Creating Collaboration

By Michael Maccoby

Research Technology Management; Vol. 49, No. 6, November-December, 2006 pp. 60-62.

Remember when the management gurus told you your job was to build teamwork? Now the in-word is collaboration, because innovation of all kinds requires high levels of interactivity, not only within teams, but also across traditional boundaries. That includes integrating technology with business solutions, developing convergent product offerings, slashing transaction costs and responding to disasters.

The need for innovation explains why IBM’s “Global CEO Study 2006” of business and government executives found that creating collaboration is their major challenge.

The term “collaboration” has shaken off its shady past. In World War II, it meant helping the enemy; a collaborator was a traitor. But now the meaning has reverted to its Latin root, colLaborare, working together. Although, the meaning may be clear, creating collaboration can be extremely complex. That’s because different contexts and managerial challenges are involved, and they all engage the human side. In fact, the push for collaboration is transforming organizations and challenging attitudes.

Consider three kinds of collaboration you may have to manage and the issues they raise, discussed below.

  1. Across departments, experts collaborate either to develop a product or solve a problem. An example of the first is concurrent engineering— engaging designers, product engineers, production engineers and marketing specialists in a process that speeds things up. An example of the second is IBM’s attempt to combine product experts with PWC (Price Waterhouse Coopers) business consultants to provide information solutions to business or government customers.

    Ideally, you’d like to just round up the experts from the different disciplines to achieve a common purpose. But it’s not that easy—you are faced with some tough questions:

    • Should you design a collaborative process beforehand, or just depend on people being able to work things out among themselves? What kind of roles are needed? Who’s accountable for results?
    • What are the incentives to collaborate? Will the technical staff member be evaluated and rewarded for the collaborative work and if so, who evaluates? Some companies have tried to collect different kinds of specialists into a solutions department, but uprooted from their knowledge base, they lose touch with advances in their fields and lose their expertise.

  2. Within a department, collaboration may look more like traditional teamwork. But that depends on whether it’s a matter of parceling out discrete tasks or whether, as in most software projects, people have to work interdependently. And more than in the past, team members may be located in different places. If technical staff can do the work anywhere, why make anybody come to a common workplace?

    For the past five years, the MITRE corporation has allowed software team members to work at home or anywhere else they wish. When I asked CEO Martin Fago how management kept tabs on these employees, he said there was no problem—team members demanded results from each other. This means that the manager’s role was to be a leader, communicating purpose, but letting the team manage itself.

  3. Collaboration between and among companies ranges from co-production to supply chains to partnerships to inter-firm networks. Co-production raises the same issues of cross-departmental collaboration plus the problem of developing trust that each party will respect the other’s needs. Supply chains typically include forms of co-production as suppliers design collaboratively with customers before making and handing off products.

    Collaboration between firms can involve a service supplier interacting hand in glove, with a customer as AT&T has done for example, running the Mastercard network. Inter-firm networks like Global Healthcare Exchange (GHX) combine companies to cut transaction costs and gain stronger bargaining power with suppliers. (footnote #1)

    And the Financial Times reports (Aug. 29, 2006 that a new consortiuum of large industrial companies like GE, BP, IBM. Xynteo, and Bayer will share knowledge about reducing emissions and improving technology. Global Leadership and Technology Exhange CEO Ingar Skaug is Quoted as saying. “We do not expect companies in direct competition to share their industrial secrets. But there is a case for collaborative commerce in different parts of the supply chain or in complementary sectors.“

    You can find cases of all these types of collaboration in The Firm as a Collaborative Community, edited by Charles Heckscher and Paul S. Adler (Oxford University Press, 2006.) The cases show that creating collaboration involves roles, processes, corporate culture, and the personalities of the collaborators. To create high levels of collaboration, you need to manage all of these factors.

Not on Organization Chart

Unlike traditional bureaucracies or even sports teams, collaborative roles are generally not found on an organizational chart. Even in the past, collaborative groups from steep hierarchies like AT&T spontaneously collaborated to restore service after storms and other natural disasters. But the project was short term and generally involved people from the same department. Today, collaborative efforts may call for different types of specialists whose roles are not yet determined.

A clear example is treating a patient with a complicated problem at the Mayo Clinic where a collaborative group of specialists is assembled according to the condition diagnosed. As we’ll see, Mayo’s unique culture supports collaboration.

