Collaboration requires trust. Collaboration often requires risk with new relationships. Collaboration requires doing something new. In short, people do not like to collaborate. People do not like to share. People like safe relationships with others from the same educational background. They collaborate with those who share the same problem solving paradigms, issue identification and decision making criteria. Knowledge and knowledge-intensive work is intensely hierarchical. People guard their secrets and their weaknesses. So, although the business may look towards de-layered flexible working structures as a cost saving measure, people do not necessarily follow. Knowledge is and has always been a powerful means to embed and entrench power within an organisational hierarchy.
Collaboration, however, is worth money. In 1969 Peter Drucker noted that sharing and managing knowledge is “essential to organisational success” because it ensures sustainable competitive advantage. How then do businesses best help employees engage and collaborate in a meaningful way which creates business value?
Larry Prusak notes that large organisations performing complex tasks have been around since about 1860. So far the corporate community has had over 160 years to solve this problem and we seem no nearer to it. He posits that it seems so hard because, essentially, it is not possible. There is no science behind it only heuristics. Solutions are not algorithmic but rather anecdotally commonsensical.
The problem is that cross-functional collaboration is counter-intuitive. It is not a normal feeling to share intra-discipline information with other functions around the business. Complex ideas are not easily understood or translated outside professional groups. Geologists and pharmacists can only explain an important discovery if it has immediately recognisable business value. Lawyers can only explain the value of an idea if it averts imminent loss. Manufacturers articulate the value of a process where it creates savings or improves revenue. Everything else is esoteric gibberish.
Thought leaders such as Prusak and Drucker well note that the answer to the standard problems of intra-disciplinary collaboration is to create well supported Communities-of-Practices (CoP). Practices, they note, are best kept to about 200 members who meet about 2-3 times per year. In the diagram below, such CoPs may extend beyond the walls of the organisation and may even include other competitors.
To misquote Shoeless Joe Jackson in “Field of Dreams: ‘Build it and they will not necessarily come.’ Increasing networks and their IT support will not necessarily produce any tangible return. Most likely it will needlessly absorb organisational time and money only to increase the personal fiefdoms and create further bottlenecks and over-centralisation. Such networks will help to increase the volume of knowledge within an organisation and problem solving but, critically, it will not help convert it it into business value. In order to realise business value knowledge must cross functional boundaries.
GOVERNANCE & WORKFLOW
Knowledge will flow relatively freely within disciplines. CoPs address the problem of collaboration for such knowledge generation and problem solving. Knowledge does, however, need to be forced across functional boundaries. Commercial teams will not be drawn to good ideas. They will not recognise them. Workflows are essential to implement collaboration across organisational functions. The key to implementing cross-functional (as opposed to hierarchical) workflows is to embed them in governance. People will collaborate across functions if they cannot achieve their goals or get their work done. The difficulty with any governance, however, is making sure that these ‘gates’ do not become bottlenecks. Although the onus may be on the professions to present their work for approvals, so to is there a burden on the executive silos to understand and approve in a timely manner. In this way there should be no burden on the operational disciplines to present their work on an ad hoc basis. The presentational form must be agreed between professional and executive branches to understand. There is no sense in letting commercial elements of the business dumb down sophisticated ideas. Only when both parts of the organisation come together in mutual understanding is there truly any sense of collaboration across functions.
In the end trust will always trump value when it comes to the exchange of knowledge. Indeed, businesses must actually increase organisational silos and insulate them rather than fight them. The solution is not to break down the silos but to build them up. People like safe relationships. They like to feel warm and closeted from ‘outsiders’. The key is to increase their sense of importance through revenue generating communities of practice in order to increase the volume of knowledge in an organisation. Only then should the business increase the pace of converting knowledge to revenue through cross-functional workflows strictly embedded in the corporate governance.