posted 7 May 2009 in Volume 12 Issue 6
Masterclass Part III: Strengthening the collaborative culture
In parts one and two of this series, we described the three contexts of collaboration and talked about the role of leadership and culture in collaborative processes. In this final article we offer some specific tactics for strengthening a collaborative culture. By Shawn Callahan, Mark Schenk and Nancy White.
Today’s organisations can consider not only how to support traditional team-based collaboration, but can also adopt community and network collaboration where it serves their needs. Many of the things you can do can echo across all three types of collaboration, while some are unique to one type. Here are some possibilities.
1. Foster collaboration leadership and support
Creating a ‘point of gravity’ with a person
Establishing a collaboration capability requires someone to foster its development. People would think you were crazy if you suggested that an organisation establish a sales capability without sales people, or a human resources (HR) capability without an HR team. Yet we have seen many examples of organisations seeking to enhance their collaboration capability without identifying, resourcing or simply supporting the people responsible for developing and nurturing it. Wishful thinking is not enough.
In some cases, this might be thinking of an explicit role of collaboration coordinator, where there are high stakes and strong interdependencies in an organisation. This is particularly important if you are working towards cross-team collaboration. Team leaders are usually taking on the ‘collaboration coordinator’ role, but it is much fuzzier when your scope is wider. In less formal community of practice (CoP) situations, it may simply be providing support and resources to volunteer community leaders. For networks, it may mean freeing up time for people who are good at connecting others or at finding, filtering and curating resources to share across the network.
In reality, supporting the role of a collaboration coordinator or similar function is an ‘extra task’. For people who are already good collaborators this can have unintended negative consequences, such as sending the message that the reward for being a good collaborator is getting more work to do. Therefore time and resources must be allocated to the role, even if you start small. In fact, Peter Block is fond of saying that the projects that best succeed are the ones that are “slow, small and underfunded1.” We reinterpret this to mean, ‘think in small steps, iterate and grow as you learn’.
The role of the collaboration coordinator (evangelist, community leader, team manager, specialist – the title doesn’t really matter, just don’t make them the ‘chief collaboration officer’) could include:
Sleuthing out opportunities in the organisation or network, where better collaboration would make a difference to the quality of products and services, the speed of delivering these products and services to clients, and the ability to use a diversity of ideas and approaches to ferret out good collaboration practices and tools. This requires time and access to see across the various parts of an organisation or network;
Connecting people and ideas so that new collaborations can flourish. This applies at all levels larger than small teams. It can be connecting internally or with external people and resources;
Helping people to learn and adopt collaboration practices and tools. The ‘tinkerers’ and early adopters are good in this role, especially if given the opportunity to offer ‘over the shoulder’ learning to peers;
Collecting stories of how collaboration really works, especially for the times you need to justify the role. This may mean verbally, in writing, or even in audio or video-casts, which can be easily shared;
Keeping up-to-date with the field of collaboration. Send your key collaborators to one or two good learning opportunities or conferences. Encourage them to belong to wider CoPs and provide some time for keeping up with the field. There are rich blog resources just a click away.
Here is an example of how collaboration coordinators need to be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to connect people, create learning opportunities and to demonstrate collaborative practices.
In 2008, Mark was involved in a project to improve collaboration between 17 government agencies that were using SAP. During consultation, one of the agencies stated that while they could see some potential benefits in working more collaboratively, they thought it would be a drain on their resources: ‘We will be far too busy in the next six months implementing an upgrade to the new software version to be involved in this collaboration activity’.
Rather than try to convince them of the value, Mark simply asked them if it would be useful if he got together a few agencies that had already completed the upgrade process to share their experiences and any application developments that might help. The agency loved the idea and a ‘peer assist’ process was initiated.
Build a group of collaboration supporters
The collaboration coordinator can’t do this job alone, so they should gather a group of supporters to help. Here is how the US Defense Intelligence Agency2 did it.
The change mechanism needed to exist outside the line management, because the current culture would thwart innovation, but at the same time the project needed sponsorship;
A focus on practice and making a difference to the people doing the real work; and
Working in a climate of limited funds.
Its solution was network-based. Each of the 27 divisions nominated a person to join a cooperative (called the Knowledge Lab), which would champion knowledge-based change. The Knowledge Lab leader interviewed each nominee, then the successful candidates identified five to ten peers in their division to support them. This created a network of 119 change agents. The Knowledge Lab conducted a social-network analysis with its members to find out the connectors, bridges and peripherals in DIA’s 8000-strong workforce. The Knowledge Lab is conducting a series of pilot projects, and has seen some remarkable changes and the formation of new social networks.
