple and explicit process for getting things done (no ESP required);
Clearly defined roles;
An appreciation of the skills and abilities of fellow team mates;
Enough resources to do the job but not so many that the team loses its resourcefulness;
Knowledge of each other’s work, communication and learning styles;
Regular social activities to build trust amongst team members.
A topic that members care about to a point where their identity is wrapped up in that topic;
A community coordinator or leader who can orchestrate activities, introductions and opportunities for learning;
Regular social activities to build trust and new social connections among team members;
Opportunities to practise and gain experience, or vicariously gain experience by hearing the stories of other practitioners;
Regular meetings to help establish the community’s rhythm;
A core group of community members that cares about the group and provide direction and enthusiasm for its activities;
Appreciation for the periphery, which may be silent but is learning and carrying community learnings out to the world;
Leaders who see value in the community and at best encourage their staff to participate and at worst don’t discourage community participation;
Strong executive sponsorship providing legitimacy, resources and a helping hand when things get political;
A handful of members who are connectors, helping people find each other in the community;
Members who belong to related communities, who bring in and take out ideas and information (pollinators and connectors).
A topic that attracts attention and is of interest to individuals;
A place to connect content: technology to store and retrieve information of interest which makes it immediately findable to everyone in the network;
An appreciation of how effective use of social technology, such as bookmarking, will save time and assist team and community collaborations;
Having diverse skills in the organisation – scanners, filterers, connectors –who help make sense of information and connections from the network and bring them back into the flow of organisational work. Not everyone has to do this, but enough people need to;
A tolerance for a high volume of information – knowing that you can catch what you need from the flow, but you can’t drink the entire river;
Ability to see connections across diverse signals and bits of information;
Connections between teams, communities and their larger networks as sources of new ideas and members.
There is not always a nice clean line between team, community and network collaboration. What is important is to recognise that collaborative needs in an organisation may draw upon more than one type of collaboration, and organisations can create and nurture the conditions for all three, depending on their needs and contexts.
In part two of this series, we’ll explore a bit more how we create and nurture these conditions.
Nancy was working with three other people to develop an online knowledge-sharing workshop. The team members were all in different parts of the world. The group identified the needed tasks using a VoIP tool synchronously, split them up and created the workshop design using online collaboration tools, mostly working asynchronously. Then again identified what tasks were needed to facilitate the workshop, split them up and ran the workshop, touching base to coordinate and adjust roles and tasks as needed.
Rio Tinto’s Bengalla mining operation is located in the Hunter Valley in Australia. One of the operation’s fleet of bulldozers had an intermittent problem with the brakes failing. This was a serious safety issue and months of effort were expended trying to resolve the issue, without success. The mine superintendent was on the verge of removing this multi-million dollar machine from operations when he decided to look more widely for a solution.
On 18 January 2007 he posted a message to Rio Tinto’s collaborative forum, outlining the situation and seeking assistance. The following day, an engineer in
When Hurricane Gustav threatened
He set up a site on Ning.com, cloned the information rich wiki created during Katrina and sent out an alert on the social network messaging service, Twitter.
Within a day more than 500 people had volunteered and were picking up tasks, gathering data and creating a resource for the evacuation process around the hurricane. Some of the people knew each other from previous mobilisations. Some brought in their friends – creating a viral ‘friends of friends’ recruiting effort. After hurricane Gustav, they re-purposed the site to prepare for the subsequent storms that were heading towards the
As they went, they were also capturing lessons learnt, which in turn attracted the interest of academics studying the use of social media in disaster relief. All told, the network organised, responded and learned, with very little time spent creating a cohesive group.2
Shawn Callahan is founding director, Anecdote. Website http://www.anecdote.com, e-mail email@example.com; Mark Schenk is director, Anecdote, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org; Nancy White is founder, Full Circle Associates. Website http://www.fullcirc.com; e-mail email@example.com.