How Technology Can Increase Collaboration And Build Trust

This post is an shortened version of a plenary talk delivered in Cardiff for the Wales Audit Office 


Depending on your age it’s likely that the two things you were not taught in school were:

a) how to collaborate effectively

and

b) how to use technology to connect and share with others

And yet these – the essential skills of the digital economy – are hardly ever talked about, much less taught and promoted, in our places of work.

Our 21st century economy demands workers excel at collaborating through technology, but as employers we struggle to work out how to equip our people with these vital skills.

There’s a reason for this of course, most of our organisations are still obsessed with organising ourselves into neat little directorates with clear accountabilities and reporting lines. This creates a very efficient looking functional silo system – encouraging employees to stay in their lane and get things done.

However in a digital economy we can no longer afford to think in conventional terms of efficiency. The more interdependent the world becomes, the less it needs lone problem solvers and the more it needs great collaborators and orchestrators. How to collaborate productively is a skill we all need to learn as it’s essential to our having greater impact in the digital world.

Problem-solving, creative thinking, digital skills and collaboration are in greater need every year yet are not the focus of our learning and development.

We still spend most of our time and resources on leaders. This incessant focus on ‘leading’ ‘and ‘leadership’ is actually a throwback to an industrial model and unwittingly acts against collaboration. When we continually promote the importance of leaders we imply that they are ones to take charge of situations.  They are the the ones to sort our problems out.

However, this concept of the heroic leader is fundamentally anti-collaborative as it compels those being ‘led’ to be submissive and unquestioning.

How can our organisations become more collaborative? 

Ultimately , we’ll only build collaborative organisations if we design them that way.

At its best, collaboration in the workplace can help people think more deeply and creatively about a subject and develop more empathy for others’ perspectives. It can boost productivity and innovation and create better workplace engagement.

But, it takes time and requires space and patience. And – it’s incompatible with cultures built on ego and fiefdoms.

As I’ve written previously, if we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

At Bromford we’ve begun the process of democratising innovation and design by training all our colleagues in collaborative problem solving and cross-team working. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s supported by an organisational DNA that has a design thinking – and hence a collaborative – mindset at its core.

How technology can increase collaboration and build trust

What are the challenges?

The technology is there to enable cross-team, cross-sector, and cross-country collaboration. Much of it is free to use.

Legacy thinking is more of a barrier to this than legacy IT.

We still have a tiny percentage of leaders who are really living a digital lifestyle. There are still relatively few having open debates , showing transparency in public discourse , answering questions online and sharing progress.

Too many of us are hiding behind unfounded concerns about data privacy and fear of working in the open.

We need to teach and support people how to make the best use of social technologies to connect and collaborate at scale.

What are the opportunities? 

For the first time in history, we now have the ability to ‘go beyond’ our organisational boundaries, connecting and sharing with the public and each other.

The basic unit of innovation is not a creative individual, nor even a team, but a creative community.

Millions of people connected without hierarchy and working together to solve some of our biggest challenges. This provides the opportunity for a 10x improvement in our communities. 

For organisations and systems that are used to ‘providing services’ rather than ‘connecting people’ that’s clearly a challenge  – but it is one we can and must step up to.

We can’t change the world on our own. We need to build movements.

The No.1 Problem With The Digital Workplace

“Collaboration is an essential skill of the digital economy. And yet how to collaborate productively is hardly ever taught either in universities or in the workplace.” – Gerry McGovern

It’s only a couple of months since I posted Why We Don’t Collaborate, but a few things I’ve been reading and observing make it a subject worthy of returning to.

The people selling us the digital dream (agile working, always on connectivity, work from anywhere) too often skip important questions. Are we really more productive? And do we really collaborate better that we used to? 

As Gerry points out in his post , collaboration isn’t taught. You’re just expected to know. “Productive collaboration is really hard. It requires a whole range of communication, organizational and social skills.”

I’m old enough to remember when my pre-digital inbox (a filing tray) was actually audited by my team leader. In my first real job my performance related pay actually depended on my ability to effectively organise my day, my work and how I communicated and collaborated with others.

Today, I could have thousands of emails in my inbox and nobody would know. I could be presenting an image of an organised and well functioning colleague when I’m actually drowning.

The abundance of technology and the myriad new ways to interrupt someone’s day isn’t necessarily evidence of progress.

A new report on the potential impacts of digital technologies on co-production and co-creation finds that there is a lack of hard evidence of actual impact. Indeed, “conceptual fuzziness and tech-optimism stand in the way of collecting such evidence”.

This tech optimism is worth dwelling on. The report notes we tend to stress the enormous benefits digital technologies could have, but tend to ignore the profound uncertainties and risks that come with technological innovation. Digital transformation in a nutshell!

The report ends with an important question – who controls the shape of digital technologies in public service delivery and, by implication, the opportunities for co-production and co-creation?

In a more optimistic piece for Harvard Business Review, Raj Choudhury , Barbara Z. Larson and Cirrus Foroughi write that an increasingly mobile workforce can present problems for traditional team leaders.  Their research indicates that the real productivity boost doesn’t come from digital tools per se, but rather from the increased flexible working options that digital can facilitate.

Their study compared how productive, loyal, and cost-effective employees at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office were when they were allowed to work flexibly. They chose that employer because it had recently implemented a wide-scale pilot program allowing people to work from where and when they wanted, while still requiring others to remain in the office.