Collaboration supporters are your best option for tapping into the full power of both team, community and network collaboration. Supporters can tap their diverse set of skills and talents. So pay attention to what each person can bring and channel them into the area where they can best make a difference – for example:
People with strong project-management and strategic skills can be supporters of team processes and thus team collaboration. These are the people who like to focus on one thing at a time and support progress towards a defined goal. They are organised and goal-oriented;
People who are curious and want to build their personal knowledge and identity in their fields are often interested in community participation as a way to attain these goals. People who are good ‘people connectors’ can also bring tremendous assets to both community and network collaboration;
People who are curious, global thinkers, who can scan and connect people and ideas, are great network collaborators. They are often the ‘bridgers’ who bring ideas into the community or team from the network and carry out ideas to test and evaluate. They don’t seem to be fazed by the flow and volume of network information3.
Recruit and promote collaborative people
We used to recruit people based on their university degrees and years of experience in a specific field. Now, in the days of rapidly shifting work and knowledge, we need to recruit learners and collaborators. Everyone keeps an eye on who leaders promote – it’s a clear indication of what is really valued around here. If you want a collaborative culture you need to promote collaborators.
The sci-fi author William Gibson once wrote: “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”. This aphorism holds true for people collaborating in your organisation. There are already people doing it well, they are just scattered and sometimes hard to see. All you have to do is find them, tell their story and most importantly, understand the behaviours that make them effective collaborators. What sets them apart from the rest of the organisation? What are the vital behaviours? The authors of Influencer suggest two vital behaviours for team collaboration4:
Whenever anyone has a concern, he or she speaks up and explains the concern in a complete, frank, and respectful way;
Everyone holds everyone accountable for meeting expectations, for commitments, and for bad behaviour – regardless of role or position.
By finding these people, understanding the vital behaviours in play and then developing initiatives to encourage those behaviours throughout the organisation, you are creating the conditions for better collaboration to emerge.
2. Communicate the fruits of collaboration
When the fruits of collaboration are made visible, it is easier for people to see collaboration is valued and to pick up practices for their own work. Don’t hide the good stuff.
Initiate communication with leaders
Be proactive! Don’t wait for the boss to ask for documentation of collaboration success, especially if they have invested in collaboration. Coordinators should start by telling success stories to senior leaders, then back these up with reasoning and data. Use the context of a story to engage. Leading with data and reasoning reinforces current ideas about the utility of collaboration, which is fine if those ideas are positive. But if you need to convince people of the value of collaboration, starting with the stories reduces the impact of our human tendency to look for any reason to confirm our current opinion, negative or positive (known as the ‘confirmation bias’).
Share the mistakes too. Don’t forget that learning also comes through those things we dread to voice – failures. Use failures to learn, and show how changes made in the system can mean improvements going forward. Collaboration that fears failure will never fully function, as failure will always be a part of the system.
Go beyond the leadership
Collaboration should involve your whole organisational system. Staff may or may not perceive the value of collaboration, or understand how it works. So share the stories of success and learning from failures with the wider community, as recognition of their work and to reinforce that this is not just important to the bosses.
Celebrate both the people who have collaborated and the fruits of their work. Raise the visibility of collaborative leaders and followers. Be careful, however, about explicit rewards for collaboration, because this can backfire and collaboration will be done only for the reward, rather than being driven by the motivation to deliver value, having pride in doing good work, and the joy of working with others to create what was impossible for any single individual5.
3. Implement collaboration tools
New tools can help support all three types of collaboration. The key here is to identify what collaboration activities you want to support, and then match the tools to them. Be careful to start simply and not go overboard. Bells and whistles look nice, but they can also be off-putting, especially to busy people who are not technology fans in the first place. Here are the basic technologies that might be useful for collaboration, but which will be doubly important for people who are geographically dispersed. Something that is becoming the rule, rather than the exception, these days:
Telephone and conference-call capability, including call recording, can support teams and communities to focus work and make decisions;
E-mail and relevant e-mail distribution lists are good for information dissemination, though be cautious about volume and make sure content is relevant to the recipient for any kind of collaboration;
A place to share electronic documents;
Ways to share ideas and create content together – for example, shared document editing, blogs and wikis;
People directory with photos of your collaborators at the team and community levels;
Instant messaging to see when someone is available for a chat (presence) or to ask a quick question;
Directory of relevant networks;
Social bookmarking to share internet treasures;
Tools to aggregate content from the ‘outside world’, such as RSS readers.
Many of the above features have been combined in commercial and open-source collaboration software tools. They often also include features like group calendar, discussion threads, and photo and video sharing.
