The Collaboration Challenge

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

It’s no longer enough to be a team player. To succeed in today’s highly dynamic and networked world, you’ve got to master the art of collaboration. And so does your organization as a whole.

Why collaboration? Because we live in an era when knowledge workers tend to specialize and so need one another’s help to get things done in far-flung, complex organizations. A company that wants to improve customer satisfaction, for example, often requires collaboration among a variety of departments, from R&D to manufacturing to marketing to customer service. And the technological tools have become available to aid such collaboration.

Collaboration is particularly crucial to innovation. Teams of experts are usually required to build truly innovative products these days, and some of this expertise is likely to come from outside the organization. In fact, a recent IBM Global CEO Study found that over three-quarters of 750 CEOs said that collaboration is crucial to innovation, but only half “believed their organizations were collaborating beyond a moderate level,” according to Melvin Weems (2006) of IBM Global Business Services. Similarly, a McKinsey study found that just a quarter of senior executives said their companies were “effective” at “sharing knowledge across boundaries,” according to The McKinsey Quarterly (Cross, Martin, and Weiss 2006).

In short, collaboration is crucial but doesn’t come easily. Managers can’t codify it on an organizational chart or map it out in detail. It tends to occur as needed, depending on shifting circumstances. And collaboration doesn’t always end well. It can lead to conflict and disagreement, which is then “kicked upstairs” for upper-level managers to resolve. This results in bureaucratic tangles, departmental conflicts, and snail-paced decision making.

Collaboration is not synonymous with teamwork. In fact, many serious collaboration problems occur between teams or departments rather than within them. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Jeff Weiss and Jonathan Hughes (2005) note that “breakdowns in collaboration almost always result from fundamental differences among business functions and divisions” (p. 95). Different parts of the organization have different perspectives, priorities, and resources. Therefore, they often disagree even when they’re all trying to achieve the same aim, such as “serving the customer.”

There’s also collaboration among business partners, where business priorities can diverge even further. Michael Maccoby (2006), author of Narcissistic Leaders, writes, “Co-production raises the same issues of cross-departmental collaboration plus the problem of developing trust that each party will respect the other’s needs.”

Some organizations are well known for cultures that facilitate collaboration. In these cultures, information-sharing, openness and trust tend to be key elements. Toyota and its direct suppliers, for example, represent a collaborative system in which business partners share important information about processes that require cooperation. Philip Evans and Bob Wolf (2005) write, “Toyota’s suppliers regularly share extensive process improvement lessons both vertically and laterally, even with their competitors” (p. 101).

Another example is the renowned Mayo Clinic medical center. Collaboration is so important there that it’s embedded in its stated Model of Care. For example, one of its “core elements” is “collegial, cooperative, staff teamwork with true multi-specialty integration” (Maccoby 2006; Mayo Clinic 2002).

Aside from creating the right kind of culture, there are also specific techniques and tools that organizations can use to enhance knowledge sharing and collaboration. Evans and Wolf note that collaborative organizations can benefit from relatively simple but pervasive communication technologies such as e-mail, Listservs, television monitors and pagers—technologies that can be used by everyone.

Conflict-management techniques can also be crucial. Intel, for example, reportedly trains all employees in methods of conflict resolution. At IBM, executives not only receive training in conflict management, they’re also provided with intranet information so they can better coach others on how to resolve disputes (Weiss and Hughes 2005).

Another tool that organizations can use to improve productive collaboration is network analysis. Through such analysis, companies gain a better understanding of how employees collaborate and network with one another and with customers. By mapping these relationships, companies can determine which networks result in high-value outcomes and find out where collaborations tend to fizzle. One biotechnology company, for example, used such an analysis to gauge how quality-control engineers share best practices. It not only found out which collaborations resulted in improved performance; it also found out where “collaborative breakdowns” stalled the sharing of best practices (Cross, Martin, and Weiss 2006).

There’s little doubt that business thinkers will devote greater effort to understanding and enhancing collaboration in coming years. After all, one of the primary challenges of the 21st century will be to improve the productivity and performance of scattered groups of knowledge workers, whose essential collaborations remain largely unmapped and obscure for most employers. If they understand collaboration better, managers will be better able to strengthen and replicate the most valuable networks that exist within organizations as well as those that link together successful business partners.

Documents used in the preparation of this TrendWatcher include the following:

Cross, Robert L., Roger D. Martin, and Leigh M. Weiss. “Mapping the Value of Employee Collaboration.” The McKinsey Quarterly, no. 3 (2006).
Evans, Philip, and Bob Wolf. “Collaboration Rules.” Harvard Business Review (July-August 2005): 96–104.
Maccoby, Michael. “Creating Collaboration.” Research Technology Management. ProQuest. (November-December 2006).
Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic Model of Care. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research ( 2002).
Weems, Melvin. “IBM Global Study Sees New Role for R&D Leaders.” Research Technology Management. ProQuest. (November-December 2006).
Weiss, Jeff and Jonathan Hughes. “Want Collaboration?” Harvard Business Review (March 2005): 93–101.