As a business concept du jour, collaboration means everything from open office concepts to electronic documents that multiple people can work on simultaneously, to team work. These are all elements of collaboration, but they fail to adequately define it. Collaboration is a risk sharing and resource leveraging strategic behavior that necessitates coordinating activities and exchanging information for mutual benefit. It requires an environment of trust, transparency, and respect. It is a comprehensive way of thinking and acting that takes proficiency in multiple skills. It is not a single skill and certainly not a technology.
Companies that are successful in becoming digitally-enabled and customer-obsessed—and therefore prepared to compete as we enter the 2020s—are those best able to collaborate internally and externally. For example, MIT Sloan Management Review’s research finds that: “A focus on collaboration—both within organizations and with external partners and stakeholders—is central to how companies create business value and establish competitive advantage.” According to a study by SAP, “Digital winners tend to have more managers with strong collaboration skills than lower performing companies. In addition, 74 percent of these top performing companies plan to actively nurture the concept of collaboration within their organizations over the next few years.”
Despite collaborative skills becoming ever more the imperative, the reality of collaborative execution is far more challenging than the data would have you believe. In a study from Capgemini, approximately 85 percent of executives believe that their organizations easily collaborate across functions and business units, whereas only a little over 40 percent of their employees—who are actually on the front-lines of collaboration—agree. A Harvard Business Review article on collaboration sheds light on this collaboration gap:
Leaders think about collaboration too narrowly: as a value to cultivate but not a skill to teach. Businesses have tried increasing it through various methods, from open offices to naming it an official corporate goal. While many of these approaches yield progress—mainly by creating opportunities for collaboration or demonstrating institutional support for it—they all try to influence employees through superficial or heavy-handed means, and research has shown that none of them reliably delivers truly robust collaboration.
Does this mean that, while collaboration works in theory, it can’t be practically applied? Not at all. But the question does strike at the heart of the problem—collaboration is easier said than done.
Let’s look at a simple example. A company we were engaged with instituted a campaign to improve collaboration amongst sales teams. The company spent a lot of time, effort, and money on a program intended to promote collaboration within the teams. When the results were evaluated, the program’s sponsors found that level of collaboration hadn’t improved at all.
Our analysis quickly identified why that was the case. The teams’ performance was evaluated by rank-ordering each of the team members from best to worst. And, using the existing performance criteria, the individuals at the top received a number of “rewards” for their success, while the folks at the bottom of the rankings lost their jobs. Clearly, the evaluation process encouraged an “everyman for himself” approach that was exactly the opposite to the desired increase in team collaboration.
That’s the collaboration paradox at work—rewarding the traditional approach while investing to get the desired increase in collaboration. Despite focusing on collaborative skill building, the company neglected to adjust their employee evaluation and reward system—elements of the leadership system—to support collaboration. Leadership worked to change the evaluation system to reward collaboration and our subsequent analysis demonstrated both increases in collaboration and sales performance.
This is but one example of attempts to foster collaboration falling flat because the leadership system was built for competition among team members, not collaboration. Until companies evolve their leadership systems, collaboration as a strategic behavior will remain easier said than done.
 David Kiron, “Why Your Company Needs More Collaboration,” MIT Sloan Management Review, Fall 2017
 Virginia Backaitis, “Collaboration Leads to Success in Digital Workplaces,” SAP Survey, 2017
 “The Digital Culture Challenge: Closing the Employee-Leadership Gap,” Capgemini Digital Transformation Institute, 2018
 Francesca Gino, “Cracking the Code on Sustained Collaboration,” Harvard Business Review, November-December 2019.