In terms of network collaboration, many people in organisations are unaware of how network collaboration tools work or understand their value. The starting point is to make these tools available and help people to use them. Start with social bookmarking and show early adopters some tools like Delicious (http://www.delicious.com ), which enables people to bookmark and tag web pages. Unlike individual bookmarks or ‘favourites’, anyone can see everyone else’s bookmarks. Here are Shawn’s and Nancy’s bookmarks: http://www.delicious.com/unorder and http://www.delicious.com/choconancy. The real value is in the ‘tag’ associated with each bookmarked page – the word or label that indicates what that web page is about, and a way of finding it again. Encourage people to perform a search on Delicious for a tag they want to track. Shawn tracks the tag ‘storytelling.’ The search results list has its own RSS feed to which you can subscribe with your ‘RSS aggregator’, such as Google Reader. This means that whenever someone tags a web page with your tag of interest (such as ‘storytelling’), you are immediately notified.
The benefits for finding collaborators using this approach are substantial. Whether it is inside or outside the firewall, tagging web pages is a discovery practice that not only helps you find interesting information but helps you find interesting people.
4. Start and nurture CoPs
“Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis.”6.
Developing CoPs is an organic activity. You never quite know what is going to happen or whether it will succeed entirely. This is why a big bang approach is a mistake. To herald to your entire organisation that you are going to develop a CoP on ‘topic X’ is likely to cause pain if the initiative fails to gain sufficient support. We have seen this happen, and it is even more common when the organisation has just invested in community technology that has forums functionality – ‘We must get CoPs going so that people are using this forum functionality’.
We recommend you take a more gentle approach:
Identify some people with common interests in a domain that is important to the business;
Meet with each person separately and ask them about the things that interest, challenge, excite or intrigue them. Common items of interest invariably emerge;
Report to your potential community members that they have some interesting things in common and offer to organise a meeting so they can discuss them;
At the meeting, suggest they might meet regularly to enhance their learning around this important topic.
Once the group starts to develop a rhythm (meeting regularly), suggest they think of small tasks to work on together that might improve their practice. Only when the group members say things such as, ‘How are we going to share these documents?’ or, ‘Can we discuss this online?’, do you investigate technology support. Some groups will get to this point faster than others will, and it does not matter one bit.
Keep a look out for indicators that suggest your community is making progress. But whatever you do, don’t let management turn these indicators into targets. You don’t want a situation where management, for example, is mandating that the community posts X number of messages or has Y number of people attend the community meetings. Indicators are useful. Turning them into targets creates perverse behaviour.
Testing the likely adoption
Before you start on the journey of creating a new CoP, we recommend you conduct the following simple test. When someone says ‘I would like to start a CoP’, simply ask, ‘Can you describe the potential members by completing the following sentence – I am a ...?’. If they can fill in the blank with a word or phrase that people can passionately identify with, there is a chance a community might emerge. Here is an example. Shawn was helping the Department of Defense design a CoP for project managers. He asked the sponsor to complete the test sentence and the answer was, ‘I am a project manager’. It was a strong descriptor, so we knew we had a chance of establishing a CoP. During the design process, the client had another job type for which they wanted a community. The job type was called ‘technical’. ‘I am a technical’ failed the test and we knew it didn’t have a chance.
Be aware that people are not necessarily passionate about what they say they are interested in. In late 2008 we asked a group of SAP users what they thought their domains might be. The results were pretty consistent. They wanted domains such as accounts payable, maintenance management, HR and the like – these are all ‘modules’ within SAP. When we asked people to sign up for these domains they changed their minds. The things they were passionate about were much different. Some people were interested in very specific pieces of functionality. Others were passionate about much broader issues such as the process and change-management challenges around SAP implementations (rather than the application itself). So, the lesson is that adoption is intimately liked to people’s passion and interests.
Your own success stories
Our aim with this series was to provide a way of thinking about collaboration, combined with practical steps that could be implemented to help build an even more collaborative workplace. If, as a reader, these articles helped you realised that getting people to be collaborative is less about the technologies available and more about the collaborative behaviours that exist and are encouraged, then we have succeeded. The specific interventions you put in place will be different for each organisation and hopefully the suggestions we’ve made have triggered thoughts on what is possible and a desire to find out what else needs to be understood and delivered to make collaboration happen in your organisation. As you can tell we are a big believer in the power of stories and we would welcome any experiences you would like to share about your own collaboration journey.
Block, P. (2008). Community: The Structure of Belonging. San Francisco, Berrett-Kohler.
Anklam, P. and A. Wolfberg (2006). „Creating Networks at the Defense Intelligence Agency.“ KM Review 9(1).
E. Mendizabal (2006) “Understanding Networks: The Functions of Research Policy Networks,” Overseas Development Institute.
Patterson, K., J. Grenny, et al. (2008). Influencer: The Power To Change Anything. New York, McGraw Hill.
Kohn, A. (1993). Punished by rewards: the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes. Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Wenger, E., R. McDermott, et al. (2002). Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge. Boston, Harvard Business School Press.
Shawn Callahan is the founding director of Anecdote. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Mark Schenk is director at Anedote. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Nancy White is the founder of Full Circle Associates. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org