Collaboration is no longer a buzzword. Working together on projects with many different stakeholders involved is a very common experience for many roles in many sectors. Teamwork is taken for granted, it is found on all job descriptions and we are constantly told to collaborate. However, it is surprising to realise that effective collaboration is yet to be seen in many settings, despite the fact that the notion has been circulating for a long time.
What is collaboration?
If we stop and think about the situations in which we are working together, be it in a professional setting or volunteering in an association for example, it is not easy to articulate exactly what collaboration is. Often, it is regarded simply as the use of a specific collaborative tool, instead of a way of working: when the software is not in place, it seems that working together can be almost impossible. The essential feature of conducting a joint effort is often forgotten: for some, just the fact of working in a team is considered enough. Even assigning different tasks to individuals is sometimes labelled as working together. But, when you are looking for a collaborative attitude in those situations, you will often end up feeling frustrated.
But how come that collaboration is still such a complex issue? Why am I still reflecting on it? After all this time, it looks like it is still an open issue, if we consider the amount of resources that companies and organisations invest in improving collaboration and knowledge sharing.
The human element
Creating spaces for collaboration is not an easy endeavour. There is the central, inevitable human element. Some people are keen to share and be social in their work and thoughts, others are more individualistic, one-person business-minded or not interested in contributing to a team’s effort. These attitudes can also change over time. In small or large organisations alike, the interaction between people is spontaneous and variable, but is also, in my opinion, at the very centre of any reflection on collaboration. Tools and technologies can play a big part in supporting sharing and working together: simultaneous, asynchronous, online, offline, at a distance, across time zones – yet adoption rates are far from ideal. I don’t see it as a generational issue: the popularity of social media platforms among older age groups is surging, demonstrating how sharing and socialising is not a matter of age.
Expectations in the workplace
We could look for an explanation in the fact that attitudes in free time and social life are completely different from those in professional settings. The environment we work in is clearly another key element: true collaboration needs to be valued, encouraged and appreciated. In the recent past, the rise of tech start-up companies modified this context creating a new narrative – almost a myth – of the agile, collaborative and creative workplace. I would say it has shaped expectations of the workforce, or at least of part of it. Working environments are also made up of hierarchical relations, which might have a role in inhibiting collaboration. When roles are established, there is a tendency to adhere to one’s own area of responsibility and to limit spontaneous interactions and productive synergies. But I would not suggest doing away with structures and hierarchies.
If the sense of ownership was shifted to the team as a whole, the individual may perceive his or her work as a contribution rather than a solo performance.
For this, it could be interesting if the yearly evaluation was considering the collaborative work employees are doing. Moving away from individual goals and measurements of success – at least partially – could maybe instil the sense of how valuable it is to truly collaborate.