Organizational Collaborative Ecosystems

Working with people around the world is a wonderful opportunity to create new ideas and bring them to life. Multiple perspectives are crucial for success in the unpredictable world we live in. No one can see the whole system anymore.

Bernice Moore’s insight from her latest blog posting is so true, particularly that last sentence—that no one can understand today’s professional and organizational issues or complete work tasks alone. It is about collaboration and teamwork.

If organizational success is reached through various forms of collaboration, what actually is collaboration? Once understood, how can it practically be established and promoted in today’s fast-paced global organizations?

While not easy questions to answer, seven adventurous Saybrook University OS students joined by a business professional who studied at Fielding Institute signed up for a team development and collaborative workplace systems course, and have set off on an adventurous journey to explore these questions and see what they discover together.

The journey is comprised of many routes travelling in the same direction. At the moment, to set a foundation for applying their learning to the workplace, some are grappling with how to articulate what actually is collaboration and what is its relationship to cooperation and teamwork.

Sparked by the latest banning of telework at Yahoo! by Marissa Meyer, some are exploring if high levels of collaboration can actually be achieved in virtual work environments.

Others, focused on practical organizational processes, are striving to identify the critical tools needed to implement appropriate, effective, and efficient collaborative work systems in organizations.

The class members participate in all of the discussions that comprise the various routes to understanding collaborative workplace systems.

What follows are some the insights that are emerging as the journey progresses.

To begin, while sharing key insights, this post is more about enabling deeper inquiry than it is about presenting answers. It is about inviting others—non-class members—into the evolving dialogue engaged in by these courageous colleagues (eight students and one faculty member).

Further, while content is set out to critically examine during this semester, the heart of the course is the collaborative interaction among the course participants in collaboratively shaping the course, being committed to the learning process and each other, and in helping each other achieve their diverse course research agendas. A noble but not easy task when life and work demands so much from students these days.

Learning is occurring because each believe in collaboration and that it adds value to the task at hand. They are willing to create a virtual learning place, establish a collaborative ecological learning system, and risk broadening their own learning outcomes to include being sincerely involved with each other’s professional interests. While it is not easy or always clear what to do for the course, they experiment to discover or create the next step or process because they are committed to each other and the process.

This is an important lesson for today’s professionals.

Other insights that can be drawn from this collaborative venture:

First, collaboration is a dynamic and complex organizational phenomenon that can be encouraged and fostered, but cannot effectively be mandated. Choice plays an important role, as does trusting relationships. It has a human dimension concerned with social networks, leadership styles, and workplace members’ personalities and interaction, and a mechanistic side focused on efficient processes, effective tools and assessment analytics.

Collaboration is not an end within itself, but a means to an end; that is, an organization-based process or tool that leads to a decision being made or a task being completed. Unproductive collaboration wastes valuable time and resources.

The exact nature and characteristics of collaboration are still being discovered. Trying to work collaboratively, in many instances, is still uncharted territory.

In their 2012 article “Collaborative Public Management: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?,” Rosemary O’Leary and Nidhi Vij set out that collaboration can be viewed from many angles, some being:

  1. An emergent process between interdependent organizational members who negotiate the answers or solutions to shared concerns or problems;
  2. Working in association with others for the mutual benefit of the participating parties;
  3. A joint activity by several parties where working together adds value to the work by their working together rather than separately; and
  4. Process of facilitating an operating of multi-organizational arrangements to solve problems that cannot be solved or easily resolved by a single person or organization.

From working with the students in this course, I would add that effective organizational collaboration is rooted in the participants’ interest in and commitment to both the organization’s overall goals and success as well as their colleagues. Each participant assumes the appropriate level of accountability needed by the process to successfully achieve the desired outcome.

Second, organizational collaboration:

  1. Is deeply rooted in interdependence, interactive relationships, and dialogical conversations;
  2. Involves, but is significantly more than mere cooperation;
  3. Can be formal and informal, intra and inter-organizational in nature;
  4. Must be supported and fostered by the organization’s culture, structure and leadership if it is to be effective;
  5. Involves focused networking and intentional interaction that is grounded in the projects or organization’s overall operational style; and
  6. Can be achieved in a co-located or dispersed (virtual) workplace environments.

Third, collaboration needs a particular ecosystem to exist and thrive. It emerges from and is supported by a collaborative organizational culture and spirit, an ecology of human interdependence that gives rise to an adaptive structure and set of processes characterized by intentional open conversations and trusting relationships focused on mutual benefit.

More specifically it requires empowering leaders that:

  1. Enable cross boundary networking, dialogical communication and interactive engagement.
  2. Foster open, honest, and trusting relationships among co-workers, and
  3. Promote communication styles that involve active listening, engaging with others, dialogue, constructive criticism, and being open to challenges and feedback.

Organizations that seek to have a collaborative workplace must hire managers and a workforce that can and want to work in such an environment. Employees have to believe that working with others adds value, enhances the outcome, and raises workplace creativity and innovation. Workforce members who do not believe in collaboration or are not willing to develop collaborative skills will be resistant and become obstacles to organizational success.

Fourth, there are many forms and levels of collaboration. It can take shape as intra and inter-organizational links, groups, (social) networks, teams (co-located and distributed/virtual), partnerships, alliances, and communities.

When charting the movement towards being collaborative, a difference can be seen between

  1. Being logistically accessible,
  2. Willing to be available,
  3. Open to being cooperative,
  4. Choosing to collaborate, and
  5. Deciding to engage as a workplace team or partner.

Moving from one state of being to the other is a conscious choice to become more engaged, establish deeper working relationships, and assume more responsibility.

Fifth, effective workplace collaboration efforts involve assessment and measurement processes and analytics. The organization’s culture, leadership, workforce, work environment, and operational processes among other facets must be assessed they can accommodate a collaborative work style.

How to conduct such an assessment will be the topic of my next post on collaboration. In the meantime, what insights have you drawn from your experiences of participating in collaborative organizational ventures?

Read other posts by Chuck Piazza

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