Three lessons for collaboration

Three lessons for collaborationIt’s wonderful that organizations today have access to a treasure trove of powerful software tools designed to enhance, amplify and optimize benefits accruing from collaboration. But having access to, and even acquiring, such tools isn’t sufficient to realize the benefits. Your organization will not unlock the full value of this treasure trove unless it makes collaboration a strategic priority.

From research I have done on the new collaboration space, I see three lessons for today’s leaders.

Lesson 1: The power of collaboration can’t be tapped absent a desire to collaborate

If collaboration is not within your repertoire of skills, how can you even know what you are missing?

Plato’s Allegory of the Cave has been used to illustrate many truths, so allow me to press it into service on behalf of collaboration. In The Republic, Plato depicts mankind as prisoners seated on a bench facing the wall of a cave. The people on the benches can’t move their heads; they can only look forward. (There is no collaboration.) Behind them is a fire, and between the prisoners’ backs and the fire are people carrying around plaster images of things that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. All that the people on the benches can see are the shadows. Their conception of the world in which they live derives entirely from what they make of those shadows.

Only collaboration with someone who has a broader perspective would allow the prisoners on the bench to emerge from the shadows and become aware of what is really going on. But the bigger point is this: Workers in a 21st-century organization who have no real experience of collaboration are like those prisoners in that they don’t even know that they are missing something — that the shadows they are seeing do not constitute all of reality.

The challenge for leaders is to bring this realization home to non-collaborators. They need to a) create awareness that collaboration has benefits, and b) engender a desire to collaborate on the part of the entire workforce.

Lesson 2: Understand your collaboration tool

One of the hardest-to-learn strategic truths of our age of rapid and disruptive technology change is that buying technology does not produce strategic benefit. Applying technology is where the value lies. To apply technology and realize its full potential, you must understand the technology.

There are at least two components of understanding technology: how to use it, and where or when to use. In many cases (think Microsoft Office or SAP), the how-to-use component can be addressed with pre-deployment employee training. Such training ensures that employees don’t neglect a technology’s deep capabilities (so they don’t use a powerful collaboration tool for instant messaging and little else).

There is the question of how long it takes someone new to a given collaboration technology to become facile in its use. This in turn gives rise to a second-order assessment: Is it more effective to train existing employees on how to use the technology or hire new employees who already know how to use the technology?

Gen. “Black Jack” Pershing, leader of American forces in Europe during World War I, faced this very question. To fight a modern war -- and to manage all the materiel and human resources associated with fighting a modern war -- Pershing needed telephone operators. In The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers, we learn that most telephone operators were women. Rather than training up existing personnel (in the US Army of 1917, virtually all men), Pershing personally recruited 200 women who “braved shot, shell and submarines to operate the army’s vital communications systems overseas.”

Hopefully, “shot, shell and submarines” aren’t hazards facing recruits to your organization, but if collaboration isn’t part of your culture, you might need your own Hello Girls. To be clear, I’m not talking about hiring more women (though if you do, that would be great) or replacing your staff with young people who collaborate naturally. I’m talking about adding staff who understand collaboration and can impart its benefits to your experienced employees. Moving to a more collaborative style requires a cultural change; it’s not something that is absorbed in a quick training session.