Are we ready to disrupt collaboration?

by Marcin Wilinski 04 October 2019

Everyone wants to collaborate, but only a few do it well. Ricoh’s Innovation Survey suggests that staff in 57% of Australian organisations face unclear, inconsistent, or non-existent strategies for enterprise collaboration. Many organisations, including Ricoh, have defined better collaboration as a goal for digital transformation. But we need to recognise that effective, sustainable collaboration is not easy to mandate and impossible to force. It rather must come about naturally as a by-product of the culture in which we work and interact. For that to happen, it often means disrupt existing – and persistent – modes of structure and process within our organisations.

Embracing uncertainty

These structures and processes traditionally serve one goal: to achieve predictable outcomes from organisations consisting of the unpredictable - people. Predictability and repeatability have defined success since even before the Industrial Revolution. They also often inhibit collaborative innovation.

Last year, we discovered that Australian organisations’ most commonly-cited driver of workplace productivity strategies continues to be cybersecurity – not process automation, workflow management, mobile access, or even new technologies like video presence, robotic automation or mixed reality.

Cybersecurity is not unimportant: on the contrary, it’s absolutely critical and plays an integral role as an enabler of freer, more confident innovation. But for it to dominate the workplace productivity agenda suggests that we might be playing it too safe, too often. That notion is backed up by another finding from our Innovation Survey: that 22% of Australian organisations struggle to innovate due to risk aversion amongst staff and managers. To move forward, our most innovative and determined clients have confronted this ethos of risk avoidance and called it out for what it is: a major inhibitor of how we use technology to connect with one another in more meaningful ways.

Redefining success

To encourage a culture of collaboration that goes beyond the transactional, cross-functional and cross-disciplinary teams require greater motivation to work closely. At present, many have little reason to do so – perhaps why, despite the rising focus on collaboration as a value, our Innovation Survey found that 36% of business leaders say their organisations do not use collaboration tools in an integrated or systematic way.

One of the simplest ways to encourage truly self-regulating, self-organising collaboration is to make everyone responsible for everyone else’s success. Joint responsibility for business-wide KPIs rewards those who work together and creates clear motivation to quickly and constructively overcome disagreements and challenges as one. Our clients who recognise and reward this sort of purposeful, nimble collaboration almost always see a sustainable positive change in how individuals and teams approach problems together.

When we move away from narrow incentives that define success as a strictly personal phenomenon, each team’s and individual’s own advancement and performance depends on the success of all others. As a result, people become more willing to go beyond traditional lines of business and seek out or provide complementary viewpoints. We have seen this in our most successful clients as well as in Ricoh as we emphasise how co-dependent teams are, whether they like it or not – people start to meet and solve problems together without requiring leaders or structure.

Reviving empathy

However, true “unstructured” collaboration only happens when people are treated like people. Often, we even fail to practise the fundamentals of empathy in how we devise strategies for collaboration. According to Ricoh’s Innovation Survey, a staggering 53% of Australian employees feel they are only “sometimes” asked about how collaboration tools might help them to become more productive. 10% have never been asked that question.

Disrupting collaboration requires us to disrupt these old hierarchical mindsets – replacing them with ways of thinking that want to know how others think and feel about their work. How do we accomplish this? For their part, leaders can mentor and train the next generation to see beyond their individual disciplines and look at the “bigger picture” of services and systems. At an even simpler level, they can invest in real conversations with the individuals in and outside of their teams, investing in their personal career journeys and supporting them through inevitable challenges.

A big part of the success of digital transformation initiatives resides on how we as leaders and teammates define our culture first. However, “culture” as some set of values is not enough. The people who make up the organisation must see real, lived-out value in collaboration and the personal relationships which precede it. Doing well at collaboration means working together not just as means to some end, but as an intrinsic part of who we are as individuals and an organisation alike.