CIO view: Ten principles for effective collaboration

CIO view: Ten principles for effective collaboration

Summary: This guest post, by Dr. Graham Hill, explores the business foundations of successful collaboration. Graham's article offers an excellent primer for CIOs and other executives who are grappling with this subject.

SHARE:'s huge Dreamforce conference, held last week in San Francisco, brought together 45,000 registered participants in an event promoting a collaboration-based "social enterprise." Since collaboration is the heart of successful business and increasingly the focus of software interest among line of business users, we should drill into this important topic.

To explore the business dimensions of successful collaboration, I invited Graham Hill to write a guest post on the topic. Graham is one of the smartest folks I know and enjoys a well-deserved reputation for skeptical analysis backed by research data.

Dr. Graham Hill has worked at the forefront of customer-centric business thinking and practice, for over 25 years, with blue-chip management consultancies such as PricewaterHouseCoopers, OASiS Group and KPMG, and as an independent CRM consultant. Graham writes an active blog at CustomerThink and you can follow him on Twitter at @grahamhill.

Given its importance, CIOs must learn to understand the foundations that drive successful collaboration. Understanding the business drivers of collaboration will help any CIO make technology decisions that are better aligned with organizational business goals.


CIO view: Ten principles for effective collaboration

By Dr. Graham Hill

Collaboration is a hot topic in business today. Companies are recognizing that effective collaboration is critical to future business success. Many hope that if they just buy collaboration technology, a miracle will happen, and they will become collaborative companies. The bad news is: they won’t! Companies need to develop their collaborative capabilities before implementing collaboration tools. Otherwise the old saying will apply…


Old (un-collaborative) Organization + New (collaboration) Technology = Expensive Old (un-collaborative) Organization

The good news is any company can increase the effectiveness of its collaboration by building a foundation based on ten simple principles. Before examining the ten principles, we had better look at what collaboration is.

What is Collaboration?

One of the best descriptions of collaboration can be found in the Beyerlein & Harris book Guiding the Journey to Collaborative Work Systems (PDF). They describe collaboration as:

The collective work of two or more individuals where the work is undertaken with a sense of shared purpose and direction that is attentive, responsive and adaptive to the environment.

Collaboration is not difficult, but it does require a conscious effort to create a way of working that promotes cooperation between different parts of the company to achieve their shared business goals. It is not the same as openly sharing information across the organization, as many promoters of ‘activity streams’ seem to suggest.

Activity Streams are NOT the Answer

Activity streams are a great idea, up to a point. They are great at providing people with almost real-time information about everything that is going on within the organization. But they suffer from three serious disadvantages. Firstly, they can easily create information overload (PDF) as people are overwhelmed with huge volumes of incomplete and distracting information. Faced with a fire-hose of information people are likely to largely ignore it, including the few key bits that could really help them to be more effective.

Secondly, they don’t help people to reach outside the organization (PDF) to people that have missing knowledge, skills & experience. The sweet spot for business not only requires that internal groups collaborate better together, but also that ‘structural holes’ are closed by collaborating with key people outside the organization.

Finally, they don’t pull all the levers (PDF) required to work more effectively. Giving people the right information at the right time helps makes them more effective. But that isn’t enough. Collaboration requires that a number of other complementary organizational levers are pulled at the same time, not just the information lever.

Ten Principles for Collaboration

If companies want to build collaboration, they need to look beyond activity streams at getting the basics right. Here are ten principles that research has shown provide a foundation for effective collaboration:

