Getting Collaboration Wrong

JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services, Inc.

Collaboration is our theme for the 2015 Best Practices conference. But, while collaboration sounds like a perfect solution to developing a sound content strategy for an organization, we all know how difficult it can be to get disparate parts of our organization to collaborate effectively. In Collaboration, Morten Hansen points out the many traps that block effective collaboration, blocks that we will consider in our Best Practices discussions in September.

Hansen names several collaboration blocks:

  • Collaborating in hostile territory
  • Overcollaborating
  • Overshooting the potential value
  • Underestimating the costs
  •  Misdiagnosing the problem
  • Implementing the wrong solution

Let’s look at each of these blocks briefly to better understand what we might find in our own organizations.

Collaborating in hostile territory
Is your company set up to foster and support a collaborative effort? Some organizations are clearly not collaborative. You might find, for example, that various teams are rewarded for competing rather than collaborating. Your training organization, for example, might be rewarded for bringing in lots of paying customers. They might fear collaboration with information development because they don’t want customers to be able to learn on their own. We once worked with a telecommunications company that removed the indexes from the manuals because training didn’t want customers to find answers to their questions too easily. If collaboration between training and information development is to succeed, the competitive barrier needs to be addressed and possibly removed.

An organization, enthusiastic about the benefits of collaboration, may encourage teams and even individuals to set up extensive networks. Unfortunately, sometimes these networks and subnetworks and sub-subnetworks can get out of hand, consuming everyone’s time. It’s a little like being on too many distribution lists for email. Sometimes the best solution is to find the “unsubscribe” button. If the networking and meetings don’t have a firm focus on reaching a solution to a real problem, they just take up too much of everyone ‘s time.

Overshooting the potential value
Hansen points out that it’s essential to measure the value of a collaborative effort. People get excited about collaborating and spend considerable time and effort. That time and effort must be balanced by a commensurate reward. We might believe that collaborating with engineering on developing new content would be a great idea. But if we don’t investigate the costs of having high-paid product developers spending time writing, we may be advocating a collaboration that ends up costing more than it delivers.

Underestimating the potential costs
If you are considering a collaborative effort, such as working with the service division to share information development efforts, be certain that the benefits of sharing don’t outweigh the costs. Consider how much time it will take each team to decide if information already exists instead of creating it again. If a quick search in a database turns up reusable topics, the service organization may find that faster and easier than writing new topics on the same subjects. But if searching is difficult, time consuming, and rarely productive, writing new service topics from scratch might be a better idea.

If you are considering a collaboration, be certain that you don’t paint too rosy a picture of the savings. Do a careful analysis of the time and effort involved and balance those against the potential gains.

Misdiagnosing the problems
You might think that people in your company are simply unwilling to collaborate because they prefer to develop their own information. You feel that they believe strongly that they are better at writing content that customers need than anyone else. As a result, you reject collaboration as a potential solution.

However, with a little investigation, you discover that the real problem is the difficulty of finding the right information in all the disconnected databases. Solving the database problem is likely to result, you believe, in increased collaboration and significant cost savings.

If you are certain that collaboration is a good idea, be sure that you understand the real barriers in your organization first.

Implementing the wrong solution
One organization found that they made a mistake investing in an integrated knowledge management system. They thought the technology was the culprit behind a lack of collaboration. What they found, unfortunately, was that the lack of access was not the real problem. People in this organization simply refused to collaborate because they distrusted the work done by the other organizations. If you are seeking a solution that involves collaboration, ensure that you understand where the real barriers lie.

Hansen concludes that “bad collaboration—collaboration characterized by high friction and a poor focus on results,“ is a significant danger for managers. Managers promote a collaborative effort without looking at the potential costs and consequences. They engage in a new collaborative project without considering what will happen if it fails.

In offering a solution, Hansen defines a set of principles he calls disciplined collaboration. He defines collaboration as follows:

“Cross-unit collaboration takes place when people from different units work together in cross-unit teams on a common task or provide significant help to each other. “

His focus, which I’ll write about in August, involves providing the right atmosphere in an organization for real collaboration to succeed.

Hansen, Morten. Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Build Common Ground, and Reap Big Results, Harvard Business Review Press, 2009.