Friday 22 May 2009

Collaboration - defining a complex phenomenon

Collaboration is a complex phenomenon, and many have tried to define what it is and what it is not. I have used a number of these definitions over the years, but I have found many of them either too limited in scope, or too focused on technology. In the end, technology can indeed enable new forms of collaboration in distributed teams, but technology alone does not lead to collaboration, and it certainly does not guarantee that the collaboration leads to successful outcomes, e.g. solving business problems. In the famous words of Thomas Davenport and Laurence Prusak:

”What we must remember is that this new information technology is only the pipeline and storage system for knowledge exchange. It does not create knowledge and cannot guarantee or even promote knowledge generation or knowledge sharing in a corporate culture that doesn’t favor those activities.”

When using these definitions in the past, I have sometimes looked at a particular situation, asking myself - "is this thing I'm observing here, really collaboration?" And many times, the situation have satisfied all criteria according to various definitions, and I have reluctantly agreed that "yes, I guess this is collaboration then, at least according to the(se) definition(s)".
Situations such as these have inevitably left myself wondering "then - so what, there has to be more to it" and, as a result, I eventually started elaborating my own definition. The result from this process is a definition that departs from many other definitions. The key elements are highlighted in bold in my (current) definition below:

Collaboration can be defined as value-adding interactions that enable employees, customers, suppliers and partners to achieve business objectives, make good decisions, resolve issues and share knowledge effectively and efficiently.
  • Value-adding: The focus here is on the value aspect. Simply put, collaboration is of little value, if it does not add value. Unfortunately collaboration does not always add value, therefore this is important to keep in mind when working with collaboration, and trying to define sound collaboration principles that assist you in moving forward. Collaboration definitions that do not contain a value element simply do not work when used as a basis for improvement initiatives.
  • Business objectives: This is strongly linked with the value-adding aspect described above. Collaboration is not an objective in itself, it is a means to an end. This point is very important. Collaboration can be a tremendously powerful means to an end, but paradoxially, collaboration loses some of its power when the the collaboration process itself becomes the objective. Stay focused and look ahead on the big issues, the business objectives.
  • Decisions: Decision making is a crucial part of any business, and the importance of decision making skills grows with increasing knowledge intensity. The ability to make good decisions can be an important differentiator, one that really sets an organisation apart from its competitors. Decision making also has a broader scope than e.g. problem solving, as decision making occurs (or should occur) in any type of business activity that goes beyond open-ended explorations.
  • Issues: Issues can be problems, inconsistencies, disagreements, or any other matter that requires attention. Collaboration can assist you in your efforts navigating these issues, including sense making, perspective brokering and consensus building.
  • Knowledge: Knowledge only has value when it is put into action - and, given today's complex, multidisciplinary issues, this to an increasing extent happens through sharing.
  • Effectively: Effectiveness can be described as the alignment between objective(s) and activity or process outputs. Peter Drucker in his article "Knowledge-Worker Productivity: The Biggest Challenge" (California Management Review, Vol. 41, No. 2, 1999) ranked Knowing what the task is the number one factor determining knowledge worker productivity. The reason for this is that task definition is a non-trivial issue for knowledge work, much more so than for other types of jobs. It is therefore critical that activity and process outputs are aligned with precisely defined objectives or tasks.
  • Efficiently: Peter Drucker has also stated that "there is nothing quite so useless as doing with great efficiency that which should not be done at all". Following this logic, efficiency improvement initiatives should be ramped up only after effectiveness has reached a satisfactory level. That being said, when your process produces outputs that are aligned with objectives, performance can be tweaked by focusing on how to produce those outputs efficiently.

Note on the origin of the definition: Based on earlier variants developed for various industrial clients, I introduced the following definition of collaboration in the NTNU Master level class TMM4225 Configuration and Use of Collaborative Working Environments in August 2008 (The class has now, starting in 2009, been renamed to TMM4225 Engineering Collaboration in Distributed Teams):

Collaboration can be defined as value-adding interactions that enable employees, customers, suppliers and partners to achieve business objectives, resolve issues and share knowledge effectively and efficiently.

