I’ve been reading some interesting new research on collaboration from membership research firm I4CP and network researcher Rob Cross - Purposeful Collaboration: The Essential Components of Collaborative Cultures.
The research refers to some of the disadvantages associated with traditional, functional ways of organizing. I agree these problems exist though I also think it’s important to realize that functional organizations (organization chart models) don’t have to be hierarchal, linear, siloed, disintegrated, focused on position and power, with knowledge hoarded for the purpose of seeking an individual reward. If you’re experiencing these problems, I’d suggest you may just need a better designed functional organization or HR architecture.
However, becoming what I4CP refer to as a high performance organization (based on self- reported multi-year customer and financial performance) will often require paying more attention to collaborative structures and behaviors, and especially to performance on teams or in networks. As Rob Cross suggests, only about 50% of top collaborative contributors in an organization tend to be deemed top performers. Further, roughly 20% of these organizational ‘stars’ don’t collaborate - "they hit their numbers (and earn kudos for it) but don't amplify the success of their colleagues".
Based upon their analysis of high vs low performance organizations, I4CP conclude that firms need to create healthy collaboration - which is focused, strategic and purposeful - by focusing on business outcomes and the customer. “The best organizations use collaboration as a means to achieve a specific mission or strategic intent, rather than an end in itself to be nice and collaborative."
Purposeful collaboration is based on trust - which is why I’m a little unsure about the cog in the machine metaphor used in the research report’s cover. Collaboration does need people to work together efficiently but getting them to do this depends on treating people as people, not as cogs.
It is also supported by culture, leadership, talent practices and work management. For example, only about a quarter of organizations design their performance management processes around collaboration. But employees, leaders and teams in high performance organizations are 5.5x more likely to be set performance goals that demonstrate or reinforce the importance of collaboration.
I4CP suggest that the most common and powerful barrier to effective collaboration is the lack of incentives and rewards organizations assign to it - most compensation systems are focused on individual performance, not team contributions. "Leaders are hoping for A (collaboration) while rewarding B (individual achievement). They must instead learn how to spot and reward people who do both.”
Yet the research suggests that finding ways to recognize and reward employees who regularly engage in collaborative behaviors that make their colleagues more effective can pay off in a big way. I like the case study on Patagonia where their VPHR comments: “If we hit the numbers we’ve set, everyone gets a bonus. If we don’t, no one does. We’re all working toward the same thing, and everyone is clear about what that is.” (Though note it is still important to balance individual and team reward to avoid social loafing.)
It is also interesting that the research did not find better collaboration was due to better systems and technology - "In a way, you can’t buy your way into high-performance collaboration with technology alone."
I think I4CP have produced some important new research and I am pleased to see that it generally supports my conclusions in ‘The Social Organization’ too. However, as I4CP note, these conclusions are based on research, not just their thoughts or a "popular book out there”. This gives the conclusions extra weight and make them difficult to challenge.
However I will still posit one of the major recommendations in my own book that collaboration also depends heavily on organization design. The very best next practice leadership, workplace and talent practices are much less likely to lead to effective and purposeful collaboration if we’ve organized people to work in a badly designed or the wrong type of group.