As collaboration within and among organisations becomes increasingly important. Companies must improve their management of the networks where it typically occurs.
Although collaboration is at the heart of modern business processes, most companies are still looking for the best way to manage it.
Linear, process-based tools such as activity-based costing, business process reengineering, and total quality management have long been effective at measuring and improving the efficiency of people and organisations in accomplishing individual tasks. But they do a poor job of shedding light on the largely invisible networks that help employees get things done across functional, hierarchical, and business unit boundaries.
What do we Mean by Collaboration?
There are many descriptions and assumptions as to what is work place collaboration. To make sure we communicate clearly, a simple definition of collaboration is included.
Collaboration can be viewed as greatly mixed teams working together inside and outside a company with the resolve to create or add value by improving innovation, customer relationships and productivity. Unlike team work – collaboration is a selfish endeavour. Organisations and people come together to use the assistance of others to achieve their goal. Once the goal is achieved the parties move on.
Is it just a Failure to Communicate?
Cheaper communications costs, nationalised business models, and the increasing specialisation of knowledge-based work have made collaboration within and among organisations more important than ever.
Nearly 80 percent of the senior executives surveyed in a management study said that effective coordination across product, functional, and geographic lines was crucial for growth. Yet only 25 percent of the respondents described their organisations as “effective” at sharing knowledge.
What companies need in a collaborative age is the ability to map and analyse the value created (or destroyed) deep within employee networks. To make these tools more useful, executives must reorientate them toward the revenue and productivity benefits that collaborative interactions generate, the costs such interactions impose, and opportunities to improve connectivity at the points that create the greatest economic value.
Organisations must first map their collaborative networks and then analyse the economic benefits and costs that key interactions within those networks create. Once executives understand the value that’s flowing across networks, they can intervene in straight-forward, cost-justified ways. Typical examples include replicating high-performing networks, training workers to emulate the collaborative approaches of successful colleagues, making valuable expertise and advice more readily available, and revamping performance metrics to reflect mutual accountabilities better.
These kinds of successful interventions can help companies reduce complexity, redefine roles, serve clients more effectively, and allocate financial, physical, and human resources more efficiently.
Understanding How Work Really Gets Done
Traditional ways of mapping processes and analysing activities have limits when it comes to understanding the performance of individuals, teams, and entire organisations.
Network analysis can help companies determine the best approach for each. The first step is identifying the functions or activities where connectivity seems most relevant and then mapping relationships within those priority areas. Options for obtaining the necessary information include tracking e-mail, observing employees, using existing data (such as time cards and project charge codes), and administering short (5 to 20 minute) questionnaires. Organisations mapping their decision-making processes might ask their employees, “Whom do you ask for advice before making an important decision?” Others targeting innovation might ask, “With whom are you most likely to discuss a new idea?”
Now the real value comes when companies move from mapping interactions to quantifying the benefits and costs of collaboration. To do so, companies must assess the time employees spend on interactions of various types, as well as the savings and sales contributions of specific collaborations. Key inputs to this analysis include fully loaded wages costs for network participants and detailed survey results (for example, the responses to queries such as, “How much time did working with employee X save you?” or “On how many deals in the following revenue bands did you work with employee Y?”).
Creating Relational Value
The powerful results of identifying and replicating high-performing networks represent only a small part of the potential of network analysis. It’s also possible to promote specific interactions that help generate revenue and boost productivity. Targeted action is dramatically more effective than promoting connectivity indiscriminately, which typically burdens already-overloaded employees and yields network diseconomies. A more informed network perspective helps companies to identify the few critical points where improved connectivity creates economic value by cutting through business unit and functional silos, physical distance, organisational hierarchies, and a scarcity of expertise.
A network view often uncovers “hidden” people whose contribution to cross-selling or closing deals is far greater than individually focused performance metrics might imply. It can also suggest where to replicate collaborative behaviour, when to draw in valuable experts from the network’s fringe, and how to eliminate obstacles to collaborative sales efforts—obstacles that include time, skills, personalities, incentives, and ignorance of which colleagues have expertise.
Organisations can improve their cross-selling initiatives by completing a network analysis to determine how to become more responsive to customers and marketplace shifts. The analysis will not only help a company’s leaders find out where collaboration has generated revenue, but also prove useful for reframing the roles of key players in the network.
To improve the overall sales process the company could replicate actions of the major contributors’ behaviour to help all key salespeople understand how collaboration could make them more successful. Sales staff could learn from the success of high-performing collaborators that resulted from more than just expertise or affability. For example junior sales would learn that compared to other salespeople, the top performers were accommodating, more responsive to internal requests, flexible, amenable to constructive criticism, enthusiastic team players and effective conflict managers.
Most companies—even high-performing ones—can find opportunities to boost their collaborative productivity. Sometimes, network analysis shows them that they can generate savings by facilitating the transfer of advice and information from colleagues. In other cases, a network perspective isolates unseen collaborative inefficiencies resulting from poor job design, an ineffective allocation of the right to make decisions and outdated role definitions, process steps, or organisational designs.
The specific issues and interventions vary considerably across industries, but some general themes emerge. Often, companies that operate without a network perspective allocate resources inefficiently, manage talent blindly, and experience large disparities in the effectiveness of collaboration within and across units. Scrutinising the time savings that relationships generate helps companies to isolate what’s working; to decide what, where, and how to invest in additional connectivity and to redefine roles and staffing levels.
Collaboration is an increasingly vital feature of business life. But when companies just promote collaboration indiscriminately, they create bottlenecks and diminish their organisational effectiveness. A network perspective gives executives the information they need to foster collaboration at the points where it delivers an economic return.
When organisations collaborate across all aspects of the business, lessons learned will prevent the same mistake being made by a different department. When innovation is shared, teams don’t unnecessarily incur costs and time to reinvent the wheel. When organisations are active collaborators, time and money are saved and the value of collaboration becomes tangible as it positively affects the bottom line.
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