HR Magazine: Counting on Collaboration

By Bill Roberts Oct 1, 2007

HR Magazine: October 2007

New tools can help, but collaboration is still about culture.

For two years, sales and marketing employees at Saba Software Inc. in Redwood Shores, Calif., have used blog-like software to share what they know about customers and competitors. "We harness our collective intelligence," says Gary Lombardo, a senior product manager at Saba, who describes the process as "classic collaboration."

Like many Silicon Valley companies, 10-year-old Saba had a collaborative culture before it adopted a tool from Traction Software Inc. of Providence, R.I. Saba itself develops collaborative learning tools, one of which it used to introduce Traction to users.

Still, the tool—like a blog but with more features—is used by only 70 percent of the 200 employees (out of a workforce of 600) for whom it is intended. "Participation is not as high as I’d like," Lombardo admits. "People have old habits. It is like any other collaboration effort."

To succeed at collaboration, experts say, it’s best for organizations to focus first on corporate culture and then choose technology that fits that culture.

"You can’t snap your fingers and say you’re going to be collaborative," says Ed Colbert, SPHR, director of organizational effectiveness for Dow Corning Corp. in Midland, Mich. Dow’s workforce has been collaborative for decades. "The culture has to focus on the organization first," he says. "People have to have common goals. This is the first requirement for collaboration."

Types of Tools

Today’s collaborative tools fall into two broad groups: tools created for a web-based function, and collaborative platforms designed for various disciplines from supply chain management to HR processes to general knowledge sharing.

The first category, known as Web 2.0, includes blogs (see "Blogging for Talent" on page 65) and wikis (see "A Glossary of Collaboration Tools" on page 52). Although developed for the web—the greatest collaboration platform ever designed—these tools have been adapted for secure use by businesses. IBM, Microsoft and other vendors also have infused many of these features into their software.

"Wikis seem to be growing more quickly than blogs," says Stowe Boyd, a senior consultant at Cutter Consortium, an IT consulting firm in Arlington, Mass. "At least one company on the Inc. 500 list of the fastest-growing private companies manages all of its business processes using wiki technology. With blogs, there are corporate concerns about messages finding their way outside the firewall and how to control that."

Web 2.0 provides some of the building blocks for the second category—collaborative platforms, which include HR areas such as recruiting and performance management. Most of this software is built on Internet open standards, including, in the case of HR-specific products, the tags and schemas developed by the HR-XML Consortium. Gone are the days of propriety groupware like Lotus Notes, the first collaborative software. (Even Notes, now owned by IBM, has been adapted to the Internet.) The HR tools were first offered by function-specific developers and are now also available as modules from Oracle, SAP and other human resource information system (HRIS) vendors.

How Tools Are Adopted

Adoption of platforms for enterprise functions, including HR, is usually driven by executives, but the impetus for Web 2.0 tools often comes from an organization’s rank and file. Either way, success requires support from executives, IT and change-management specialists. Several HR professionals interviewed agree that, except when the platform is HR-specific, HR professionals rarely participate in the initiative—not a new complaint. (See the HR Technology column in the December 2004 issue of HR Magazine.)

"Technology enables people-to-people interactions, but you have to embrace the technology to have the interaction. HR types are people-oriented but often technophobic," says David Coleman, president of Collaborative Strategies LLC, a San Francisco-based consulting firm.

Executives are also culpable, says Carol Anne Ogdin, founder of Deep Woods Technology, a collaboration consulting firm in Placerville, Calif. In her experience, middle managers itching to get ahead tend to be among early adopters of collaborative applications. "People at the top are the last to get it," she says.

Integrating Talent Management

Talent management could serve as a positive model for persuading top leaders to embrace collaboration. In survey after survey, CEOs admit the need to do a better job acquiring and deploying talent. This can be optimally achieved through collaboration in recruiting and other talent management functions. HR executives often lead these initiatives, but not without challenges.

Because HR has traditionally been structured in functional silos for separate parts of talent management—recruiting, performance, compensation, etc.—"there’s a lack of collaboration between owners of each process," says Heidi Spirgi, president of Knowledge Infusion, a Minneapolis-based consulting firm for human capital management and technology.

Spirgi says talent management software helps by integrating the pieces. The bigger challenge is to get everyone to agree to share information about the talent they have and the talent they need.

Faced with a global shortage of mining engineers, Rio Tinto Ltd., a mining company in Melbourne, Australia, with 400 workers, is starting to do that. Managers never knew which employees outside their regions were ready for new openings. Using talent modules from SAP, its HRIS provider, Rio Tinto launched an effort to collect detailed information about each engineer and manager to share worldwide, according to Mike Ryan, who leads the company’s talent initiative.

At the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, a San Francisco-based nonprofit funded by the co-founder of Intel Corp., collaboration is a necessary element in helping the organization define and achieve its performance objectives. The foundation, which makes grants for environmental conservation, science and projects in the San Francisco area, adopted performance management software from SuccessFactors Inc. of San Mateo, Calif., to align the objectives of its 80 employees with foundation goals, says Saul Macias, PHR, associate director of HR.

