Indy CIO Network Lunch: Collaboration

Collaboration means working together towards a common goal. However, what does that mean in the context of IT at an organization? How can CIOs foster collaboration, and what’s the role of tools? That was the topic of discussion at a recent Indy CIO Network lunch. Everyone in the room makes investments to collaborate. Their attendance demonstrates that, since the group gathers to network and collaborate with other CIOs to improve their ability to support their organizations.

Though our conversation drifted past various collaboration tools, most of the time was spent speaking of the larger factors that influence collaboration. While collaboration vendors want you to believe that their brand of solution causes collaboration once deployed, it’s closer to say that tools can remove barriers and enable collaboration – if your organization wants to do it.

Culture

Most corporate cultures may belong in a petri dish, but we’ve all got one – whether it’s bad or not. From the smallest organization to the largest, every company has a culture. That culture dictates how the organization will respond. Organizations themselves resist change. They’re designed as a stabilizing influence, and that influence means whatever has been the rule is likely to stay the rule unless someone can break the inertia.

Organizational culture comes from the people and the processes. The people you have in an organization have a way of approaching things. They have their feelings of safety and of fear. If collaboration conflicts with someone’s basic desires, it will be very hard to accomplish collaboration – unless and until you change the people. However, people are only half the battle. The other side is the processes, the rules – both written and unwritten – inside the organization about how it works.

Organizations that have a stack-rank approach to employee performance, which rewards the top performers and “releases” the lowest performers, will find that collaboration won’t blossom, because the workers inside of a department are effectively pitted against one another. While some coalitions may develop where groups of employees work together – and against others – for the most part, a structure of constant conflict will stamp out collaboration and prevent it from taking root.

Trust

At some level, it’s a matter of trust. Trust that you and your colleagues are really working towards a common goal. Trust that if you help them, it won’t hurt you – and that they’ll return the favor. Organizations where trust is broken find it difficult to generate widespread collaboration, because there’s no belief that in the end it will be beneficial to them – and everyone else.

Being vulnerable in a group of others requires a perception of safety. The perception of safety comes both from the individual’s experiences and from the experiences they’ve had at the organization. The safer the environment seems, the more vulnerable – and therefore collaborative – that they can be.

Of course, just being safe doesn’t mean that they’re bought into the mission.

Ownership

The topic of how to generate ownership in the idea of collaboration resonated with the group, as they sought ways to help build buy-in across all levels of the organization to really work together – rather than to defend territories. Building that ownership revolves around helping everyone realize the importance of collaboration, both to the organization and, more importantly, to each person individually.

Barriers

Even with the right levels of trust and ownership, there are sometimes things that get in the way of collaboration. A lack of clarity on what is expected and desired as well as a very hierarchical and rigid structure leads to barriers to collaboration that are hard to knock down.

Communicating Clarity

One of the hardest problems when a new initiative is started is the lack of an expectation about what it should be like. When faced with a lack of clarity, most people freeze. If you don’t know how to use the collaboration tool, most will simply not use it. How to use something is very contextual and tacit. It’s hard for someone to know how to use the new tool until they’ve done it.

Organizations can communicate clearly what the expectations are with regard to collaboration, including which tools to use for what, and why. The communication needs to be in the context of the person and how it impacts their world and what is expected of them. It also needs to be multi-channel, as all of us are overwhelmed and may miss communications provided in a single channel.

Mindset

The other key barrier is mindset. When we think only of our own situation and our ability to keep our own job, we’re necessarily unable to work collaboratively for the greater good. We simply can’t see the forest when we’re worried about saving our own tree.

The effects of fear and stress on creativity and collaboration are well documented. If everyone is afraid or stressed out in their work with others at the organization, collaboration just won’t form. Conflict has a negating effect on collaboration.

The Role of Conflict

We spoke briefly about the conflict that arises between two groups even inside the technology organization. We spoke of the developers who are goaled on new features and the operations folks who are goaled on uptime. Whether these goals are explicitly stated or are simply a part of the individual’s expectations, this difference in goals creates a conflict.

Organizations try to eliminate this by providing explicit goals that are around revenue – larger goals – than individual expectations about their goals. However, these internal goals still hold. They believe that the best path to revenue is through increased features – or improved uptime. There’s a persistent pull towards individual goals that can be influenced or controlled within the group.

The real work of a CIO – in their department – is to continuously realign employees towards the work of delivering value to the organization and understanding that they’re all a part of that. To make bread, you need flour, water, salt, eggs, and yeast. If you leave an ingredient out, the bread doesn’t work – it takes everyone in the organization to be able to support the organization.

Tools

It’s difficult to have a conversation like this in a room full of problem solvers with great experience without descending into what tools are effective for different kinds of collaboration. Despite the occasional mention of tools, for the most part, we spent our time speaking of the business challenges and how we change the way we approach collaboration – more than just adding another collaboration tool.

Author’s Notes

While this summarizes our conversation, I’ve editorialized a few things and tried to make some concepts more explicit than someone listening might have heard through the conversation – thus, the perspectives here are mine but are thoughtfully informed by the 20 or so attendees.

I’d like to suggest some resources for more information about the topics that are related here: