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Are you designed for collaboration?

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You’re here and reading this post, so I’m going to assume you support the view that collaboration amongst employees and other stakeholders is a good thing, especially in a knowledge economy where getting the most from your knowledge base is of paramount importance.

The topic of enterprise collaboration seems to have gotten a little bit confused however, with many executives steeped in make and sell traditions seeming to believe that investing in some software will be all the prompt required to get people collaborating.  If you add a few tools here you’ll get a few collaborations there.

A study into cross business unit collaboration suggested that it is altogether more emergent however.  It found that collaboration internally doesn’t happen due to managerial mandate but rather due to self-interested managers within business units spotting an opportunity to collaborate with one another.

The belief in this bottom up style collaboration was due to business units having a much better understanding of their particular needs than executives, coupled with a desire for all actions to benefit their unit.

The research focused specifically upon six software firms, with each containing at least one successful and one unsuccessful collaboration project.  They found that successful collaborations nearly always emerge from particular small-scale events within each business.  These events are then expanded by self-interested managers who realise that they can extend the value achieved from the collaboration.

So what should executives do in such an environment?  The best thing is to work on the environment people are operating within.  For instance, executives can do a great job at removing the barriers to collaboration amongst business units.  They can also remove the incentives that are so often in place for managers to compete against one another rather than cooperate with one another.

In other words, rather than being prescriptive with the behaviours you wish to see, you should be focusing on building the kind of environment that encourages those behaviours.  Then, when given the right setting, your employees will naturally find the best opportunities for collaboration themselves.

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