  1. Focus on Achieving Business Results. Collaboration is not a business end in itself. It is a means to an end. And that end is better business results. Collaboration should focus on where it can have the biggest impact on achieving business results. These are typically those parts of the business where there is lots of dynamic information, where decisions are complex and where those decisions have far-reaching consequences. Collaboration shouldn’t be shoehorned into every discussion, dialogue and decision if it isn’t warranted to get the desired results.
  2. Treat Collaboration as a Capability. Collaboration is a capability. That means it is a complementary combination of processes, business rules, systems, data flows, organization roles, staff responsibilities and so on. Only when you bring the right combination of these components together does a company create the ability to collaborate. As you increase each of the components, you need to increase each of the others accordingly if collaboration is to increase. A little extra collaboration can be used to improve business results in many different ways.
  3. Align, Authority, Information & Decision Making. Collaborating doesn’t mean that everyone gets to decide. This isn’t a new age commune! On the contrary, it means that the authority to make critical decisions is aligned with the information required to make them. That means the right information must be made available to the right decision maker at the right time. This can be a real challenge in companies where individuals routinely hoard information and where information is power.
  4. Promote Personal Accountability. Collaboration only works when individuals within the company act collaboratively. It should be the responsibility of each individual to support collaborative working wherever it is appropriate. If individuals act collaboratively then work teams will act collaboratively too. And if work teams act collaboratively then the organization will automatically become more collaborative. And will achieve better business results.
  5. Promote High Standards for Discussion, Dialogue and Information Sharing. We are all used to attending meetings. It sure beats working for a living! But power politics, hidden agendas and information hoarding doom most of them to failure as collaboration enablers. Staff should be encouraged to adopt the highest standards of discussion, dialogue and information sharing with their colleagues. These are life skills that will help staff at home and at play, as well as at work.
  6. Exploit the Rhythm of Divergence & Convergence. Organizational life has a rhythm that at times converges, e.g. think of the sales funnel with many leads converging to a few sales, and at times diverges, e.g. think of the marketing communications funnel with a few products diverging to many different communications. Just like a good conversation, collaboration has similar rhythms too as information is first sorted and then developed. Companies should recognize this rhythm and not seek to railroad information flows or decisions inexorably towards a fast first solution. Sometimes the best business results emerge from the rhythm over time.
  7. Manage Complex Trade-offs. Collaboration isn’t always about moving towards one universally best solution. Even with increased discussion, dialogue, and information sharing, complex trade-offs sometimes still need to be made. Making complex trade-offs requires empowered, informed decision makers. Collaboration provides the tools for the right decision maker to get the right information at the right time.
  8. Articulate and Enforce a Few Strict Rules. Much behavior that outwardly seems hugely complex can be defined through a few simple rules. For example, the flocking behavior of birds can be completely defined through three simple rules. Companies should define a simple set of rules for how staff should behave to support the development of effective collaboration. And the rules should be strictly enforced if collaboration is to become part of normal behavior.
  9. Design Flexible Organizations that Promote the Required Collaboration. Beyerlein & Harris’ definition of collaboration highlighted the importance of companies being “attentive, responsive and adaptive to the environment”. Being able to sense and respond to changes in the environment requires a hybrid organization; one that blends together efficient, effective hierarchy to get things done with flexible, responsive networks to decide what to do. Collaboration is the glue that holds the hybrid organization together. And that delivers the best business results in fast-changing environments.
  10. Align Support Systems to Promote Ownership. It may seem a paradox too some that collaboration requires ownership. But the reality of organizational life will always be based on ownership: of information that needs to be shared, of a dialogue that needs to be started and of a decision that needs to be made. Supporting collaboration technology should be employed to promote ownership of these things. And of their sharing. As the old saying goes… what gets managed gets done! Ownership will always be part and parcel of management. And of collaboration.

IT-enabled Collaboration

This post started with the suggestion that merely buying collaboration technology won’t automatically make a company collaborative. But that doesn’t mean that technology doesn’t have a role to play in effective collaboration. Quite the opposite. Technology that enables discussions between people in different locations, opens dialogue among communities of interest, and fosters real-time information sharing are an enormous help.

Companies should start to develop their collaboration capabilities before purchasing collaboration technology. This will ensure that the technology really fits the style of collaboration that has already been developed. The pace of business is getting faster and faster. Today’s competitors may not even have existed a few years ago. Improving effective collaboration is one of the few insurance policies that companies have in these hyper-competitive times.


Thank you to Dr. Graham Hill for writing this guest post.

Topics: Collaboration, Enterprise Software, Software, Social Enterprise

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • Brilliant

    These are many of the same thoughts I've been having. Great for someone to lay it out for all to comprehend.
  • RE: CIO view: Ten principles for effective collaboration

    Very coherent and logical exploration of the issues required to actually "make this work". Other than make a call for each of these points to be expanded into a blog posting on their own, I think that the piece also showcases some collaboration fallacies such as "Technology enables collaboration" and "Collaboration outcomes will emerge" from an overall commitment to the theme. A lot of depth here, I'll read this article many times in the days to come.
    • RE: CIO view: Ten principles for effective collaboration


      I agree that Graham has included lots of depth in this article -- definitely worth re-reading and I will do so as well.

