Improving collaboration, breaking down silos, and innovating better. What does that all mean?

I’ve been in the Enterprise 2.0/Social Business space for almost 5 years now, and have been both on the customer and vendor side of the table. What most people are guilty of, is really not knowing what the heck they want to do. I was guilty of it too. I thought Improving Collaboration and Breaking down silos were great business problems to solve. It was until recently that I started focusing on the business value of Enterprise Social that it hit me. Most people talk in jargon and have very little insight into the underlying business problems that they are trying to solve. Don’t get me wrong, they know their business problems, but in most cases haven’t connected the dots between problem and solution. Why? Because it takes a lot of analysis and thought to develop that understanding and most of us lack the time to do it.

Over my next few posts, I will examine this jargon and help people understand each of these, very vague, clearly misunderstood, terms used around social collaboration inside of companies and help people help their organizations to get past the jargon to provide real business impacts.

Improve Collaboration

Let’s start with perhaps the most overused jargon in Enterprise 2.0 terminology Improve Collaboration. What does that really mean? Does it mean that we should all be working with each other on everything? If that’s the case, we need to understand that collaborating usually slows things down because it involves scheduling and interacting aligning expectations, and establishing a method for collaborating. Sometimes it’s by bringing different perspectives together that creates the best work, but ultimately this takes longer, especially if priorities are not aligned. I don’t know too many people who would actively choose to slow things down.

A simple example

Now, let’s look more pragmatically at a typical enterprise collaboration between two different sales teams. Each team is incented to deliver against a quota. A salesperson on an account is presented with 2 options:

  1. Collaborate with other sales/product teams to provide a complete solution to a customer (Estimated duration 4-8 weeks, Total sale value: $1,000,000, Credit against quota: $150,000)
  2. Work independently and deliver only the product that I’m responsible for to a customer. (Estimated duration 1-2 weeks, Total sale value: $125,000, Credit against quota: $125,000)

As you can see above, while option 1 would probably be best for the customer and the company, it requires a lot more work and only provides marginal benefit to the individual who is responsible for the sale. Many executives want option 1 to be the answer, but often don’t have the level of understanding in why it’s not the one that is typically executed on.

What I think people expect when they want improved collaboration is to work with each other to get better results and do it faster. While today’s social business tools are making this more reasonable, we cannot overlook how people are incented and understand that those objectives will drive their behaviors.

Picking a tool

Let’s assume that a company figures out how to incentivize people to work together. The next big challenge is figuring out how to collaborate. A typical company has many ways to collaborate:

  • In-person meeting
  • Phone/Web Conferencing
  • E-mail
  • IM
  • SharePoint (or equivalent)
  • Enterprise Social Network
    • Blog
    • Wiki
    • Discussion Forum
    • Microblog

Aside from IT and tech-savvy workers (typically a low percentage of the workforce), few people really understand the difference between the tools and where each provides greater benefits over the others. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve answered the question. “What’s the difference between a blog and a wiki?” Now, take a company with just 1,000 workers and throw in all of the choices and you can see why collaborating is challenging. Now, imagine what that’s like in a company with 50,000 or more.

Getting to the business value

While collaborating better may be important to business leaders, we need to look more closely at what collaborating better really enables in the business that they can’t do today.

Faster – Get the work done faster so that we can: Close more deals, get products to market faster, beat the competition, etc.

Better – Output better quality work so that we can: Improve customer satisfaction, win more business and beat the competition, etc.

So executing faster and better is important to the business. It enables things like higher revenue and lower cost while improving satisfaction for many stakeholders such as customers and stockholders. This usually is what people want when they say “Improve collaboration”.

As you can see, there is a lot behind improving collaboration that is often unspoken or not understood. As you work with people who say they want to improve collaboration, ask them, “What exactly do you think improving collaboration will enable for the business?” But before you do, make sure you are ready to lead the conversation to understand the true value that the person is looking for.

In my next post, I’ll examine what “Breaking down silos” really means.

11 thoughts on “Improving collaboration, breaking down silos, and innovating better. What does that all mean?

  1. good post Greg Lowe,
    first step I take is to define collaboration as a word, and then before linking the definition to some theoretical business strategy, link it more importantly to basic, day-in-the-life scenario type-alignments as collaboration means different things to different people.

    Then working backward, I can demonstrate to the leadership what “better Collaboration” means in clear, concise terms to their organization..along different or multiple levels of collaboration…

    That is the key…Collaboration has many levels, each different to specific stakeholders and areas of the business..and you have to be able to sort through the emotional and technical attractions and resistance for each stakeholder and each day-in-the-life-scenario across the organization.

  2. Great post. Agree that jargon is too frequent in our language use and the key to effective utilization of social media is the same as for good communication in general – keeping it simple

  3. Great article and great articulation of “collaboration” though I would agree with the previous comment that Collaboration works on Multiple levels within an organisation achieving different things.
    You provide a very simple pragmatic example (as you say yourself) which I find useful and interesting- still more compelling would be market figures from businesses that had adopted social business and where collaboration had become firmly established as a business tool over time – compared to a similar businesses where it had not been.
    Is there any other way to really prove that collaboration (or improving it) will mean faster and better output for the business and improved customer satisfaction?

    1. One of the biggest challenges that I see is that companies that are successful don’t necessarily want to share the secrets to their success. Since these successes can be a huge competitive advantage, I can completely understand. One of the points of my post was that you need to look at how people are incented in the organization to really understand what drives the behaviors.

      As for “really proving”, it is actually easy if you have baseline metrics in place. In most companies, those baseline metrics either don’t exist or aren’t reliable.

      Thanks for your perspective and feedback!

  4. I found this post refreshing as it lends to org design and psychology…I posted about this before

    Just go straight to the end of this post for links by Rex Lee, Jack Vinson and others

    “Often a cascading objectives model (one in which, you get your objectives from your boss, and she gets them from her boss, etc..), leads to solio’d thinking. Opportunities that arise that cut across silo’s (and requiring collaboration) are simply never seen. It’s not that people want to be malicious, they simply don’t see the opportunity.” – Rex Lee

    Rachel Happe talks about organisational design constraints
    – includes links to some of my other posts on collaboration and reward structures

    Here’s a post on understanding why sales reps don’t have sharing at the front of their minds

    …the solution being “This summarizes nice and neatly into two use cases and one constraint: deliver a set of mobile applications that enables sales reps to find experts and get answers to questions.” – Scott Lawley

    Oscar Berg also has a post on sales reps and the importance of reciprocity

    In the end it’s about engagement, creating conditions where we care for each other eg. people that go on smoke breaks together are sure to think of each other in ways of sharing and asking for help…I wrote an enormous post on organisational wellness (the more we spend time together sharing personal stories and identifying with each other, the more we look out for each other…this is just as important for people across silos as it is for teams)
    …actually here is a smaller version of the post

  5. Perhaps it comes from having spent many years driving collaboration in a large global corporation (Intel), but I somehow can’t buy the assumption that people typically have the choice whether to collaborate or not, as in the example you give. Most instances of collaboration that come to my mind are where there is a large task that requires many people to execute it – from half a dozen to hundreds – and these people are living in a number of different countries. Thus, they must collaborate to get the job done at all, however slow it may be.

    Of course you then want to give them better tools and processes to make it faster rather than slower – that’s the main challenge we were dealing with.

    1. Ideally, collaboration is a “win/win”, but because what may be your top priority, may not be mine, there is a risk that gets introduced. I also think that many companies have inferior tools to collaborate, but even with the best tools, that’s not enough. This is where the psychology and motivation to collaborate comes in. Thanks for your comment.

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