The results were 4.4% higher productivity among those in the pilot program, from people doing the exact same work as those who were required to come into the office.

However, they note that work-from-anywhere policies could increase costs in work environments that require brainstorming and project-based interaction, adding that more research is needed to fully understand the implications of remote work in more collaborative settings.

So again, the jury is out on whether the digital workplace helps or hinders collaboration.

I’m an eternal optimist so my gut feeling is that mobile working done well, leads to a better connected, more productive workplace.

On Tuesday this week my team hosted a hackathon in the Cotswolds. We came together physically with a range of partners and then retreated to synthesise the outputs remotely. The draft report and basic prototypes were distributed less that 36 hours later. There’s no way we could do that without digital tools AND having work from anywhere flexibility.

However, we are an innovation and design team who have the luxury to experiment with digital collaboration tools and we can invest a lot of time in our personal learning. We frequently go ‘off grid’ and use non work sanctioned tools if we can find a better way of doing it.

That probably doesn’t apply to 99% of workers – and it’s these people we need to focus on if we really are to get the benefits of our investment in technology.

Leveraging technology to connect and collaborate with people at scale is the No.1 requirement of the 21st-century leader.

It won’t happen on its own. So if you have a digital workplace strategy, you need a collaboration strategy too. Because if we don’t teach, measure, encourage and reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

Without that support the magical collaborative workplace of the future may be further off than you think.

 


Photo by Georgie Cobbs on Unsplash

Why We Don’t Collaborate

Everyone says they love collaboration.

Our open offices are designed to encourage collaboration.

We recruit for people who are collaborative in nature.

The digital tools we use are aimed at fostering greater collaboration.

We promote the benefits of collaboration , or even co-creation, with our customers and service users.

Collaboration has replaced innovation as the buzzword of the moment.

In truth though, our actual behaviors show we don’t like collaborating.

We often don’t have the time that is required to work through differing perspectives. We have difficulty in working with others who hold alternative opinions. And – let’s face it – many of us have a need to be right and get our own way.

Despite the collaboration rhetoric – most of us prefer existing and working in silos.

So why is that?

In 1988 Phil. S. Ensor coined the term the functional silo system.  His contention was that narrow, specialised teams and jobs were easy to manage but imposed a very damaging learning disability on the organisation.

  • We become focused on addressing organisational fixes rather than exploring the underlying symptoms.
  • Social chasms emerge resulting in people not seeing any problem in context. Indeed – cross organisational problem solving can break down.
  • And as every function focuses on its own objectives and KPIs – the organisation slowly becomes reactive.

Despite all that though – the silo actually has a great deal going for it. Within a silo it is much easier to define and implement an initiative or outcome.

Basically, silo working means you can ‘Get Shit Done Quickly’. Without interference.

And almost all our organisational KPIs reward GSDQ activity rather than the purposeful thinking and patience that collaboration requires.

Additionally the exponential growth in the number of managers (There are five million managers in the UK today, 10 times as many as there were 100 years ago)  has boosted opportunities for silo thinking at the expense of collaboration.

And of course silos don’t just exist at organisational level.  Our sectors organise themselves into siloed echo chambers – each with their own system of professional bodies, conferences and award ceremonies.

Truth is – most of us simply don’t have strong in-person collaboration skills.

It’s highly unlikely you were taught about collaborative problem solving at school. Many of us were educated to find answers through solitary work.

It wasn’t until just two years ago that it was even measured, with a report outlining the difference in the collaborative ability of pupils across 52 countries.

As the report notes, students typically learn individually, and at the end of the school year, their individual achievements are certified. But the more interdependent the world becomes, the less it needs lone problem solvers and the more it needs great collaborators and orchestrators.

Infographic CPS-Full-Ranking 70

Interestingly it found that on average across OECD countries, girls are 1.6 times more likely than boys to be top performers in collaborative problem solving.

Arguably more managers means less collaboration. And more male managers could make it worse still.

Rewiring Organisations For Collaboration

So we’ve established: collaboration isn’t easy, it takes a long time to do right and it doesn’t come naturally to most people.

At Bromford we’ve been redesigning the organisation to move away from silos and towards collaboration. Our previous desire for operational efficiency at all costs had adversely affected interoperability between teams.

The answer was to build a ‘shared consciousness’ through the creation of a network of 33 linked service area’s and teams.

A multidisciplinary ‘design team’ acts as a conduit for all change across these areas. This recognises that today innovation is rarely the product of individuals working in isolation, rather – it is an outcome of how we mobilise, share and integrate knowledge.

L+Q Bromford Lab (2)

I’ll be the first to say that working in this way is hugely challenging. I have a lot less autonomy than I did five years ago. If you’re into ego and power I’d suggest you’d find this an uncomfortable place to be.

Saying you’re a collaborative organisation isn’t true and helps no-one. True collaboration won’t happen unless you make it happen.

Creating an atmosphere where people can respectfully disagree, where all voices are heard and leaders bring out the best in everyone takes discipline and skill. 

We need a safe space for exploration. We need permission to cross organisational silos and assemble diverse co-creators. We need to move out of our ivory towers and shift innovation as close as we can to the colleagues and customers who know the jobs that need doing.

If we don’t teach, measure, encourage or reward collaboration it doesn’t tend to happen.

We need less talk of it, and a lot more doing.