      Thanks for commenting!
    • More on the Fallacies of Collaboration

      Hi Paul<br><br>Thanks for your comment. I agree entirely with the two fallacies that you raise: <br><b><br>Technology Enables Collaboration</b><br>Technology by itself only increases costs. OO+NT=EOO!. Only where it is used to support an existing, or developing collaborative capability does it add any value. Paradoxically, once the right collaborative technology has been implemented it should be able to increase an organisations collaborative capabilities as well. Technology and the collaborative capabilities it enables co-evolve together over time. More capabilities are better able to make use of technology. And the right technology enables the development of better capabilities.<br><br><b>Collaboration Outcomes Will Emerge</b><br>Collaboration might well emerge if left to its own devices. There is a school of thought - based on comparisons with social insects - that work should be self-organised by those doing the work. And that giving people lots of information is the key to success. That works for an individuals own work, indeed, it is a fundamental principle of job design. But it doesnt work for a department, division or whole organisation. Collaboration is an organisational capability that should be designed, implemented and continuously improved. In pursuit of the business goals. Why leave something so important to chance? As the old saying goes, the best way to predict the future is to invent it.<br><br>Talking with a very smart guy yesterday raised another fallacy about collaboration:<br><br><b>All Organisations Benefit Equally from Collaboration</b><br>Collaboration is a great thing. Most organisations dont have enough of it. They have lots of meetings and they share lots of information, but they still dont collaborate. On the big projects I typically run for corporations, I can spend up to 40% of my time promoting the sort of collaboration that gets the project delivered on-time, in-full, to-budget. But not everything requires more collaboration. Sometimes individuals just need to get on and do their work. Or groups just need to make internal decisions and get on implementing them. <br><br>In short, collaboration is but one weapon in the effective organisations armoury. Knowing when to use it, and when NOT to use it is key.<br><br>Graham Hill<br>@grahamhill
  • RE: CIO view: Ten principles for effective collaboration

    Dr. Graham - thank you for the concise and balanced post on collaboration. Point #9 - Design Flexible Organizations that Promote the Required Collaboration resonates with me in that organization's who build agility into their workplace architecture have opportunity to gain a distinct competitive advantage and meet the challenges of a dramatically changing workforce that is ahead.

    Thank you,
    Judy White, SPHR, GPHR, HCS
    The Infusion Group?
    • Building a Sense & Respond Organisation

      Hi Judy<br><br>Thanks for your comment.<br><br>Building in business agility is a must in today's hyper-competitive environment. As Stephen Haeckel described in his thought-provoking book 'Sense & Respond - Designing and Governing Adaptive Organizations', agility requires the ability to identify changes in the environment, to identify how to respond to them and to implement the response in double-quick time. <br><br>Some companies, like credit card company Capital One, have built their business model based on the ability to sense & respond. It uses collaborative working in a wide variety of ways to encourage the flow of the right information, to the right people, at the right time, to drive continuous adaptation. Capital One is reputed to conduct over 50,000 marketing 'experiments' a year using this approach. Food for thought.<br><br>Graham Hill<br>@grahamhill
  • rudimentary and too generalized

    Your principles are too simplistic and vague to be helpful. They're also repetitive, self-referencing, and needlessly adherent to the hierarchy that diametrically opposes true collaboration in most workplaces. I'd consider this vision of collaboration as falling well short of the actual practice.
    • What are YOUR Principles for Effective Collaboration?

      Hi @Hobyx

      Thanks for your comment.

      The principles described in the post are adapted from research into effective collaboration carried out at the Center for the Study of Work Teams at the University of North Texas. I have used them myself when running industrial scale programmes at companies like Toyota, Vodafone & Huawei Technologies.

      But they are just principles. They are not a detailed roadmap for implementing collaborative working. If you have a better set of robust principles, and/or a validated roadmap for effective collaboration, I am sure we would all be delighted to read about them here.

      Graham Hill
  • meetings

    My organization - and I know not just mine - seems to have a lot of trouble with point #5. When I lead a meeting on a project I'm managing, I try to work out details with the relevant subject matter experts ahead of time so that the meeting doesn't have to start from square 1. The goal is a more focused discussion (nothing bugs me more than fifteen minutes of back and forth between two SMEs while the rest of us try not to be too obvious about checking our Blackberries), but if not handled well this approach tends to lead to the impression of a steamroller. To mitigate that appearance I try to send be as transparent as possible by asking for feedback before the meeting from everyone, but since nobody ever prepares for a meeting that they're not leading more than ten minutes in advance (I think this may be a universal principle) I don't get much of a response.

    So how do you strike that balance between not wasting everyone's time and not coming across as a dictator?