Collaboration: Are we actually achieving it?

Common definitions for Collaboration are:  To work with others to complete a task and to achieve shared goals; to cooperate with others with which one is not immediately connected (taken from Wikipedia).

These definitions are pretty basic.  Experience, however, has taught me that collaboration is a complex concept within most organizations. 

Whether the topic arises during informal conversations, or as part of a formal performance measurement discussion, what exactly does collaboration mean?  Is it a noun or a verb; an outcome or an activity; how do we measure it and how exactly will we know when we have achieved it?

In response, many organizations have established horizontal management teams, and/or other committees, in order to forge cross-organizational relationships and provide the platforms required for collaboration.  Platforms have definitely been achieved, however have people really leveraged the platforms to cooperate more effectively?

Based on the definitions above, completing tasks and achieving goals is one thing.  We could measure the number of meetings held, the amount of information / documents that flowed back and forth, and even the number of changes made to documents but would this really tell us about the levels of collaboration achieved?  Perhaps for some, but for others collaboration is more about ‘how’ effectively the exchanges took place, and ‘how’ well their input was received and integrated into the tasks and goals.

For these organizations, they must first embrace some principles that will set the right tone and define the right behaviours required to foster collaboration.

Organizations could benefit from the adoption of the following guiding principles, provided as examples:

  • Team-oriented:  We believe in the value of teamwork.  We listen to the ideas of others and encourage an open dialogue.  We will not accept behaviours that isolate or divide people and teams.  We will respect the diversity of different opinions at all times.
  • Momentum-builders:  We will actively support and build upon new ideas.  We will encourage careful consideration of new ideas at all times.  We will positively contribute to the achievement of our organizational goals and objectives.
  • Communicators:  We will maintain an environment that promotes constructive and effective communication. We will practice active listening and questioning techniques.  We will recognize and reward exceptional efforts and achievements.
  • Innovators:  We will accept the diversity of tasks and the extensive talent of the resources assigned to those tasks.  We will recognize that some tasks rely on innovation, while others rely on repetition.  We will leverage people’s strengths and practice effective delegation techniques.

Specifically for those organizations moving through massive change and transformation, here’s another one, provided as an example:

  • Future-focused:  We will accept that the past/present is not necessarily the basis for the future.  We will take forward our expertise, but not necessarily our practices.  We will learn to apply our expertise differently and find new ways of doing our work.

Collaboration is definitely a term that must be defined by each organization according to the unique views of its leaders and organizational culture.  I believe it must be discussed, debated, defined, and ultimately integrated into an organization’s performance measurement framework.  I also believe that there is much more to achieving collaboration than simply arriving at an administrative definition for measurement purposes.

Adopting the right guiding principles is a necessary first step to enable organizations to achieve collaboration.  As behaviours change and begin to align with the principles, organizations will reap the many benefits afforded those organization which operate within the true spirit of collaboration. 


Kathy Roy has implemented business transformation and change management projects in complex organizations for over two decades. She has worked with major companies, both public and private, and with numerous business sectors in both Canada and the United States. She is part of Systemscope's Strategic Business Consulting practice.


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