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What is Collaboration and How Do We Achieve it?

Something terrible happened to me recently. There I was, writing an entry for a personal blog of mine that entertains something like five people on a regular basis, when I realized I wasn’t writing an entry for a personal blog that entertains something like five people on a regular basis. Because I couldn’t decide how to format the intro paragraph. On a post about shoes. To be or not to be read by five people.

Suddenly the evidence of being a tech reporter was everywhere: My grocery lists had bullet points. E-mails to family members were fact-driven, objective and boring. If I had a dollar for every word in my Twitter stream ending in “tion”— hoo boy! The riches!

Now I make a conscious effort to keep things fresh in both my personal and professional writing. For the latter end, I like to torture non-industry people by making them define popular terms and practices in their own words. For instance, earlier this week an old friend of mine (Hi, Lacy!) and I went out for dinner. At two drinks in I asked her to tell me what collaboration was and her answer was beautiful:

“Ummm, it’s kinda like teamwork, right?”

It gets better. When I asked her to what it takes to achieve collaboration, she listed the following: talking to each other, defined tasks, goals and deadlines.

What It Isn’t

Ask an organization what collaboration is and you’ll probably get a similar answer. But ask an organization how it achieves collaboration and it’s likely that you’ll get an ear full of jabber about social business software implementation and adoption.

A lot of this attitude can be attributed to the recent popularization of Enterprise 2.0  tools, but collaboration is so much more than an idea, a single business approach to communication, or Facebook for the enterprise.

What It Is

I like Lacy’s approach to achieving collaboration because it’s simple and because it’s true– working together definitely requires talking to each other and defining tasks and deadlines. A far as definition goes, however, I think Baratunde Thurston, Director of Digital at The Onion, hit the nail on the head when he said, “Collaboration is a different way of thinking about what you’re good at versus what you’re not good at, and how you find those other parts to co-create the world.”

If we think of collaboration as a way to elevate people and what it is they’re good at as opposed to some kind of super Swiss Army Knife approach to productivity, then suddenly it’s not just about getting things done, it’s about getting things done better.

“The thing that binds it together is a high bar of quality,” he added. “That’s the principle that helps people define what they’re doing. And it has to be fun—there has to be some element of truth.”

How To Achieve It

Sometimes things just need a fresh look, like my post about shoes. And don’t get me wrong– by no means will enterprise collaboration ever be easy, but a different approach to thinking about it could prove to be a great starting point. With Baratunde’s definition in mind, here are a few ways you can work at elevating the parts of your organization that are already great (your people!):

Environment: Many companies are utilizing a 100% open-cubicle layout, but Google gives their employees a choice between individual workstations and team offices. “I think where a lot of companies go wrong is thinking about it as an ‘or’ statement, not an ‘and’ statement. We try to have both,” said David Radcliffe, Google’s VP of real estate and workplace services. “People can be heads-down in front of their computer, but when they get up to stretch they have many opportunities to [interact] with other employees.”

Technology: These tools are a means, not an end. So get some social profiles, some wikis, some microblogging tools, but make sure that they match the needs of the work that employees are doing. A good starting point is examining workflows and look for tools that complement them.

Transparent Leadership:  There is an undeniably positive correlation between transparent leadership and productivity among employees. When head honchos also make collaboration a part of their role, the openness builds trust, respect and dedication among the workforce.

Your Turn: Collaborate with us (see what I did there?) by being part of this conversation. If you know of other practices that could improve this way of thinking about working together, please don’t hesitate to drop them in the comment section below.

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