"The technology allowed us to link grant program outcomes to organizational priorities and to each individual," Macias says. "All that information put everyone in the position to collaborate, to share knowledge about where we are as an organization."

In addition, no program officer decides on a grant without a free exchange about the proposal among all of the foundation’s employees using a custom tool. With the same tool, which is like a wiki, workers also share best practices, says Macias.

The Age of Collaboration

The 21st century is likely to be the age of collaboration because many of today’s problems are complex, often demanding cross-disciplinary expertise. Collaborative technologies are also in demand by companies that have global staffs and greater numbers of employees who telecommute.

Supply chains demand collaboration among dozens of companies. Some technical problems are so expensive to tackle that even competitors collaborate.

For example, IBM, Samsung Electro-nics and Chartered Semiconductor Manufacturing cooperatively develop semiconductor manufacturing processes. ST Microelectronics and others recently joined them.

Finally, there’s evidence of a societal shift toward collaboration as more workers network around the clock via cell phone and computer. In the July-August 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review, authors Neil Howe and William Strauss discuss the effects of generational differences on this trend. Those born between 1982 and 2005—the first generation to grow up with mobile digital technology—expect nonstop interaction and cooperation with peers. "They will tend to treat co-workers as partners rather than rivals... and use information to empower groups rather than individuals," the authors write.

Some companies are taking advantage of this trend. Amylin Pharmaceuticals Inc., based in San Diego, is using social networking theory to understand how to better connect scientists who must collaborate to develop drugs, according to the company’s chief learning officer, Deborah Rocco. The effort is in its early stages.

When Companies 'Get It'

SAS Inc., a business intelligence software developer based in Cary, N.C., has fostered a knowledge-sharing culture since it began in 1976, reflecting the values of founder and CEO Jim Goodnight. Knowledge sharing was mostly informal until a decade ago when SAS began to launch several initiatives, using various tools, including Web 2.0 and its own products, according to Chief Learning Officer Frank Leistner.

An early initiative was for sharing tips and tricks for SAS software that could be used by field support staff and others who work with customers. SAS now has a vast searchable repository of material that employees can mine when they hit a wall. Anyone can contribute to it; there’s a feature that tells them how contributions are used. Putting the technology in place is easy, says Leistner, but "it takes a couple of years to get these initiatives to a fruitful state." Leadership support, internal marketing, feedback on the value and incentives are imperative for success. So is patience, since it takes time to build these initiatives.

Leistner reports to a chief knowledge officer separate from HR. Together, they coordinate with HR, which plays a role by hiring collaborative people, developing the overall culture and providing training specifically for tools that Leistner’s group rolls out.

At Dow Corning, where dispersed research and development teams solve problems through silicon technology, "people are almost always on a team spread globally," says Colbert. "If they don’t collaborate, they won’t be successful." Face time and telephones are essential for communication, but Web 2.0 tools are used heavily to make communication easier and reduce employee travel. The company also has a document-sharing system for its 10,000 workers.

But Colbert says the collaborative mind-set is the company’s most important tool. Dow Corning has spent six decades cultivating it. Organizational fit is one of the traits it seeks in new hires. "Workers have to trust each other and want to make each other successful," Colbert says. "They have to want to collaborate."

Assembling A Winning Team

When it comes to collaboration, many companies have a long way to go. "We are early in the cycle, maybe the second inning," says David Smith, head of the human performance practice in North America for Accenture, a global consulting and technology services firm. "Companies are beginning to attack it. Very few are getting it right."

In a 2006 Accenture survey of more than 250 senior executives worldwide, 42 percent described knowledge capture and sharing as a challenge or a severe challenge. The most common obstacles were a lack of common business culture across locations (38 percent), the absence of a knowledge support infrastructure with dedicated staff (37 percent) and a lack of rewards for knowledge sharing (32 percent).

In the May 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review, James R. Detert of Cornell University and Amy C. Edmondson of Harvard discuss reasons employees are reluctant to share creative ideas to improve products, processes or performance. Based on 200 interviews, they conclude that many employees, without justification, feel uncomfortable sharing their ideas: "Making employees feel safe enough to contribute fully requires deep cultural change that alters how they understand the likely costs (personal and immediate) versus benefits (organizational and future) of speaking up."

Research suggests that to achieve collaboration results, knowledge-sharing companies must assess their culture, no matter what technologies they adopt.

If not, "you are going nowhere," says Smith. HR has a clear role to play in that endeavor, says Bob Armacost, national knowledge leader at KPMG LLP, a U.S. audit, tax and advisory firm. Top HR executives must be involved when companies design collaboration strategies. "They can think of incentive programs, educational programs and change management to facilitate knowledge management and collaboration," says Armacost. KPMG’s top HR executive is a member of the firm’s knowledge advisory team, Armacost notes.

In the years ahead, the winning organizations will be those that learn to be collaborative and share employees’ knowledge.

Bill Roberts is contributing technology editor at HR Magazine.

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