Changing patterns of work mean that collaboration is becoming an increasingly important element of success for companies and individuals alike.
More routine tasks have either been outsourced or can be done by a computer, explained Lynda Gratton, a professor of management practice at London Business School.
“What’s left is the stuff that’s ambiguous, or highly collaborative, or innovative,” she said.
The form and means of collaboration are also increasingly complex. Nowadays, it tends to involve working with people based in remote locations, whom you may have never met face to face. While bringing together staff from various global hubs is desirable, it is not always affordable, so many projects are carried out virtually.
Some companies, such as Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), now incorporate collaboration criteria into employee performance reviews. All of this means that an ability to collaborate effectively is a core skill in your professional armoury.
Here are four areas of focus Gratton suggested to encourage your organisation to collaborate more effectively:
Relationship building. Finding a way for colleagues who are spread out across the globe to get to know each other is essential. “Using virtual platforms is an incredible way of building a collaborative mindset,” Gratton said, “as they encourage people to participate in discussions and engage with each other.”
TCS’s enterprise social platform, called Knome, is one successful example (see the sidebar, “Knome: A virtual platform success story,” below). With stronger relationships comes trust, which in turn fuels collaboration. The more people judge their colleagues as capable and competent, and trust them to deliver, the more they will be willing to collaborate, Gratton explained.
Breaking down barriers. Human resources practices such as circulating people to different departments or regional offices can help break down barriers to collaboration. Even when all the members of a team are located in the same building, the layout of the premises can create physical barriers.
Gratton’s research highlights how one should build circulation around the physical space. “If you want people to collaborate across functions, it’s best that they sit near to one another, or that the layout forces them to walk past each other’s desk on a regular basis,” she said.
When Unilever redesigned its London headquarters, the company moved away from a typical layout of a central corridor with rooms going off it. Instead, a glass atrium was created in the centre of the building so that everybody could see each other, engendering a sense of unity. Breakout areas are located within the atrium, and a central spiral staircase ensures that people meet as they move around the building.
Finding the “point of ignition”. People tend to only collaborate on things they find interesting and exciting, Gratton said. “The role of the leader is to find what I call the ‘point of ignition’ that really excites people and encourages and inspires them to collaborate.”
That spark becomes more important when you are leading a virtual team. You have to consider how you can ask a question or give them a vision so interesting that they’re desperate to pick up the phone and talk to each other about it, Gratton said.
For example, when Unilever CEO Paul Polman asked the workforce how the company could reduce its carbon footprint by 50%, the challenge had a galvanising effect. “We have an engagement score that has gone up enormously over the last four or five years,” Polman told McKinsey last year. “We have never seen such a big jump. People are proud to work on something where they actually make a difference in life.”
Leading by example. As a leader, your actions and the language you use set the culture for the team or organisation, making them another important tool in fostering collaboration. Likewise, the degree of cooperation in an organisation tends to be modelled on how, and to what extent, employees see senior people collaborate and work with each other.
Knome: A virtual platform success story
Seeking to foster communication and collaboration and ultimately create a community out of a globally dispersed workforce, Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) created Knome, an enterprise social network that connects 300,000 employees in 43 countries. Each employee completes a detailed personal profile about their role and interests outside of work. The social media approach was considered particularly appropriate to the company’s needs; 70% of the workforce is under 30 years old and thus considered to be so-called digital natives.
Take-up of the initiative has been very strong. So far, staff members have used the platform to create at least 8,000 communities amongst colleagues who share skillsets or interests.
Knome enables employees to comment on developments in the business or gather feedback on new proposals. TCS has found that the more input and feedback employees are able to give on a proposal, the more buy-in there is for the initiative. In addition, innovative solutions to business challenges can be crowdsourced through the platform, drawing on employee insight that might otherwise go untapped. In 2013, users suggested 1,500 solutions to 100 innovation challenges posted on Knome.
Staff are encouraged to share knowledge through public communication on the platform, such as blog posts and message boards, rather than private emails, to maximise the knowledge-transfer benefit.
Knome has also revolutionised how leaders connect with their teams. For example, in 2014 a CEO town hall session hosted on the platform was attended by 60,000 employees. Within an hour, participants posted 600 questions for the leadership.
To boost collaboration, ask these questions
1. Look at your own behaviour and ask yourself: What sort of language do I use? How do I work with others?
2. Recognise the collaborators in your team. Which members are really helping each other? Who is sharing information and working across boundaries?
3. Look at your practices and processes, particularly your reward mechanisms, and ask: Does the current system reward people for working independently or for working collaboratively? Does this need to change to incentivise collaboration?
4. Look at the extent to which you are asking people to collaborate virtually.
If more than 50% of your team’s work involves virtual collaboration, they face a different set of challenges.
Consequently, you need to acquire a very specific set of skills to manage them. Points to consider include:
- How do we get people to appreciate each other in a virtual network?
- How do we get people to make and keep commitments to each other?
- How do we get people to manage their time effectively?