Recently, I advised an executive of a large traditionally organized technical company who had the job of leading a major project that required collaboration among different departments. He found that the formal roles and responsibilities among managers overlapped, and he didn’t have the authority to reorder the roles. However, by describing the purpose of the project which was backed by the CEO, he was able to engage the key players in working out their own roles, responsibilities, and relationships. His own leadership role combined strategy, bridge-building and facilitation.

Keep in mind that there is no best way to organize knowledge workers (footnote #2). By developing these roles interactively, you can get a good start on creating collaboration.

Lacking clear roles and rules, people need to commit to supportive processes where they have input, including processes for communication and conflict resolution, processes for measuring results and evaluating performance. To sharpen collaboration, all players should be able to evaluate each other. 360° feedback via questionnaires is sometimes used, but I find it too impersonal and also easily misused. People who are resisting change can anonymously criticize a leader who is putting pressure on them. It’s better to create open feedback discussion, and better yet a culture that encourages co-coaching.

A Powerful Collaborative Culture

This brings us to the all-important challenge of building an organizational culture that supports collaboration. The Mayo Clinic boasts a powerful collaborative culture where specialists are expected to evaluate each other’s work with patients. The culture is built on deeply shared values, the most important is caring for patients.

Mayo’s statement of “core principles” begins: “Practice medicine as an integrated team of compassionate, multi-disciplinary physicians, scientists and allied health professionals who are focused on the needs of patients from our communities, regions, the nation and the world.” Extremely ambitious, but this value-based principle has inspired Nobel Prize-winning research as well as great patient care.

Since IBM’s CEO, Sam Palmisano made collaboration central to corporate strategy, he has tried to transform an extremely hierarchical culture, formerly based on individualism and clear lines of command. To move the culture, Palmisano organized “jams”, on-line town meetings to get IBMers interacting.

The 2003 jam on values triggered so much criticism of management that some managers feared a corporate revolution. But by sticking with it, Palmisano gained trust that IBMers would not be punished for candor (footnote #3).

In the latest jam, on innovation, 70,000 employees of IBM and 70 invited partner companies offered ideas on four topics: transportation, health, the environment, and finance. These will be organized into themes and suggested projects.

IBMers tell me the culture is changing. When they need help, they can call on experts in other areas. IBM reinforces collaboration with “thanks awards,” symbolic recognition with shirts, umbrellas, backpacks, etc. embossed with the company logo. Any employee can give six a year.

A collaborative culture like Mayo grows over time. It selects professionals with collaborative attitudes who fit easily into the culture. To make a bureaucratic culture collaborative takes time and provokes resistance, especially from personalities who feel comfortable in roles with clear authority and accountability. A typical managerial rationalization for resisting collaboration is “If I give up authority, things won’t be done right.” Or, “Of course I collaborate, I get input from everyone before I make decisions."

Of course, it’s easier to build a collaborative organization from scratch as was done at Citicorp in creating a group of specialists to interact with large customers (footnote #4). The project leader skillfully selected people with interactive personalities. How could he tell the difference from applicants with bureaucratic personalities? The interactives asked questions about the purpose of the project and probed for ways they could add value. The bureaucrats emphasized their credentials and the important executives they knew.

The Interactive Personality

Leadership is essential both to creating collaborative organizations and managing collaboration. At the top, visionaries are needed to design the strategy and inspire the organization. But a more interactive personality type is better able to facilitate collaboration and build trust among participants. This is someone whose strongest emotional attachments are not to paternal images but to siblings and friends. A Boeing executive fingered it, saying that a good manager for a complex networked software project would be the middle child in a family of nine brothers and sisters.

Creating collaboration isn’t easy, and you won’t do it just by rewriting the organization chart. But given the value of collaboration, it’s well worth it to take on the challenge of the human side.


  1. Applegate, Lynda M. and Ladge, Jamie J., Global Healthcare Exchange, Harvard Business School Case N9-84-002, 2003.
  2. Maccoby, Michael, 2006. “Is There a Best Way to Lead Scientists and Engineers?” Research Technology Management 49, no. 1 (January-February, 2006): 60-61.
  3. Applegate, Lynda M.; Heckscher, Charles; Boniface, Michael; and Collins, Elizabeth L. 2003. IBM: Uniting Vision and Values. Harvard Business School Case N9-805-116.
  4. Heckscher, Charles, 2007. Collaborative Enterprise. Yale University Press.

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