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Clarify the 'What,' 'Who' and 'Why' of Collaboration

Three business women looking at a laptop in an office.

Creating a collaborative work environment begins with knowing what your organization wants to achieve, who should be part of the effort and why the company wants to achieve that goal.

Collaboration can drive overall performance, such as increased revenue, and an ability to better execute business strategies, according to a 2016 report from the Institute for Corporate Productivity (i4cp). The report is based on an online survey with more than 1,070 respondents—including HR and talent professionals—and included interviews with several companies. Slightly more than 80 percent of respondents were from the U.S., another 5 percent were from both Mexico and Canada and the rest were from various other countries.

Why Involve HR

HR plays a role in creating a collaborative environment, said Patric Palm, CEO, chair and co-founder of Favro, a planning app for teams. He's also executive chairman and co-founder of Hansoft, a computer software company. Both are headquartered in Uppsala, Sweden.

"The first thing we need to keep in mind is who really needs to collaborate with each other. … You want to organize [collaboration] around [your] dependencies," Palm said.

He added, "When we talk about collaboration, we have forgotten … to think collaboration for what. What is it we need to collaborate around?"

[SHRM members-only Toolkit: Developing and Sustaining High Performance Work Teams]

And what's the "why"? That's the goal the organization is trying to reach.

In some organizations, an HR professional may have the role of collaboration officer. It works well, Palm said, when this person serves as a coach and the principles of collaboration are embedded through the organization, he added.

Andee Harris, chief engagement officer at Chicago-based HighGround, an HR technology platform, has found that being transparent and having frequent check-ins that allow her to give employees feedback has helped foster a more collaborative environment.

"As an HR professional, it's important to create a collaborative work environment because not only does it create a better performance management framework, but it also improves engagement by including employees in the development process," she said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

Palm pointed to Spotify Technology SA—a digital music-service provider with headquarters in Luxembourg—as a good example of a collaborative environment. The company is made up of squads, tribes, chapters and guilds; no more than seven or eight employees make up the autonomous squads that are the smallest employee groupings. The smallness of the groups allows for agility and emergent and informal leadership.

That lack of organizational layers is "a way for them to attract great talent. I call it a grown-up start-up," Palm said of Spotify. "A big part of making collaboration work is making people understand what [your organization] actually looks like."

Who Does the Work, and Why?

"HR has responsibility for acquisition, promotion and developing of the right skills" an organization needs. "In this new world [of ever-changing technology], those skills are different," Palm said.

The i4cp survey found that HR/talent management professionals are more often turning to skill-profiling systems to help employees identify and reach out to co-workers who have a specific expertise.

"Collaboration is key to everything we do," said Dom Price, work futurist and head of research and development at Atlassian, a computer software company in Sydney, Australia.

"We use collaboration software to help our teams understand why they're doing something, as well as what they're truly trying to achieve—understanding the answers to both of these is critical," he said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

Pointing to "massive changes" in the business world—artificial intelligence, more geographically dispersed and diverse workforces, and a gig economy that is spurring a more transient set of workers—he said collaboration software and practices can't afford to stay static.

His organization relies on tools like Google Apps and their own products—such as Confluence— to help its teams create, share and store documentation.

"We need to connect more diverse groups of people, in distributed teams and with different views of the world, to help them do their best work and unleash the potential of their teams," he said.

Employees want quick access to information about their salary, benefits, time off, and how they're progressing toward career development goals, not to mention the right tools and technologies to help them collaborate with colleagues, pointed out Jennifer Yamamoto, senior public relations manager at Oracle in Redwood City, Calif.

That means HR should understand an organization's existing tools, processes, routines, business calendars and related initiatives. She also advised conducting an audit to identify where collaboration would be most effective and where the organization's pain points are.

"It's important to have this information when looking for new technologies to implement and how to integrate into the existing business infrastructure," Yamamoto said in an e-mail to SHRM Online.

She also advised using tools such as Skype for Business and other platforms that make communications and collaboration between colleagues and managerial staff easy and effective. 

Reward Employees Who Work Together 

Organizations that emphasize the importance of collaboration have high-performing teams. One way they show employees this importance is rewarding individual employees and teams for collaborative behavior that increases effectiveness, the i4cp survey found.

But while two-thirds of companies surveyed said collaboration is a stated organizational value, only about one-fourth of them align it with their employee performance management processes.

"The lack of incentives and rewards is the most common and powerful barrier to effective collaboration," said Kevin Martin, chief research officer at i4cp, in a news release. "Most talent management systems are designed to reward individual achievement, not team accomplishments.

"Finding ways to recognize and reward individuals, leaders, and teams who engage in productive collaborative behaviors can pay off in a big way."  

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