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To kick off our All about collaboration series, we consider the nature of successful collaboration, its benefits and what is needed within an organisation for it to flourish.


Collaboration in the workplace is when two or more people work together through idea sharing and thinking to achieve a common goal. It’s teamwork operating at a high level.

A lot of social networking doesn’t necessarily equate to a lot of collaboration. People may frequently share information online, but they could still be holding back or more concerned about achieving their own goals or creating a particular image of themselves. Of course, getting to know people through social media can be a useful step towards collaboration; for example, where fairly casual and insignificant initial contacts lead on to offers of help or advice. And those who are comfortable using external social media will be more likely to quickly grasp and embrace the benefits of internal social collaboration tools.


Necessary conditions


There’s so much information out there about the impressive capabilities of social tools that we might be forgiven for thinking these are a prerequisite for effective internal collaboration. In fact, there are a number of completely different factors that could be seen as the actual building blocks of strong performance in this area within an organisation:

  • Belief in a common cause – which requires strong and effectively communicated organisational vision and objectives
  • Openness to learn – which also means understanding your own strengths, weaknesses and where you could improve. This might seem obvious but unfortunately and, as illustrated by a recent Harvard Business School study, we don’t seem to be very good at self-awareness. This research, which gathered data from over 357,000 people, found an average correlation of .29 between self-evaluations and objective assessments (a correlation of 1.0 would indicate total accuracy). And the correlation was even lower for work-related skills. Over-rating our capabilities and our ability to accomplish tasks within a particular time frame could make us disinclined to collaborate, or have a negative impact on outcomes of team working
  • Openness to share – dependent on generosity and trust (see below)
  • Trust – believing that your views will be listened to, considered and that you won’t be ridiculed or otherwise be put at a disadvantage for expressing them.

Bringing these characteristics to the fore across the organisation will be dependent on a culture firmly based on a collaborative approach, fully embraced by leadership.


Collaboration pitfalls


An apparent willingness to collaborate doesn’t always lead to successful outcomes. Collaboration can be about quite small things so where interchanges don’t take you any further forward, it’s not a big issue. But flawed collaboration can be a significant problem where major projects or decisions are involved.

We’ve already seen how an unrealistic view of one’s own capabilities can undermine collaboration. Individuals also often over-estimate the amount of work they’ve contributed to a project. In his book Give and Take, Adam Grant identifies this as the responsibility bias, where we exaggerate our own contributions relative to those of others. This kind of situation can create tensions, with one possible solution being to visualise work and tasks more and make contributions more transparent.

A recent study at UCL highlighted how ‘equality bias’ can lead to people giving the same weight to the opinion of others, regardless of whether they are experts or not, which can damage the group.

Senior author Dr Bahador Bahrami (UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) said: “People are incredibly bad at taking differences in competence into account when making group decisions. Even when we showed them exactly how competent they each were, they still gave each other more or less equal say. Incredibly, this still continued when people were rewarded with real money for making correct decisions.”

This flags up the importance of having a decision-making process that gives appropriate weight to experience levels and avoid going down a particular route too early before it has been properly evaluated.

Various influences can cause people to conform to group opinions and behaviour. Groupthink, a term coined by social psychologist Irving Janis (1972), occurs when a group’s desire for harmony or conformity results in irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcomes, with participants ignoring alternatives.

In the case of the Abilene Paradox, a group of people collectively decide on a course of action that is counter to the preferences of many (or all) of the individuals in the group. It involves a common breakdown of group communication in which each member mistakenly believes that their own preferences are counter to the group's and, therefore, does not raise objections. Do you think you’ve ever seen anything like this?

Commonalities between team members help them to develop trust and create connections. These can be created in a variety of often quite small ways; for example, having the same boss, birthday, name or hobby. However, diversity is important within groups to combat groupthink. The factors that help us to create bonds within teams can also cause us to make simplifying or negative assumptions about those outside our group.

Due to our tendency to categorise to help us process information more easily, we can tend to think that people in an external group are more similar amongst themselves than the similarities we have within our group; that is, a rather homogeneous group where we don’t really register individual attributes or characteristics. We may also start to see our own group as superior. These are the type of reactions commonly occurring when we see tensions between organisational departments.

All these possible pitfalls flag up the importance of effective leadership to support the collaboration process, particularly on major projects; a safe environment in which everyone has a non-judgemental hearing; and a robust decision-making process that objectively considers all options before selecting a solution.

The importance of commonalities within groups also highlights a benefit of social collaboration tools, which can help to create meaningful connections between individuals where none would previously have existed.


Measurement


Collaboration is all about achieving the best possible outcomes so it is important, when taking action to improve collaboration, to trap these as they unfold. Examples might be: new groups collaborating leading to the development of an exciting new product idea or service improvement; getting something to market quicker than would previously have been possible; better online collaboration, reducing the need for meetings and conferences, with resulting time and travel cost savings.


Some facts and figures about collaboration


Background

  • Employees spend around nine hours a week searching for information (Atlassian)

Employee perspectives

  • 86% of employees blame lack of collaboration or ineffective communication for workplace failures. (Fierce Inc.)
  • 90% of employees believe decision-makers should seek out other opinions before making a final decision; approximately 40% feel leaders and decision-makers consistently fail to do so (Fierce Inc.)
  • Nearly 100% (99.1%) prefer a workplace in which people identify and discuss issues truthfully and effectively, yet less than half said their organisation does this (Fierce Inc.)
  • In one study, 38% of workers felt there was not enough collaboration in the workplace. Participants said that factors encouraging participation were: positive recognition of input shared (50%); encouragement from senior staff (41%); ability to easily share input with different departments (33%) (Cornerstone OnDemand)

Negative outcomes of poor collaboration

  • Failure to implement social technology makes high-skill employees and management 20-25% less productive (McKinsey and Company)
  • Employees consider half of all meetings to be a waste of time. 45% of all employees feel overwhelmed by the number of meetings they have to attend (Atlassian)

Benefits

  • Almost half of organisations see knowledge sharing as the top purpose for social collaboration (Vantana Research)
  • Firms using social collaboration software see productivity enhancements of an average of 12-5% (Forbes)
  • 97% of businesses using collaboration software have reported being able to service more clients, more efficiently (ICE3)
  • Internal social networking can reduce email volume by 30%
  • Employees using social business tools have seen a 39% increase in connectedness (NCC.co.uk)
  • Collaboration is a key driver of overall company performance around the world. Its impact is twice as significant as a company’s aggressiveness in pursuing new market opportunities and five times as significant as the external market environment (Frost & Sullivan)

Leaders

  • When CEOs were asked what factors they focused on to draw the best out of employees, ethics and values came top, followed by fostering a collaborative environment (63%). When asked what traits they most valued, they also cited being collaborative most often (75%) (IBM study)

But


As we can see from this short overview, social collaboration tools can’t create a collaborative culture on their own. However, they can make the sharing of information easier, and help to build networks and connections between employees who otherwise might have had no or limited contact.

When working as a group on significant projects, it is important there are checks and balances in place to avoid the nature of team dynamics resulting in faulty decision-making.

Group psychology makes the tendency to work in silos and feel as though you have little in common with others understandable rather than abnormal. However, it can lead to very negative business outcomes whether in existence across the whole organisation, across departments or within a department, so strategies should be put in place to dismantle these barriers and create better understanding.

Look out for future articles in our All about collaboration series, where we will explore different aspects of these issues, and also feature book reviews and links to other relevant articles.
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