Collaborating Vs. Cooperating: To Achieve Results, Integrate People and Technology


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Grant McLaughlin, Chief Marketing and Communications Officer, Booz Allen Hamilton

Technology transfers everything from money to ideas around the world. It uses data to engage employees and customers and increase revenue. So why are too few of us realizing technology’s benefits for true collaboration? One reason is that we’re mistaking cooperation for collaboration. 

As Ron Ashkenas writes in an April 2015 Harvard Business Review article, there’s a difference between cooperation — a willingness to get together and share information — and collaboration. The latter requires combining the skills and resources of different departments, and constant, clear communication. 

Ashkenas points out that many executives who have undergone training for teamwork and collaboration assume that by staying friendly and sharing information, they’re collaborating — when in fact they’re just cooperating. 

He tells of an insurance company that informed stakeholders about an upcoming product launch but never specified how its information technology and customer-service departments would need to support it. As those departments scrambled to develop training and processes to make the launch viable, delays and costs mounted. 

But even being informed doesn’t necessarily mean you’re involved in the process. And being cooperative doesn’t always mean you’re invested in the outcome. To cooperate, the only technology you need is automation to move data from one group to the next. To truly collaborate, however, you need to connect. 

Collaboration requires motivation.

Getting people passionately aligned toward a shared, common goal is essential to achieve fruitful collaboration. The same principle could extend beyond teams to partners and allies.

In “The Megacommunity Manifesto,” a summer 2006 article in strategy+business magazine, Booz Allen experts Mark Gerencser, Reginald Van Lee, Fernando Napolitano and Christopher Kelly tell how an overlapping interest can compel diverse groups to collaborate over a shared set of common problems. 

When they care deeply about an objective, groups such as governments, corporations, nongovernmental organizations and others can make progress toward achieving it by committing to sharing goals and values, and by demonstrating mutual respect.

Within companies, it’s essential to set common metrics by which all stakeholders’ successes will be measured. Take public relations as an example: Holding alignment meetings and agreeing on cadence, channels and metrics allows teams to seamlessly deliver messages that engage customers and deliver higher business value. 

Integration is key.

People often think of collaboration as simply “working together,” the alternative to solo or parallel efforts. But working together is never simple. Collaboration requires strategic interaction between teams, talents and workflows. As Ashkenas points out, it also requires making tough decisions and trade-offs.

Begin by focusing on who will participate in the collaboration and what the project is intended to accomplish. Make it clear that you don’t just need cooperation — but also collaboration — and ensure that people understand the difference. 

Map out the work needed to achieve the shared goal, including the sequence of work from all areas of the firm. Specificity is essential, as you’re creating a framework for all parties to follow. 

Next, schedule a working session with all collaborators to review and revise the framework. With stakeholders present, you can make changes on the fly and learn how each change affects the whole. When all are agreed, you have a collaboration contract. 

Technology serves the purpose.

Once you’ve established the framework, you can identify the technologies that will help people integrate their efforts, not just work on parallel tracks. 

A March 2018 study from Forrester Research, “Gain a Competitive Advantage From Enterprise Collaboration,” concludes that an enterprise-collaboration strategy can engage employees and provide business value. An enterprise-collaboration system allows people in different departments of a company to communicate, share documents, hold video conferences and complete work tasks.

In a March 2018 paper, “How to Select Collaboration Technology Using Gartner’s ACME Framework,” Gartner Research says collaborating teams should define the scope of their collaborative activities, who will participate and in what context, and what motivates each team. The ACME framework — which stands for activities, context, motivation and enabling technology — can then help you choose software for particular activities, such as a meeting solution. 

After identifying the functions you need, divide the technologies into a portfolio of options: technologies that are available across the enterprise, such as Microsoft Office 365; technologies for specific workflows, such as Salesforce; and technologies for special applications, such as Quip, a cloud-based collaboration tool.

Categorizing the technologies lets you identify areas where an enterprise-wide solution would work and others where you’ll need to add solutions. It also helps you plan how to integrate the suite.

Collaboration enhances results.

 In the April 2015 issue of Training Journal, business strategist William Buist writes that collaboration sparks innovation and creative problem solving. Among its other benefits, he says, collaboration creates fresh thinking that no one group could do alone. Collaboration enables higher performance, delivering higher value; and it encourages employee alignment and understanding. 

In my own experience, here are the top-five principles of collaboration that I’ve seen deliver results:

1.    Make the goal specific, simple and clear.

2.    Clearly define what needs to be done by whom.

3.    Appoint a person or group to manage the process.

4.    Make sure that technology serves a purpose, rather than becoming an end in itself.

5.    Establish clear metrics first, so everyone agrees on success.

Genuine collaboration amplifies your potential to transform your organization. It’s no longer a matter of “My group will talk to your group,” but of creating value together. 

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Strategies and Tactics.

Grant McLaughlin, chief marketing and communications officer for Booz Allen Hamilton, brings a strategic edge to integrated marketing, reinventing the editorial voice and driving revenue with metrics aligned to client insights and data-driven targeting. His transformative team includes emerging technologists, digital marketers and analytical powerhouses (and a sheepdoodle named Chief). Follow him on Twitter @grantrmc.