Collaboration has long been one of the main drivers of business success. More often than not, businesses that put in place the right strategies and tools to promote and facilitate collaboration and knowledge sharing are more likely to come up with innovative ideas, form beneficial long-term partnerships and move ahead of the competition. Within such businesses, employees are often asked and even expected to collaborate, both internally and externally.
In this blog post, which is the fourth in a series dedicated to collaborative working, we discuss the scope of collaboration in business and explore the various types of business collaboration.
- Understanding the ‘what,’ ‘why’, ‘who’ and ‘how” of collaboration
- The “what”: The definition of collaboration
In the first blog post in this series, we defined collaboration as “the situation of two or more people working together to create or achieve the same thing”. Although this may sound a bit generic and straightforward, this definition doesn’t limit collaboration to a specific setting or group of people and in practice the scope of collaboration in business encompasses both internal and external activities. While these both involve collaboration, they differ from each other in terms of the different parties involved, strategies and tactics deployed and of course the tools used to facilitate the collaboration process.
- The “why”: Why collaboration matters
At the internal level, businesses try to encourage and seek to incorporate different forms of collaboration in the workplace to lay the foundations for teams to be able to work together with an aim to achieve higher levels of success.
Externally, businesses look to engage in collaborative actions to benefit from others’ expertise, to gather the opinions of their customer base and to get customers and other stakeholders more involved in the development of products and services.
- The “who”: Internal and external collaborators
Internal collaboration involves individuals within the same team or company working together on a project to achieve certain business objectives. For this to happen successfully, employees need to be great team players with the right set of soft skills and an ability to work well in often diverse and multi-skilled teams. Additionally, businesses have the responsibility to create a positive and transparent working environment where employees are encouraged to share and to input ideas and initiate collaborative actions.
External collaboration, on the other hand, refers to the exchange and sharing of knowledge and expertise outside the company walls, with the aim to develop new product ideas, speed up the time to market for a product, build brand awareness and more. As well as employees, other different parties can be involved in this process, ranging from suppliers to customers and even competitors.
- The “how”: Different strategies and tools
When it comes to the strategies and tools, these depend on the objectives of the collaboration and the stakeholders involved as collaboration may follow different paths based on these. For internal collaboration to be effective, specific guidelines need to be outlined and properly communicated at a team and organizational level informing individuals on the how, when and more importantly the why behind the collaboration. Furthermore, by using analytical tools, sentiment analysis and one-on-one interviews, managers can classify employees based on their skills, expertise and specific traits, and then group them together to increase the likelihood of achieving a fruitful collaboration.
In terms of tools, employees need to be equipped with the right tools, including the right software solutions that can help them communicate in real time, keep track of projects, share information with ease and facilitate remote collaboration. Depending on the business and the sizes of the teams and nature of the operations, a multitude of collaborative suites and specialized business applications are available today. The most common ones include digital workplace software, chat applications, video conferencing tools and ideas management software.
For external collaboration, the process is a bit more complicated as more stakeholders, and indeed more diverse stakeholders, are involved. Strategically, businesses will try to determine the departments and job functions with challenges and/or opportunities that would benefit from external partnerships and expertise to improve their performance and productivity. Later on, decision-makers will identify the right stakeholders and partners and choose the channels through which the collaboration would more likely be successful. These channels may be similar to those used internally (of course, bearing in mind the privacy of internal data through adjusting the visibility and permissions settings). Additionally, there are a variety of other tools that entirely depend on specific goals and objectives. For example, many businesses use social media channels to get in touch with their target audience and to gather useful information that can help them develop and redefine their offerings and branding messages. Crowdsourcing is a great example of how businesses can leverage the power of platforms (such as social media or crowdsourcing tools) to obtain new ideas, solve problems and generate funds from other organizations and/or individuals.
- Types of collaboration
Now that you have an idea about the scope of collaboration in business and the main differences between internal and external collaboration, let’s further examine how individuals and businesses collaborate.
- Team collaboration
Probably the most common way to collaborate is internally. Team collaboration occurs when individuals from the same team work together and embrace a combination of processes and technologies to achieve common organizational and team goals. Goals that are typically determined by team managers, who are also responsible for recruiting, assigning roles and responsibilities, and supervising team members.
There are a variety of techniques and best practices that can be applied to foster team collaboration, including constant communication, keeping employees engaged and willing to collaborate, recognizing desired behaviours, providing continuous training and career development, and of course having the right tools in place.
Team collaboration can be further classified based on where and how it happens. Here, remote and cloud collaboration immediately come to mind as a result of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. This current period has seen organizations invest heavily in cloud collaborative and video conferencing solutions to eliminate silos, facilitate meetings, share and co-edit documents in real time, and more.
