What the rise of collaboration in the workplace and between business, universities, governments and other institutions reveals is not simply a human capacity to adapt to a particular set of business drivers. It is not a pure desire for financial riches that has made collaboration a vital part of the new model of value creation. We know that collaboration is fraught with yet not fully understood risks and that it can lead to failure; especially between enterprises which have essentially learned all they know about business on the principles of competition.
As collaboration begins to look like something one can’t avoid, so too does the emergence of dissenting voices. Some are quick to argue against collaboration for a variety of reasons. Of course, it easy to criticise things when they appear less than perfect. And the collaborative way of working is not ideal in all circumstances. However what those negative voices tend to indicate is yet another very amazing aspect of collaboration; the capacity to respond to one of humankind’s most primeval fears – being disconnected from the group. Collaboration does connote the sense of connection that in itself provides benefit to many who at times feel an unnerving sense of loneliness and disconnectedness in the workplace. This is where, I think, things get more interesting.
The workplace in the 21st century has ceased to be exclusively about making money. It has become a place of significance to people’s identity and well-being. For some it may be the only place where they can satisfy their social, emotional and intellectual needs. We now know that workplace productivity is linked not only to person’s skills but also to their sense of identity and esteem. Connection with others now matters in a new way. Thus the opportunity to collaborate takes on whole new relevance.
Not all business managers get that. While information about these factors is not hard to find (hardly monastic knowledge) too many managers across all levels and industries fail to fully grasp both the need to respond to their employees and the hidden opportunity for better business.
I would go as far as say that there is something we might term the ‘collaboration urge’. Now that we know about collaboration, hear accounts from our colleagues, and know many others do it, we can sense that collaboration can be good for us as workers, irrespective of our formal position in an organisation or industry. What collaboration reveals is that human needs are complex and not neatly packed away while we are in workplace. On the contrary, contemporary workers shun the idea of old when professionalism was about separation of home and family life from work life. While it is still good to keep things in perspective and be focused on work when at work, ignoring the fact that we are humans can come with a cost. People leave, people disengage, people fail to do their job properly when they are not feeling whole and are not recognised as being whole in their workplace. That, I think, is a hidden, added value of collaboration which we have yet to measure properly.
Collaboration is a skill. An underappreciated skill. Everyone assumes they are good at it. But, as with any business skill, we should be mindful that the ultimate testament to our skills are the results. That is why collaboration should be part of employee development. Not like sending people on a day’s development course, but more like, let’s do this regularly in the workplace on an ongoing basis. It’s this kind of approach to developing staff in an organisation that can make all the difference to business growth.