The Age of Collaboration is transforming the business landscape and yielding a more engaged workforce, greater productivity and better customer experiences. The trend toward collaborative work is now a pervasive part of a 21st-century connected economy, in which companies in all industry sectors need to prioritize teamwork or risk falling behind.
Moving from a mindset of competition to one that embraces collaboration requires an understanding of the key drivers that impact both individual and corporate performance, says Rob Cross, professor of Global Leadership at Babson College and founder of Connected Commons, a group of about 90 businesses and organizations focused on innovation and collaboration.
Cross says that making collaboration a core component of corporate strategy often requires restructuring that removes organizational layers and that uses technology to facilitate interconnectivity. For example, he says, "One study we just did in the Connected Commons is showing that leaders in many organizations are managing across now as many as nine applications from a collaborative standpoint."
According to "How Collaboration Wins," a 2017 study by Harvard Business Review (HBR) Analytic Services of 491 HBR readers, partnerships have become increasingly important over the past decade, as technology, culture, management style and even workspace design have evolved to keep pace with an increasingly connected global ecosystem.
Four best practices for improving your collaboration zeitgeist include developing a shared mindset, customizing your technology, leading from the top and institutionalizing the process.
1. Develop a shared mindset.
Developing a shared mindset related to collaboration should be mission-critical for any company that wants to attract and retain workers in today's remotely connected work environment.
According to the HBR study, a focus on internal and external collaboration results can mean greater productivity and a more engaged workforce. Equally important, collaboration is an important factor when it comes to competing in the new gig economy.
David Coleman, director of research at Collabworks and author of 42 Rules for Successful Collaboration, says collaboration requires a considerable level of commitment and alignment within an organization. He distinguishes this from other channels for interaction, including simple communications that are really just amplified conversations. “Collaboration is the highest level of interaction where you're interacting and working on something for a similar purpose," he says.
2. Customize your technology.
You need a customized set of collaboration tech tools in order to give your team the resources required to succeed. While your technology should reflect the unique needs of your company, some fundamental tools include everything from project management and calendar-sharing apps to online meeting and messaging tools. According to the HBR report, it is also important to avoid duplicating functionality.
Tech tools enable communication and collaboration at scale and across any boundaries—from physical distance to time zones, says Jacob Morgan, a leading authority on the future of work, and author of The Collaborative Organization. But, he adds, it's important to focus on developing a collaborative strategy first, and then finding the right technology to adapt and evolve your own framework for collaboration.
If organizations want to make sure collaboration happens, they need to start by encouraging different teams to work together.
—Jacob Morgan, author, The Collaborative Organization
Fortunately, technology tools to facilitate collaboration are widely available. As Coleman notes, the days of needing an IT department dedicated to developing shared tools are long gone. Even small businesses can implement low-cost solutions that don't impact their working capital or cash flow. Today, user-friendly programs, such as Slack and Zoom, can be easily deployed by anyone in an organization. What's more, adds Coleman, instead of being one-way communications tools, today's potpourri of collaborative apps are designed to support and facilitate human interactions.
Ultimately, new technology is affecting both leadership and cultural trends. New software solutions are giving managers more confidence in the ability to optimize productivity in an organization distributed across the country, or even the world. From a cultural perspective, says Coleman, it's more productive for both workers and employers to trade long commute times and co-location for the efficiency and productivity gains that come from connecting remote teams.
3. Lead from the top.
Top management buy-in is one of the most important factors in developing a culture of collaboration. Company leadership must support the implementation of collaboration tools and strategies, and set the tone for a collaborative organization that fosters engagement, rather than perpetuating departmental silos.
As the HBR report notes, lack of clear leadership and siloed decision-making are two significant barriers to collaboration. Time is another constraint, and it's up to leadership to provide workers with the bandwidth they need to implement a company's collaboration strategy.
Collaboration needs to start at the organizational level, with senior leadership support for replacing silos with integrated work groups, says Cross.
“Silos are all about having the same teams or the same geographies working together," adds Morgan. “The whole idea of a silo is to keep things in one silo from mixing with things in another silo. In that kind of an environment, collaboration doesn't happen because it doesn't need to. So, if organizations want to make sure collaboration happens, they need to start by encouraging different teams to work together."
4. Institutionalize collaboration.
To maximize the benefits from collaboration, companies also should learn from collaboration best practices. The HBR report suggests strategies such as workforce incentives, workplace design and policies that promote collaboration.
Still, Morgan believes collaboration is already becoming mainstream, and the HBR survey concurs. In fact, 81 percent of those surveyed said collaboration is important to their company's success, and 71 percent said their organization's leadership was prioritizing collaboration.
The good news is that businesses are becoming more collaborative. “We now have a plethora of collaborative tools that are getting better and better, and soon augmented and virtual reality will be added to the mix," says Morgan. “When it comes to culture and management styles, we are seeing a big push towards diverse teams, management based on coaching and mentoring, and embracing more vulnerability and empathy in the workplace. In short, it means we are creating more human organizations—and collaboration is at the center of that."
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