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What is collaboration?
Is improved collaboration the answer to your companies' prayers? Many executives think so, and it's easy to understand why. Everyday, executives see the need for their employees to collaborate. These needs, which executives hope can be dried under the umbrella of collaboration, come in many shapes and sizes:
Posted May 20, 2002
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Prayers unanswered
Is improved collaboration the answer to your companies' prayers? Many executives think so, and it's easy to understand why. Everyday, executives see the need for their employees to collaborate. These needs, which executives hope can be dried under the umbrella of collaboration, come in many shapes and sizes:

  • My salespeople can't get the information they need from other groups.
  • How can my group work efficiently with other groups in a different office? How about in a different city or country or continent?
  • One of our best selling products was the result of 'accidental' collaboration between R&D employees in two different groups. How do we make that happen again?
If so many executives are praying for collaboration, why are most of their prayers going unanswered? Much of the answer lies in the fact that the concept collaboration and any initiative to change it ("improve collaboration," "facilitate collaboration," "drive collaboration," etc.) is too general and too confusing to address the more specific business problems executives are trying to solve.

The confusion behind collaboration
Consider this analogy. What do you need to connect hardware? You can't answer this question because it depends on the hardware. What you need to connect a VCR to a TV is very different from what you need to connect a wheel to a car.

Now consider collaboration. What do you need to connect people? Answering this question is even more difficult, if not impossible, because not only do you need to know who you're connecting, but you also need to know why you're connecting them.

Even though it's almost impossible to answer the "How do I enable collaboration?" question, many of the vendors knocking at your door will claim to answer it. And therein lies the core of the confusion - there is no uniform definition.

Clearing the fog
The definition of collaboration is specific to your organization and depends entirely on your organization's needs and characteristics. To get closer to your definition of collaboration, think about the business problem you're trying to solve, and answer these two questions:

  1. Do you want collaboration to facilitate projects or to solve problems?
    Projects are longer term and often start with a formal coordination between many people. Problems are shorter term and often start with one person being blocked on a task.

  2. Do the people whom you want to collaborate already know each other?

Based on the answers, the following grid shows what type of collaboration you should be thinking about:

If your salespeople can't get answers from marketing to solve problems they face in the sales pipeline, then employees should collaborate through an Employee Knowledge Network, which delivers employee expertise directly to other employees blocked on critical tasks, exactly when they need it most.

If a group of marketers need to coordinate on a single product release, then employees need to collaborate through an Online Workplace, which enables employees to share tasks, documents, and calendars.

Collaboration improves business (processes)
Collaboration can mean "people working together," or "people sharing information." The problem with these definitions, however, is that they are as meaningless to your business as Dilbert-derided terms such as "work smarter" and "increase synergy."

An important side-effect of the grid exercise above is that it forces you to think of collaboration in the context of a business process. By doing so, you not only make collaboration relevant to your business, but you also make it relevant to the people involved.

For one manager, collaboration is "enabling salespeople to get on-time and high quality answers from marketing in order to complete RFPs more efficiently and close more sales." For another, collaboration is "enabling support engineers to get just-in-time information from engineering in order to speed resolution of support incidents and cut support costs."

So what should collaboration mean to your organization? It's up to you to determine the definition.

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