Feature Story

How to solve the collaboration conundrum

The three key elements needed to make sure collaboration can thrive in business.

The three key elements needed to make sure collaboration can thrive in business.

This is a guest post written by Monica Zent, attorney and CEO & founder of Foxwordy, a private collaboration network for lawyers

Browse through corporate literature today and you might conclude that our biggest threat isn't a recession or foreign trade. Instead it's silos, those internal units that frustrate and conquer us from within. In fact, some 42% of C-level executives rank overcoming silos as their top priority, according to a 2016 Experian survey.

The panacea for silos is collaboration. At this point, the case for collaboration as a boon to business has been well-established. Good collaboration improves retention, average revenues per employee and taps institutional knowledge that would otherwise have lain dormant. To cite one recent survey, 73% of execs said they believed more collaboration would benefit their organization.

When the benefits of collaboration are so clear, why can effective collaboration be so hard to implement within companies? We've all endured unproductive meetings, wasted time in corporate chatrooms and participated in endless email chains. What we need then isn't more collaboration, it's smarter collaboration.  Heidi Gardner, author of "Smart Collaboration," explains that "smart collaboration" is not cross-selling, nor does it involve a "divide-and-conquer approach."

In my experience leading an alternative law firm as well as a tech company startup founder, I have discovered that truly effective collaboration is multi-faceted process that requires three key elements: people, process and technology.

People, process and technology

The secret to solving the collaboration conundrum is to focus on people, process and technology.

Tools can help effect collaboration, but they can't do it themselves. Alternatively, you can hire collaborative people, but without the right tools and processes, they can be stymied in their efforts to collaborate.

The secret to solving the collaboration conundrum is to focus on people, process and technology. Tools can help effect collaboration, but they can't do it themselves. 1. Create a culture of collaboration: Collaboration won't happen if the culture doesn't allow it. A collaborative environment starts by hiring employees who want to collaborate. Beyond HR, companies that want to create this environment can foster a collaborative culture with company retreats, executive leadership talks and even in hiring profiles. Collaboration should be happening all the time, not only during meetings. Creating such a culture requires constant interaction. Steve Jobs, for instance, designed Pixar's office to have one set of bathrooms so all employees would have to walk by each other every day.  To ensure a positive collaborative culture, also beware potential cultural pitfalls. For instance some employees let others do the heavy lifting, a practice known as "social loafing." Collaboration also brings pressures to conform that can undermine a free exchange of ideas. Maintaining a healthy balance in a collaborative culture that encourages accountability, transparency and critical thought is key.

2. Implement systems that encourage collaboration: People need a system to follow to get their work done. One process that I've found an effective model for collaboration is the establishment of teams. Ask yourself, "Can certain work be assigned to more than one person, forcing people to work in teams?" The benefits of a team-based approach to collaboration have been substantiated by research. Says Gardner, "By truly collaborating, a team of knowledge professionals is able to address issues than none could tackle individually." In addition, Harvard Law School's Center on the Legal Profession, found that clients stay when teams collaborate across the practice to serve them. The same could be said of lines of business in a company served by departments such as finance, HR, legal and compliance.

Another team-based approach is to use cross-functional teams for certain projects. For example, quarterly preventative care meetings regarding critical data security can include input from IT, legal, PR, HR and compliance to ensure there is a defined procedure and coordinated response from the company if there's a data breach.

3. Leverage technology: Finally, any organization needs tools to carry out collaboration and technology is the great facilitator. There are a number of technologies to keep in the toolkit when it comes to fostering various aspects of collaboration. Looking for a single technology that does it all is short-sighted and not realistic.  Often, in cases in which a fair amount (or all) employees don't work from a central office, platforms like Skype, UberConference and Google Docs, among others, create collaboration that would have been otherwise impossible. The company I founded, Foxwordy offers a collaboration platform for lawyers to exchange knowledge, clauses and resources. 

It is also important to train and educate employees about the newest technologies. Staffers will likely gravitate towards their favorite tools. However, leaders need to execute some oversight to move employees off of email for discussions that require a lot of input. Videoconference is also preferable to audio-only conferencing since employees are less likely to engage in time-wasting activities like checking email and Facebook if they show their faces. Make education and training part of the program.

Collaboration is an evolving process

Finally, beware of corporate fads. Many businesses have embraced open office designs to aid collaboration. Research shows they don't. Unsupervised chatrooms can also become productivity-sucking forums for standup comedy.

The best way to judge your current setup is to look at the results. Is the office getting more done? Are new ideas coming to the fore more often? Settling for "good enough" collaboration isn't an option. In our competitive business environment, we need to leverage every strength.  Applying a methodology that focuses on people, process and technology to adopt collaboration measures while building in accountability and periodic review will empower your organization or department to reap the benefits of intelligent collaboration.


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