If there has to be one thing that most companies do a horrible job of, it is collaboration.
Firstly, look at the basic physical setup of most organizations – they use cubicles to limit conversation and people are added on to the floor plan in an ad-hoc basis (as they come in the door) – the structure does not support collaboration.
Secondly, there are no cultural systems in place to promote collaboration. There may be a quarterly ‘town hall’ meeting, but no one has any idea what is going on week to week – and they therefore have no idea the problems their peers face and how they can help.
Thirdly, there is no technological infrastructure in place to help support collaboration. No one has access to any kind of forum/collaboration tool where conversations can take place on everyone’s own time. There is nothing worse than being interrupted at a bad time, and for that reason people have come to shun spontaneous conversation. However, the real problem is that spontaneous conversation and thought is good – just not in that medium. What you need is a collaborative space online where people can post thoughts, questions and ideas. What ends up happening is that, as people shun face-to-face conversation, email (as the only too available) takes a more prominent position. Then everyone begins being flooded with email – to the point where it’s impossible to manage one’s inbox. Thus, people ask for fewer emails to be sent around, and a vicious loop ends. It started with employees not having a way to share their ideas. It then led to them using an existing venue (email) to begin sharing. Email then became cumbersome, and people asked for a limit on volume. Then (not to be dramatic) but the conversation stopped, and innovation died. All because people didn’t have a way to share their thoughts and ideas.
Why Should You Collaborate?
I don’t know if I need to go into detail here – there are at least a couple basic ideas, but for arguments sake I will. Collaboration has a plethora of benefits. First off, it’s a great place to store conversations, large emails (where a significant amount of time was spent crafting it), and files to access anywhere and by anyone. Secondly, it’s fantastic for starting conversations – without any geographical or time limits. I can ask the guy based in our Hong Kong office where he got the number of line 34 at 3:00am in the morning his time, and he can respond at 3:00am in the morning my time – everyone does it on their own schedule.
The final reason (that I will list – there are endless reasons) is that it promotes free thinking and innovation. Have an ideas space where people share ideas about anything. A space where they can point out trends they are seeing, where they can talk about fads and consumer tastes. After enough time, people will start to see a pattern, and your company will benefit from having that information in front of its people.
What Can You Do?
So, what can you do? A lot. The easiest thing to do is start using a wiki to share information and ideas (and store them – as email is the worst for that). There are tons of free solutions, and some paid ones. Google has its Google sites. There are open source wiki’s (such as the one that powers Wikipedia). There are paid solutions like Confluence. Either way: pick one and start using it!
Another great idea is to build collaboration into the culture. Encourage people to go out to lunch with members from different teams, and talk about problems they are facing. Encourage groups to meet weekly to share what they are all working on, and do it as a company more often than quarterly – it can be as simple as an email from the head or CEO once every couple weeks. It takes 30 minutes, but it pays huge dividends. Everyone feels like they are ‘part of the crew’, that management is being transparent with them, and they are partners rather than employees.
Blair Livingston’s Blog