The Challenge of Collaboration

Everyone agrees. Collaboration is more important than ever to help solve complex business problems and drive innovation in today’s globally competitive environment.

And collaborate we do. People are working on teams more than ever before, and the ratio of individual work to collaborative work continues to mount on the collaborative side. Even 10 years ago, according to research by Gartner Dataquest, employees spent 60% of their time working in groups and only 40% on individual work. By 2007, individual work had decreased to just 30%. And this trend is expected to continue as research shows that the collective intelligence of groups outperforms that of the individual worker, thanks to the group’s access to a diversity of experience and skills and the benefits of team members building on each other’s ideas.

But collaboration in this global environment poses its own difficulties. Members of these teams are widely distributed, chosen for their expertise and skills and not where they are located in the world. And “distributed collaboration” – working with people around the world to solve problems and co-create – is not the same as sitting around a work table.

Despite the difficulties, putting heads together over great distances is seen as an imperative – and, when it works properly, one of the great benefits of a global strategy. This idea is explored in the 2010 IBM report Working Beyond Borders, a global study of over 700 chief human resource officers (CHRO). According to the study, organizations must capitalize on collective intelligence by finding “new ways to connect people to each other and to information, both internally and externally.”

The study acknowledges that organizations are struggling to make this happen. Even with the advances in communications technology, the authors say, “the global workforce still finds itself encumbered by numerous impediments that inhibit the ability of organizations to quickly respond to emerging opportunity.” So what’s the problem?

The CHROs say capitalizing on the collective intelligence of global teams is one of their top priorities, but the majority struggle to effectively connect their workplace, and 78% said their organizations are ineffective at fostering collaboration and social networking. Only 21% had recently increased the amount they invest in the tools required to promote collaboration and networking.

Although some consider collaboration as a “soft” skill, the study says it can have “bottom-line consequences.” It found financial outperformers were 57% more likely to use collaborative and social networking tools to enable global teams to work more effectively together. Yet, only one-third of organizations are regularly applying collaborative tools and techniques to enable global teams to work more effectively.

Companies are finding that as their people spend less time together, collaboration becomes more difficult, social networks can weaken, little problems become big problems and things slow down. They need solutions that enable them to connect with staff, customers, suppliers and subject-matter experts, quickly and globally.

But connecting technology isn’t the only answer. Collaboration means team members must go beyond simply coordinating activities and communicating information to actually co-creating a solution from an exchange of ideas and viewpoints, and so deeper levels of interaction must occur. For one thing, it is difficult for groups to get things done without first achieving a level of trust and understanding – a prerequisite of collaborative work. Group members discover the knowledge each member brings to the group and their basic orientation toward the project. Collaborators also need to spend significant time in a creative second phase where they generate possible approaches and solutions before entering a third and final phase of evaluating the best route forward.

For these types of group sessions, phone conferences or traditional approaches toward videoconferencing – with its formal face-to-camera, eyes-forward, upright-posture setups – don’t provide a productive setting to build trust and get creative because they don’t support a more natural back-and-forth exchange of ideas and information. They just don’t create enough opportunity for participants to interact when generating new ideas. Designing a workspace that satisfies these needs can solve the real challenge of collaboration.


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