How to build a collaborative culture in 5 easy steps*

Angela Ashenden

Friday, May 11, 2012 by

Last week I took part in #SWCHAT – a weekly tweetchat session focused on the social workplace, and run by David Christopher of Stop! Think Social. The topic of the session was “Building a collaborative culture”, the subject of my presentation at the Social Workplace conference to be held in London on 24th May. This being the first #SWCHAT I’ve been involved with, I was staggered by the sheer scale of participation – we had 143 contributors and 1,600 tweets in the space of an hour, which made for a fast and frantic experience! In fact it was so manic that I am very grateful that a transcript of the session is available (here), enabling me to look back on the discussion and properly read many of the comments that simply passed me by on the night. In this post, I’m going to highlight the major themes in the discussion, the issues where there was general agreement, and those where there was more debate. Feel free to share your own perspective!

Q 1 – “Why is a collaborative culture so important in business today?”

We collectively highlighted many issues, such as the need to do more with less, to share costs and commitment across increasingly dispersed organisations, in order to maintain the flexibility and agility to compete effectively, particularly in these tough economic conditions. There was also discussion about the added value gained by tapping into the knowledge and skills of a larger set of people, enabling the optimisation of processes through weaknesses or gaps which can be highlighted earlier if there is greater transparency and sharing of information. An interesting observation by Colin Hope-Murray noted that old, hierarchical organisation structures typically stereotype individuals into roles, whereas an open, collaborative approach allows an individual’s broader set of skills to surface, creating a much richer organisation. Similarly, while several people pointed out that collaboration is not a new concept, even for business, Chris Gibbons commented that until now the emphasis has been more on co-operating, rather than collaborating.

Q 2 – “People can be trained on tools, but how can a collaborative culture be taught?”

Here there was generally a consensus that it’s not about “teaching” collaboration, but more about leading by example; ensuring business leaders don’t just support the initiative but actively encourage participation by collaborating themselves. Instead of it being about “teaching” collaboration, many other words were suggested, such as “developed”, “supported”, “inspired”, “encouraged”, “nurtured”. What all of these words imply is the need for ongoing investment and commitment in the initiative – this type of business change won’t happen overnight, and it’s also not something you can just throw money at.

Q3 – “Not everyone readily embraces collaboration. How can these people’s fear be overcome?”

I found this a particularly interesting discussion, as it really separated the enthusiasts from the pragmatists. While some felt that it was best to take the sink-or-swim approach, others favoured engaging with those people and talking with them to understand why they may be reticent, and basing a strategy on that (yes, I was in the latter group). An interesting side discussion which came out here was whether it is necessary for *everyone* to collaborate all of the time. On the one hand, there may be a place for lone geniuses. On the other hand, “collaboration” can prolong decision-making processes, and not always for the better. Lesley Price‘s comment made me chuckle “there are times when collaboration leads to confusion….I watched the #apprentice last night”. Another point that got traction was that even introverts collaborate – “but [only] once their thinking has been done” (@insight72).  It’s certainly true that it can be more valuable to put a little more thought into an idea before throwing it into the arena. We also considered the role of incentives here, both in terms of financial or other rewards, and in terms of the value of senior (and middle) management leading by example.

Q4 – Why are companies paying more attention to internal collaboration amongst their own employees?

By this stage in the discussion, some common themes were emerging. Comments included the need to do more with less, better sharing of knowledge, creating competitive advantage, better employee retention. I think there is also a misplaced view among business leaders that this is a relatively cheap way of achieving these benefits – many still believe too strongly in the power of viral adoption of social tools, and this combined with the availability of free SaaS-based tools gives some the wrong impression. This is slowly changing, but even so, there is insufficient thought given to the long-term investment and commitment to this type of initiative.

Q5 – What impact can a collaborative culture have on innovation?

As innovation had already been highlighted throughout the discussion, there was more  consensus on this question. Fundamentally, by creating a less hierarchical, more collaborative culture, more ideas are able to come to the surface, often from discussions that cross department boundaries and ranks. Collaboration also enables these ideas to be developed using collective knowledge, and enabling flawed ideas to be exposed or refined earlier in the process.

Q7 (we skipped Q6 due to lack of time) – Email is where conversations go to die. How do you convince a company so entrenched in email to change?

By this stage we only had 7 minutes left, so discussion became even more frantic. However, we still had some excellent comments. For example, @SonicSEO tweeted “Stop answering email. ;) “. While arguably flippant, this has actually worked for some organisations, when senior sponsors actively drive staff to a collaborative platform by responding to emails there rather than via email.  It reinforces the lead-by-example message perfectly. In my opinion, it doesn’t necessarily need to be an email-or-no-email issue; we are already seeing email vendors building social features or integrations into email clients, helping to transition users to a world where email is not the only option. After all, it’s not going away any time soon.

And so there you have it – the world put to rights in an hour. ;-)

Do you agree/disagree? Did we miss anything?

*OK so maybe it’s not so easy. But it was a nice title anyway… @JulesHewett ;-)

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One Response to How to build a collaborative culture in 5 easy steps*

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