The challenge of our time: Getting collaboration experts to collaborate!

by Cai Kjaer

It seems that everyone is talking about collaboration these days. Recently I spoke with Natalie Slessor who heads up the workplace strategy team at Lendlease. She told me that increased collaboration was one of the primary drivers for organisations moving into new buildings or those refurbishing old ones. Physical space is important to enable collaboration.

Another good friend of mine, Allan Ryan, runs the Hargraves Institute. Hargraves is a membership-based organisation that focuses on innovation and uses collaboration between members to accelerate this, and US Professor Andrew Hargadon says “Entrepreneurs and inventors are no smarter, no more courageous, tenacious, or rebellious than the rest of us—they are simply better connected”. Innovation and collaboration are linked.

What about organisational performance? Isn’t that what collaboration is about? That is also true. According to a recent report from Deloitte Access Economics called ‘The Collaborative Economy’, the return on collaboration is staggering. It is saying that those companies who are great at collaborating are twice as likely to be profitable and twice as likely to outperform the competition.

Using the analogy of a peloton (the main pack of bike riders in a bike race) collaboration makes a lot of sense. Riders in the peloton save up to 40% in energy by collaborating and staying together as opposed to riding alone. Not surprisingly many organisational initiatives these days are about enabling cross-organisational teams to collaborate.

But why is collaboration such a hot topic right now? In my view it is because we have realised that we’ve come as far as we can through optimising, automating or outsourcing business processes (while we wait and see what the future of robots will entail), and now we’re faced with the most stubborn of problems – actually getting people to work together.

Achieving great business outcomes depends on people actually collaborating, but the ingredients for collaboration are multifaceted. It’s about culture, technology, practice and physical space. I think all of these individually have progressed tremendously in the last 10 years. Increased bandwidth has enabled us to work together in ways we never been able to before. Workplaces are transforming into collaboration hubs where we can get together physically and innovate. In my own experience I am also seeing a much higher level of awareness of the cultural aspects. Many of our clients have embarked on collaboration initiatives and they make a conscious effort to include culture and practice aspects in these initiatives.

What seems to be missing is a tight integration of these various facets. I think the real problem is that those who are working on improving collaboration aren’t collaborating. Too often I see examples where the IT team is introducing new wonderful technologies, the property team is arranging new state-of-the-art activity-based fit-outs, the LD function is training in ‘Agile Project Management’ etc. All of these are excellent in their own right; however, only rarely do they incorporate each other.

Agustin Chevez and I are doing our bit to change this. We have been working in separate fields for most of our lives. Gus is an architect, lecturer, workplace strategist and internationally recognised researcher. I specialise in the mapping of organisational social networks and have built both a consulting practice and a product business based on knowing how to translate social network analytics into business outcomes. But we’ve realised that our fields must work together, and we now collaborate in the intersection of workplace and social analytics (wouldn’t it be nice if we could demonstrate that a new physical workspace leads to better collaboration?). Applying a more integrated perspective on workplace and social analytics have led to new partnerships working with architect firms such as dwp|suters and HASSELL as well as industry giant Lendlease.

Let that be my challenge for you if you are working in one of the many spheres of collaboration: Start collaborating with those in other fields. It is amazing what it can lead to.

Gus and I hope to see you at our workshop at DISRUPT.SYDNEY 2015 where we’ll share more interesting and fascinating insights about collaboration.

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