When does collaboration work best?

Any business seriously attracted to the idea of collaboration in its workplace inevitably reaches a point where it has to answer some very hard questions; the most obvious being how they intend to make collaboration work.

ford 1It’s all well and good to think that if staff are invited to collaborate they automatically will. Good intentions aside, the simple fact is that every organisation already has an existing culture of people ‘working together’. Seeking to capitalise on collaboration is likely to confuse employees as they would logically ask themselves and their managers; are we not already collaborating? Think about it, no workplace exists without some degree of collaboration already in place. But this is likely to be more about ‘co-operative’ and compliant behaviour, than true collaboration.

In ‘advanced’ collaboration, employees will understand that they need to step out of their comfort zone and start to act more entrepreneurially. For instance, they may need to demonstrate a willingness to share more than what is deemed just necessary. They may reach out to colleagues and seek ways to add value beyond the required norm. However, this type of workplace behaviour comes with risk, thus the entrepreneurial aspect of collaboration.

The key to making the best of good intentions is to provide guidance to employees in a strategic way. A competent manager would need to understand what can be expected from staff who are engaged in collaboration. For instance, if you have a group that is close-knit and well informed about each other’s work and so on, then collaboration will not yield extra value in terms of making them innovative or creative. They have already established that. Their capacity to be innovative has most likely reached its optimum. The family-like structure of the team that operates in what is akin to ‘high context’* leaves little room for improvement quality-wise. Using Face Time on my iPhone does little to improve an already good relationship with my close family members. So the real value of collaboration in that instance should be about the utility of the process. Making it easier, faster etc. Thus a platform kind of approach. The things that such a team needs are tools – to save them time, not to help them be more innovative.

On the other hand, if the group is not tight-knit (all a matter of scale I suppose), knows little about each other’s work and so on, then collaboration value is shifted towards ‘extracting’ new value that is a result of increased sharing of information, knowledge, ideas, insights, etc. Here, platform-based collaboration adds less value. In this case, managers should invest in a process of allowing the team of employees to focus on engagement, trust-building, learning about each other’s work and the like.

Whilst both of the above models are about achieving more from a group, they differ significantly in the way the collaboration is designed: one is built to get the best out of existing ‘high context’, the other is about building high context first.

The critical thing to remember is that both models can be applied simultaneously in any organisation. In fact, unless this is not clear to managers, they are very likely to repeat a very simple mistake; presenting a ‘one model fits all’ approach to their staff. Collaboration should be tailored to the existing culture of a business. It all starts with making sure the business knows its people well.


*The concept of high context (as opposed to low context) as developed by Edward T. Hall suggests that people interact differently with each other based on the level of context they share.

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