In business circles, collaboration is defined as a "practice where individuals work together for a common purpose, usually to accomplish a business goal." Is that collaboration in its truest sense? Yes and no. Collaboration is more than team work, although team work is vital. And it is true that without collaboration skills, all you have is a group of talented individuals who cannot meet goals, create, or execute a strategic plan.
But the definition has been convoluted with time and its use. After all, how could you expect everyone to know the definition of "collaboration" when Google registers about 39 million results – that means confusion about the true meaning of the word. For many young executives, the word draws a picture of people sitting around a table having a nice "meeting" about goals that must be met that day and the best way to get everything accomplished. For others, the meaning delves deeper, but at the same time only outlines collaboration's results – it accomplishes what traditional structures of doing business and technology cannot produce.
Others point to the definition including diversity – diversity in problem solving, ideas, and talents. Still there are those who toss into the definition mix the thoughts of a diversified team working together with the sole purpose to create betterment in the areas of operations, relationships, technology and overall structure.
One misstep in the definition occurs when someone confuses collaboration with innovation. Innovation simply means adding something new to the mix, whether it's a new method, idea, or job skill. This can be a result of collaboration, but it is not the definition – the two are not the same thing.
Even though there are disagreements with the definition and, at times, difficulties, most business leaders tend to agree that bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration, since it wastes resources and produces shoddy results, at best.
Look at the 2008 and 2012 Dream Team that went to the Olympics. Unlike the original 1992 dream team that dominated the courts, the latest group of NBA stars found it difficult to beat a number of its opponents, especially Spain. Part of their problem was they approached the game as a gifted athlete, instead of as a gifted team. The NBA Dream Team was a basketball team loaded with talent, but they stumbled in a few games and had to pull the gold out in the final two minutes. Oh yes, the players said they liked it that way, and it had fans on the edge of their seats, and a few analysts said Spain's height gave them problems, but the truth was there was bad collaboration among team mates. They were together on the court, but not together as a collaborative team.
So how does this translate in the business world? It has been documented that many CEOs and other top-tier business professional have admitted that much of their success came from great "corporate teams," or "collaborative efforts from some great co-workers." Their success was a direct result of various groups of people sharing ideas, brain-storming a problem, and finding a working solution – it was the group defining the problem, seeking a solution, agreeing on the best course of action, and then implementing the fix. Some call it taking team work to the "next" level. But it's more than that.
Supervisors, managers, and business leaders like to see collaborative efforts, since those efforts reap great rewards. These rewards include: sharing knowledge and job skills, learning together, building consensus, and work retention as more employees find job satisfaction through collaboration. These rewards translate into solutions to complex problems and bringing needed knowledge, skills, and expertise to the table when needed. And sometimes this happens through another tactic of collaboration – divide and conquer. But so far, we've been looking at collaboration in a diminutive state. Let's look at an example of a collaborative effort in big business, where the stakes can be huge. Let's look at Microsoft and its software Microsoft Office and how the software giant used the collaborative effort of "divide and conquer."
One of the great obstacles Microsoft and other media giants, like Apple, have to overcome on a daily basis in the open market is with free products. "Free" rings true with consumers, especially if the product is simple to use and can add value to their life. So Microsoft had to divide and conquer the competition. What the leadership realized was its Office product's perceived value increased, as more and more customers used the service. So Microsoft upped the ante by reaching agreements with many computer companies to have Office uploaded onto its basic models. This was the "seed" the company needed to flood the market. With the larger user base, companies were encouraged to buy the software for their business, since employees were familiar with it and would not require a lot of training. Another benefit of using Office was it eliminated incompatibility issues with customers and other businesses, since the software program was popular and universally being used. This strategy is called "segmenting the market" or, as it is better known, "dividing" the market so it can "conquer." That is collaboration on multi-levels in big business.
Divide and conquer on a smaller level simply could be this example -- a business owner who wants to open a second office. Instead of assigning the task to two people and giving them three months to get the office open, he breaks the whole project up into smaller pieces involving more employees. While one is out looking at prospective locations, another is looking into the cost and availability of movers. Another individual is interviewing and hiring new employees to fill the office, while someone else is figuring out equipment needs. What would have taken a few people many months, now will be accomplished in one month, because of their collaborative efforts of "divide and conquer."
One of the more difficult traits of collaboration, and possibly its downfall in the business world, is that for all its benefits to be truly utilized, the individuals involved must be willing to sacrifice for the overall betterment of the team. There are times when one individual must step back and let another take center stage, since his abilities may be what are needed at that moment. A great example of collaboration involves Special Forces training, where you are assigned a combat buddy. You train together, sleep, eat, fight, peel potatoes, dig fox holes, run miles on end; you are glued together for the duration of your training. In fact, in some of the units, you and your buddy are together for your entire career. In training, the duo are taught that if one falters the other picks him up and carries his combat buddy, so the team finishes together.