- Cross-departmental and interdisciplinary collaboration
Interdisciplinary collaboration refers to collaboration involving individuals from different teams, disciplines and backgrounds, whether within the same organization or externally. It can bring a host of benefits to both the teams and the members involved. First, having opinions from various points of view helps with eliminating bias and widening perspectives and generating ideas that might otherwise be ignored or overlooked, ultimately leading to creative and practical solutions and better offerings and customer service.
Second, constantly interacting and exchanging ideas with people from different areas of expertise can strengthen the communication and interpersonal skills of employees. Skills that can later be used on other projects and knowledge that can spread through the company.
One can find examples of interdisciplinary collaboration in virtually every business and industry. For example, software development is a process that requires the input of multiple teams, such as product management, design, development, QA and more. To keep everyone on the same page, and to organize the process and respect deadlines, these teams use a combination of best practices, methodologies (Scrum, Lean Software Development, etc.) and software solutions. Standalone or built-in project management features are ideal to manage the process and help team members assign and keep track of tasks. Additionally, other functionalities, such as document management and Wikis act as knowledge repositories containing all useful information about the project. Finally, built-in messaging apps and collaborative spaces add a much needed social layer as they help facilitate meetings and give team members a private space where they can stay up to date with the latest news and updates.
- Community collaboration
We often have a tendency to associate collaboration solely with finishing projects and meeting deadlines, like in the first example. However, collaboration may also revolve around sharing knowledge and continuous learning. This is the case with collaborative communities. These can be formed within or outside an organization and allow individuals to seek help and advice to overcome specific challenges.
We can find a perfect example of collaborative communities in the healthcare industry. There are multiple internal and external communities created by doctors and healthcare practitioners, where they are able to communicate with their peers, participate in various discussions and find answers and solutions to their cases. To guarantee the security of critical data, these communities are often built on collaborative portals and extranets that are only accessible to authorized members. These platforms often contain many features, such as news and chat rooms.
- Strategic partnerships and alliances
By definition, a strategic alliance is an agreement (formal or informal) between two or more businesses, whether on a long or short term. Firms that engage in strategic alliances agree to share their resources and expertise for the sake of the partnership as a whole.
This type of collaboration is often sought by businesses wanting to diversify their product offerings, mitigate the risks associated with penetrating new markets and to get an edge over the competition.
Some popular examples of successful alliances include Starbucks and Barnes & Noble, and Uber and Spotify/Pandora (at some stage) among others. In each example, both firms strategically targeted each other’s strengths and know-how to reach more customers and to improve their own services.
For the partnership to be successful, teams from both parties need a medium through which they can work together. Usually, when two companies form a partnership, question marks often arise over how and where the collaboration should occur. To avoid any backlash, resistance to change and the costs associated with training staff on new software, businesses often tend to implement familiar tools that everybody knows how to use, such as email. The downside, however, is that these tools are not designed for instant communication and collaboration, often leading to more time spent locating information in endless email threads, duplicated knowledge, etc.
In recent years, more companies have started to rely on digital workplace solutions to facilitate the flow of information between them and their partners. Let’s take the example of companies A and B. Both have just recently agreed to partner and are now starting their partnership and are looking for ways to connect their teams and resources. Company A already has a digital workplace in place, while Company B relies extensively on numerous stand-alone and specialized solutions that wouldn’t necessarily benefit the partnership. In this case, Company A can create dedicated private spaces and grant permission for Company B’s teams to join. In this way, both teams will have a common area where they can securely collaborate. This has become common practice for businesses that often outline this criterion in their digital workplace requirements specification.
- Supply chain collaboration
Similar to strategic alliances, supply chain collaboration involves two or more businesses that share, more or less, the same objectives. It is usually centred around optimizing costs, speeding up the time to market and maximizing business value.
Supply chain collaboration can be either horizontal or vertical. Horizontal collaboration occurs between two or more parties from the same level of a supply chain (e.g., two companies within the same industry), while vertical collaboration involves parties from different levels (e.g., a wholesaler and retailer).
As supply chains nowadays can consist of multiple global players, the need for collaboration has grown significantly. Let’s take the example of a typical retail supply chain. As the goods make their way from the vendor to the end customer, they need to be processed and transported through several other levels, such as distribution centres, warehouses and stores. This is a complex process that requires a constant flow of information to keep everyone aligned and able to meet delivery times.
In summary, collaboration in the business world takes a variety of shapes and forms and involves multiple stakeholders. For many businesses, the key to growth and continuous success is the ability of the business to lay the foundation for effective collaboration and to set up the right strategy and tools taking in consideration the specific characteristics of their wokforce. In the next blog post in this series, we discuss how to create and promote a collaborative culture. Stay tuned!