Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Why Organizations Must Encourage Collaboration: Building a Case

Organizations, i.e., the business leaders and executives are not interested in learning. Nor do they care much about collaboration. Business cares only about the outcome. It is up to us--L&D professionals--to connect learning and collaboration to business goals like customer satisfaction, efficient troubleshooting, innovative design ideas, reduced production time, and such.

This brings us to the questions that are floating around in most organizations today:
  1. Why should employees collaborate? 
  2. How can facilitating collaboration help the organization? 
  3. What is in it for the employees?
Until and unless L&D can clearly and unambiguously articulate the responses to these questions, business will continue to view ESNs and collaborative learning/collaboration with scepticism. Even when businesses invest in an ESN platform, most become ghost towns after the initial 2-month hype. 

I have attempted to share some of my thoughts and responses to the questions mentioned above. 

Why should employees collaborate?
Readers of my blog know that I have written about this before since it's one of my pet topics. I will briefly summarize my key reasons here. 

Organizations today deal with a multitude of tasks and challenges that are complex, and more of exceptions than norms. Rapid technological advancement, a global workforce, and constantly changing and unique requirements make it impossible to train people for all eventualities before putting them to work. Shorter and shorter production cycles, demanding and informed customers, and increasingly interconnected and complex work require workers who are agile and adept at picking up new skills, are willing to experiment, and can learn quickly from failures. And these cannot happen when employees work in silos or as individuals. 

Complex work requires multi-disciplinary skill sets and diverse perspectives. The Industrial Era thrived by making each employee perfect a skill through repeated application. This led to improved productivity. However, anything that can be perfected through repetition has been automated. As Ben Hammersly had said: "Anything that can be reduced to a flowchart, will be automated." And it has.

The Knowledge Era requires workers to be innovative and creative, to come up with simple and elegant solutions to complex business challenges, and each solution will require cross-disciplinary teams. Thus, collaboration across teams and projects, across business functions and disciplines, both within and without the organization can no longer be viewed as something "employees should do if they can find the time". It is something that "employees and business leaders must become adept at if they wish to survive and thrive in today's work environment". 

Collaboration implies "working together toward a common goal" (from +Harold Jarche). As more and more people--across countries and cultures, across disciplines, across projects--are required to work together to design a solution, collaboration is the only way. What does this mean in terms of concrete action from the employees? It means some of the following:
  1. Sharing a common understanding of the goal the group is striving toward
  2. Narrating one's work so that others can learn from the successes and failures
  3. Sharing resources, expertise and knowledge openly and generously 
  4. Openly respecting everyone's inputs, and building on each other's ideas 
  5. Fostering trust so that sharing of tacit knowledge becomes easier
  6. Always keeping the end goal in mind 
  7. Seeking and providing continuous feedback 
  8. Believing in the prime directive of the Agile Retrospective: "Regardless of what we discover, we understand and truly believe that everyone did the best job they could, given what they knew at the time, their skills and abilities, the resources available, and the situation at hand."
How can facilitating collaboration help the organization? 
When employees work towards a common goal, it benefits the organization. Collaboration and trust elicits the sharing of tacit knowledge that is an accumulation of years of experience and expertise. This is critical for the growth of an organization. By empowering, enabling and trusting employees to keep the larger organizational vision in mind, orgs take employees into partnership thus building engagement and commitment. 

However, to arrive at this stage requires concrete actions steps from leaders and executives. We have heard often enough that culture can kill all good intentions; culture literally can eat strategy for lunch, dinner and breakfast. Leaders need to walk the talk. Most ESNs become ghost towns because driving engagement become the responsibility of L&D/HR. L&D/HR can and should be facilitators. However, true engagement must come from the leaders. Only when leadership shows they are willing to be harbingers of change, can any change take root and flourish. Collaboration and sharing need to be built into and accounted for in the organizational learning and growth strategy. It cannot be a add on. It must be an integral part of the strategic vision of the 21C organization. Moreover, by delegating collaboration to L&D, leaders send out the message that it is not really important. By not engaging on the organization's ESN, they implicitly communicate their lack of faith and commitment. In such cases, true collaboration and engagement is bound to fail. Some things start at the top...even in an ever flattening, networked world. 

What is in it for the employees?
When asked to share or contribute on the organization's ESN, the most frequently heard responses/questions are:
  1. We don't have the time.
  2. What do we share?
  3. I posted something last week but no one responded.
  4. I have to send everything I want to post for review; it's too tedious.
  5. How is collaborating here related to my work? 
Obviously, there is a problem. The most glaring one is that there is no synch between one's workflow and the ESN. Sharing and collaborating on the platform feel like an additional piece of work. This is a challenge for L&D and leadership to resolve. 

To come back to the WIIFM for employees, we need to highlight these. The first and very obvious one is the professional development for the employees. Whenever someone shares their expertise, they gain credibility over a period of time. They are recognized and sought after. The second critical advantage, IMHO, is the opportunity to develop skills of narrating one's work, online collaboration, curation and writing. These are critical 21C skills that will stand all who have them in good stead. The third one is the ability an organization-wide ESN platform provides to connect and share learnings with colleagues from across the globe. It is no longer restricted to who is next to you or in the next cubicle. This can be highly impactful for both the employees and the organization. Different perspectives and diverse opinions/ideas lead to creative solutions. If actively used and facilitated, employees can begin building their personal learning networks (PLN) and carry the skills with them wherever they go.

All of these not only make an employee more immediately efficient but it also make ongoing learning a part of their workflow. This in turn has a positive impact on productivity. Just like the Industrial Era couldn't do without training, the Knowledge Era workers and organizations will flounder without the skills of collaboration, building of personal learning network and the ability to manage their own professional development. 

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