Seven steps to successful organizational collaboration

Collaboration expert, Dr. Graham Hill, describes practical steps to help your organization become collaborative and successful.
Written by Michael Krigsman, Contributor

In my experience, effective collaboration is the ultimate key to running successful IT projects. The limitations and boundaries of information silos, misunderstandings, and other Devil's Triangle problems often dissolve in the face of healthy collaboration.

For this reason, I invited Graham Hill, a noted expert in collaboration, to write a series of guest posts on this topic. His first post, called CIO view: Ten principles for effective collaboration, suggests practical ideas for understanding collaboration.

Read also: CIO view: Ten principles for effective collaboration

This new post, second in the series, offers a seven-point plan to help you start the process of transforming an organization based on the principles of collaboration.

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.


Seven Steps to Get Started with Collaboration By Graham Hill, Partner, Optima Partners

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.

In an earlier post on ZDNet, I describe ten principles for effective collaboration and explain why technology alone does not improve collaboration. Worse, merely implementing collaboration tools can make you an "Expensive Old Organization," with all the costs of the new technology but none of the desired benefits.

Read also: CIO view: Ten principles for effective collaboration

If simply implementing new technology isn’t the way to increase collaboration, what is? Fortunately getting started with collaboration is much easier than you might think. In fact, you are probably doing some of it already.


Building a solid foundation for collaboration is not difficult; without it, collaboration will probably not take hold and flourish. These seven steps will help you build the right foundation to get started with collaboration.

Step 1: Connect to the real world

Over time, company results tend towards the average for their industries; the best and the worst companies all become more average. And even during times of rapid growth, a significant percentage of companies are expected to go out of business. Coping with continuous changes in the business environment is not easy. The winners are those that align their organization to the market (PDF download). Effective collaboration starts with understanding how your market works, what your customers want, and what new trends could potentially disrupt your business.

Step Two: Understand how work gets done

Companies exist to organize work better than either customers can do by themselves or markets can do it for them. Ronald Coase won a Nobel Prize for Economics in 1991 for this insight. Collaboration helps work get done more effectively by bringing the right information, at the right time, to the right people, to make better work decisions. To improve collaboration you must first understand how work is actually done. And then re-engineer the work so that it can be done more collaboratively in the future. As Michael Hammer said at the start of the re-engineering revolution, ”Don’t automate, obliterate" (PDF download)!

Step 3: Design a collaborative organization

Collaboration isn’t something you merely add to improve how work is done. It also requires that you look at how you should be organized to do work more effectively. Improving collaboration often involves restructuring the organization. That might mean redeveloping work teams to improve information flows, redesigning jobs to make better use of that information, or incentivizing collaborative behavior. Once you have thought through how work should be done in the future, you should develop the organization to support it. ‘Form follows function’, as organization developers say.

Step 4: Help managers drive collaboration

Flat organizations are all the rage in collaboration circles, as companies hope to enable front-line staff to ‘self-organize’ their own work. That is fine for day-to-day activities, but not for those that require different people, work groups, or even departments to work closely together. These usually require the type of coordination and cooperation that managers provide. Mangers provide an important role driving collaborative work, just as they do today. And let’s not forget that managers ultimately decide what work gets done and, critically, how employees are rewarded. As more information flows into the hands of front-line staff, we must help managers rethink their role, to help them support, mentor, and drive effective collaboration.

Step 5: Empower staff

Just giving front-line staff more information, even the right information at the right time, doesn’t automatically make them more collaborative or the company more effective. This requires new knowledge, skills, and the opportunity to practice collaboration. To accomplish this goal it is important to train, support, and mentor staff to help them work more collaboratively. Staff must also practice their new collaboration skills back in the workplace so it becomes the new daily business and not just the latest management fad.

Step 6: Align support systems

One of the best ways to drive change is engaging front-line staff to redesign how their work will be performed in the future. Another is to align their goals, rewards, and feedback mechanisms to motivate and encourage collaborative work. Although it is a dirty word in some circles, providing the right incentives (and they don’t have to be monetary ones!) can help the adoption of a collaborative way of working. As Reeves & Reed show in the insightful book, Total Engagement, ‘gamifying’ the introduction and adoption of collaboration can also help.

Step 7: Develop a culture of collaborative entrepreneurship

As we saw in the first step, collaboration is as much about sensing and responding to changes in the business environment as achieving today’s shared business goals. Leading collaborative companies, such as credit card issuer Capital One (PDF download), have developed a collaborative, entrepreneurial culture to help them spot opportunities in the market that might only be open for a couple of months and respond to them with brand new products in as little as a couple of weeks. As visionary computer scientist Alan Kay said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”.


These seven steps provide a solid organizational foundation to get you started with collaboration.“But what about collaboration technology?” I hear you ask. A very good question.

The right technology is undoubtedly a powerful enabler for collaboration. Once your organization starts to become more collaborative, then it's time to undertake a thorough requirements analysis process to guide selection of the right collaboration tool.

Building collaboration from the ground up will give you unique insights that traditional requirements analysis, based on use cases, never could. To do this, capture requirements in the form of collaborative jobs-to-be-done (PDF download). This approach looks behind the facade of user activities into their critical outcomes and intended goals, without limiting an organization to examining how it currently performs work. Based on this kind of analysis, select only the technology you need and no more; be aware that every bit of unnecessary technology will cost you dearly in the future.


Improving collaboration is a journey of discovery rather than a destination. With each step, your organization will improve today’s work and better adapt to tomorrow’s changes, bringing increased success along the way. The hardest part of the journey is often taking the first few steps.

If you wonder whether to take this journey right now, ask yourself one simple question: “Was there a single occasion when not having the right information at the right time, combined with your team not working effectively together, resulted in a bad decision?” We've all seen these situations!

By improving collaboration, these situations will arise far less frequently and the entire organization will become more successful.


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

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