Are we really collaborating?

Collaboration is essential to any well-functioning workplace. If you've worked in a large organisation, you know how frustrating it is when good ideas languish because of silos, barriers or general dysfunction. 

Technology means that for many jobs, we don’t always need to be in the same physical space - but we still need to work together effectively. 

In government, the push towards inter-agency cooperation, along with opportunities created by new technology, have furthered the collaboration agenda.  The government’s innovation agenda is also encouraging collaboration between research, industry and government. A recent example is the partnership between government, private sector and research centre Data61 on improving cybersecurity for Australian companies.

But what exactly is 'collaboration'? It's the buzzword du jour, but are we using it in the right way? Does it matter?

I think it does. Because the way people, teams or companies frame the style of working together affects people’s attitudes and involvement in a project. It impacts how people work together, and the expectations of their collaborators.

Taking the time to figure out exactly what type of collaboration you need, will help you figure out what contribution and input you need from others working on your project.

Collaboration, coordination or cooperation?

I got to thinking about the differences in how people work together at a conference earlier this year, where I saw a presentation from digital strategist Dion Hinchcliffe.

He explained that while collaboration is often used as a blanket term, there are actually three different ways people work together: coordination, cooperation and collaboration.

Diagram by  Dion Hinchcliffe

Diagram by Dion Hinchcliffe

Each of these has different levels of input required from people and teams to achieve the overall objectives. Coordination, for example, relies heavily on one person driving a project with inputs from all over the organisation. An example of this is an annual report – someone has to coordinate this, and there are many contributors, they don't have much say in the final product. 

Cooperating on a project moves the needle closer to the collaboration end of the spectrum. It involves shared objectives but separate activities that converge at the end of a project. Rewriting website content is an example of this. The shared goal is a website that gives visitors a better experience, but the project is mostly driven by one person or area.

True collaboration only happens when you have meaningful input from multiple parties working towards a shared objective. In the publishing space this could be a jointly authored book. In government, it’s agencies working together to achieve a common goal. One of our clients, for example, collaborates with people from all over the country, and other agencies, to develop national policy standards. 

Why should we care about collaboration?

Collaboration is becoming increasingly important in the workplace. This includes collaboration between different organisations, as well as between departments in large organisations. This has always been important for publishing managers, who work with everyone from policy areas to web teams, designers and printers.

One recent Forbes article went as far as to say that the ability to collaborate is the new competitive advantage. Failure to collaborate can have serious commercial consequences. Author of The Silo Effect, Gillian Tett, says a failure of Sony’s departments to collaborate allowed Apple to beat them to the digital music player market with the iPod. Silos even contributed to the 2008 financial crisis, she says, because small bits of information siloed away in different areas weren't viewed as a whole.

On the other hand, the benefits of collaboration are obvious. You get people with different skill sets and perspectives to better inform an approach to a project. On an organisational level, a collaborative culture makes for happier people and a more productive workplace.

Where to next?

There are of course many digital tools that can make any level of collaboration easier (and here’s another great article by Dion Hinchcliffe with a summary of the types of tools to consider). But, as with digital transformation, collaboration is all about people and culture.

So how can you create a culture of collaboration, break down the silos within your organisation, and work collectively with others?

We’ll explore ways to cultivate collaboration in an upcoming blog post.

See how MasterDocs helps teams collaborate using Agile Authoring to maintain momentum on creating policy, guidelines and manuals.