Tuesday 19 May 2009

New Book: 42 Rules for Successful Collaboration

David Coleman came up with the idea. The idea was as simple as it was beautiful: There is a lack of practical guidelines on collaboration. Wheres a number of recently published books cover the theoretical foundations of collaboration, none of these books offer crisp and easy-to-understand guidelines on precisely what to do and how to handle specific collaborative situations. Let's close this gap by offering a book that does exactly this!

KC liked the idea of such a book and has, as one of 26 contributors besides Mr. Coleman, contributed rule #21: "Collaboration Requires Management and Leadership".

Excerpt from rule #21: If employees represent 80 percent of the cost of a knowledge-intensive organization and these employees spend 70–80 percent on different types of collaborative activities, this should be the focus of attention for business executives.
The motivation for this rule is the observation that most companies tend to address collaboration in a fragmented, ad hoc manner, despite the fact that many professionals today spend most of their time on collaborative activities. The rule has been written to help companies understand why they should approach collaboration more systematically.

Each rule is clear and presented in a stand-alone, two-page format. Bring the book to meetings and - when the meeting starts late (not yours, of course!) because the meeting host has not read the book, you have already worked your way through two or three rules. Compared to many books and even white papers, these rules are ripe, low-hanging fruit ready to be picked.

Mr. Coleman provides a holistic view on collaboration, and through a variety of contributions from his social networks, others have contributed their best rules for collaboration based on their experience. The book takes a holistic view that covers the three areas people, process and technology, and this is also used as the organizing principle for the book. Each rule can be found in the appropriate section.

Most of the rules are good, and many are outstanding and can really make a difference. It is challenging to pick favorites, but here are a few examples of rules that resonate particularly well in my mind, as these rules articulate simple rules that addresses important issues from an interesting perspective:
  • Rule #2 - "Know Why You Are Collaborating"
  • Rule #4 - "You Will Include All of Your Stakeholders"
  • Rule #15 - "Make Someone Responsible for Collaboration"
  • Rule #20 - "Know the Objective Before Defining the Tools"
The book is available as a paperback and as an eBook (downloadable PDF). For those that are interested, the book can be purchased from HappyAbout, or via this direct link:

:: Purchase 42 Rules for Successful Collaboration ::

Commission note: Kristensen Consulting takes pride in transparency. As a contributor to the book, KC receives a 30 % commission when using the link above, or by clicking on the book image at the top of this post (15 % from 2010). If you don't like the idea of this, the quality of the book is equally good when purchased from HappyAbout without using the link above (in this case there is no commission).

Happy reading - and learning!

Thursday 14 May 2009

Collaboration: The Big Paradox

Most companies tend to address collaboration in a fragmented, ad hoc manner, despite the fact that 70-80 percent of managers' and knowledge professionals' time is spent on collaborative activities. The enigma is that these activities are, at large, not managed, led and supported the way companies manage, lead and support other activities.

If employees represent 80 percent of the cost of a knowledge-intensive organization and these employees spend 70-80 percent on different types of collaborative activities, this should be the focus of attention for business executives. Significant productivity improvements can be realized by improving how businesses collaborate, through combining strategic and tactical perspectives on collaboration.

Building a competitive advantage based on collaboration basically involves identifying answers to these three questions:

  1. Why should a company improve the way it collaborates? Answering this question involves identifying an identification of business benefits, opportunities, drivers, bottlenecks and problems.
  2. What should a company do to improve the way it collaborates? What elements are required to develop a set of new work practices? How can the collaborative infrastructures be aligned with strategic business objectives and the desired work practices to improve collaborative performance?
  3. How should a company support and manage collaboration? What specific competencies and support functions must be in place to secure the realisation of expected benefits?

Collaboration should be managed and led on both a strategic and at a tactical level, where tactical collaboration management principles are derived from and consistent with top level collaboration strategies. Addressing one without addressing the other, is unlikely to produce successful results.

Businesses can achieve significant productivity improvements from a systematic, structured investment in management principles, tools and methods supporting collaboration. The realisation of expected benefits require a clear collaborative strategy, and hands-on collaboration tactics. Lack of either (or a clear connection between the two) dramatically reduces the success rate. What is needed is a connected and coherent, multi-level, multi-perspective approach that closes the gap between strategy and tactics and operationalises collaborative strategies based on business objectives.