Sometimes a team comes to a defining moment in collaboration when they suddenly realize the true benefits associated with it. A great example was in the movie, An Officer and a Gentleman, where Zack Mayo (Richard Gere) is about to break the obstacle course record, but stops near the finish line, runs back, picks up Seeger (Lisa Eilbacher), and proceeds to coach and encourage her over the 12-foot wall so she will not be eliminated from the training course. As she makes it over the wall, and the two complete the course, the rest of the class is encouraging and cheering them. That is true collaboration. For outstanding results in any endeavor involving a team, collaboration is a vital ingredient in the recipe for success or you will end up with a fallen cake. There's the chance it might taste good, but it's not a cake you proudly display.
As you are beginning to see, the hardest part of collaboration is getting everyone to put their ego aside, so the person who excels at a certain task can take the lead. This takes negotiation, leadership, and communication skills all rolled into one. Once this lesson is learned, the whole team succeeds.
In the small business world, this lesson is one of the hardest for an owner to learn. He has invested his life savings into his business and thinks he must do everything. This leads to failure. The owner must realize he is not the expert at everything, but he needs to trust the people he hired. He needs to collaborate with them, so his business goals will be achieved. Collaboration is a definite skill that has to be learned -- it's learning to let go so the team, as a whole, can reach its predetermined goal.
There are other challenges associated with collaboration. One of the main stumbling blocks is easily overlooked by many managers. If it was actually realized, the results would be a more harmonious workplace and less stress on management. This overlooked stumbling block is the realization that collaboration requires a fundamentally different work setting from the hierarchal structures found in most businesses today. For collaboration to have a chance, the working environment must be flexible. Information, resources, and knowledge, must be freely shared among workers.
The other part of the overlooked equation is that employees are entering the work force with different perceptions and understandings. Baby Boomers understand work better in the hierarchal system that has been in existence since the 1950s, while the Millennials are used to a more team setting, where everything is shared. Toss Generation X into the picture, where you have a mix from the other two groups, and you have a group of people with some difficulty adapting to each other. The challenge for the leader of the team is to find compatibility and get everyone working together on the same page of instructions. The benefits will far outweigh the struggles for the group to find a working relationship. Each group of individuals brings valuable insight to the table, just from their backgrounds. The generation mixes can, and do, make dynamic teams once everyone knows and understands how each member will approach the task at hand. It's the leader's job to open this communication and keep it freely flowing, so collaboration can work its magic and reach its goal or goals the fastest and most efficient way possible.
Some of the benefits coming from this dynamic team will be keenness and awareness of the situation and task at hand; a perpetual motivation to complete the job; a weighing of all alternatives; team work and voluntarily seeking compromise; and finally, you would have a proactive, instead of a reactive, team, which was the difference between the 1992 and 2008/2012 Dream Teams.
In the past, collaboration involved people physically meeting and working together on a task or project, but with the advances in technology – email, video-conferencing, texting, and cell phones -- people no longer must be in the same building, city, or even country, to be a part of a team.
As mentioned earlier, most will agree that collaboration is beneficial, but its value for some leaders is questionable. This questionable value partly comes from the culture in which collaboration is being attempted, while at other times, it has to do with the lack of effective management in its processes. Without true buy-in from the organization and its leaders, the actual value will not be realized. It takes buy-in for it to be a success. It takes commitment of resources. It takes the proper culture for collaboration to thrive. But with all its nuances in definition and perceived value, collaboration can, and does, bring an organization true merit and worth. Collaboration, used properly, can bring projects to a close faster, place new products in customers' hands ahead of schedule, and actually reduce overhead, or even startup costs, for new innovations.
And collaboration has the ability to reduce turnover in personnel, since many enjoy teamwork and the freedom it brings. Teamwork reduces the stress on individuals, since they do not feel the weight of a complete project on their shoulders. Utilizing collaboration to create a team, allows employees to feel as if they are a part of something bigger than themselves and gives the feeling of accomplishment when they overcome an obstacle that is perceivably larger than one person. All of this together adds to a reduction in turnover. This can be a great savings for a company, considering the average cost for recruiting, screening, training, and getting a new worker plugged in to an organization costs about $4,000. So, with all these values, and with the advances in technology to allow team members to be in varied locations, collaboration has become a valuable resource for leaders to use to reach a specified goal.