Creating a culture of serial collaboration

Ben Elijah discusses how learning professionals can encourage serial collaboration in the workplace to boost productivity

Imagine walking into your local coffee shop, ordering your favourite hot drink only to find out that the only employee who knew how to make it had left the previous day.

This was exactly the case with an organisation I worked with last year. Here, employees were specialists and experts; each individual knew how to solve a particular challenge and was able to deliver a great level of service to clients who experienced that issue. But, staff turnover was high. Each time an employee left, so too their specialist knowledge. When the client returned, the business was unable to deliver to the same high standards; taking longer to service the client and doing a worse job. The result was lost business, lost relationships and lost revenue.

This organisation had failed to create a collaborative culture. Its people were expected to work in parallel, each doing their own thing based on their skills and experience. Anytime there was an exchange of information or suggestion of an idea, they would be shared by conference calls, given lip service in dull meetings, taken away, left in a drawer and then forgotten.

Sadly, in my experience, this approach is still prominent in many of our businesses. The issue stems from three elements:

•     Information is siloed – when information is locked up in brains, hard drives and email sent-boxes, it makes the knowledge contained hard to extract and share

•     Knowing who has the knowledge – an organisation might have a fantastic amount of expertise in its people, however, if no-one knows who they are, the knowledge might as well not be there.

•     Re-inventing the wheel – if someone has generated a piece of information to address an opportunity, why then waste time recreating it?

A better way of sharing information and developing others in specialisms is needed. Just imagine what could happen if internal knowledge grew cumulatively over time….

Think back to the scenario I gave earlier. Suppose one member of the team made all of their notes, communications and documentation relating to the individual client, available on a shared portal such as an intranet, SharePoint, or Wiki. Then when the client returns, any employee could easily find that information and recycle it; taking much less time and delivering the same excellent service that was originally received. 

This is serial collaboration.

For learning professionals, there are several tangible benefits from encouraging serial collaboration:

  • Teams will become more efficient; taking less time to accomplish common tasks when staff know where to find the relevant information.
  • By encouraging individual specialisms, staff will work together more effectively, looking to each other for advice.
  • Fresh problem-solving systems will emerge, based on individuals’ various ways of thinking.

As with any new process, staff might initially feel slowed down by serial collaboration.

In my book, The Productivity Habits, I break down the process of becoming more personally effective into a series of habits. Using the way people form habits as a basis, the same approach can work for serial collaboration. Here are my top two tips for implementing a more collaborative culture in business:

Build a desire, which drives the habit

These steps will help to build a desire in your people to develop their skills, and encourage them to share those skills:

  • Put a number on it – ask your people to estimate the time and effort that they put into duplicating information that likely exists within the business.
  • Visualise change – can the team visualise what would happen if this time and effort were saved? This is important if you encounter people who didn’t realise that there was another way to do things.
  • Establish a reward system – positive feedback for your top knowledge-contributors will encourage staff to develop their individual specialisms and the behaviour of sharing them.
  • Formalise personal development time – if staff feel that the business is prepared to invest time in them so they can share information, it won’t feel like a guerrilla activity.

Triggers to initiate the habit

These steps will make it easy and natural for an organisation to adopt serial collaboration. It’s far more effective than merely training people on the particular tool you’ll use.

  • Sharing information with a customer – encourage staff to be conscious of how they react. Do they respond reflexively? Do they talk with their colleagues?
  • Planning a project – have the project manager bring existing ideas from the shared knowledge source to the project brainstorm.
  • Internal recognition – if an existing idea proves useful, encourage the sharing of this fact.  It’ll encourage staff to contribute ideas, and to use them.

I hope that this article has given you some thoughts about how to get the best out of the minds in your business, and a path to making this change. You might find that the behaviour of serial collaboration already exists in your company. Therefore by encouraging the behaviour you will save huge amounts of time and become more efficient. Then, by turning the behaviour into a habit, it will have the effect of combining the minds in your business, making your people much more effective at working with information.


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