Building a collaborative culture

Steve Macaulay and Sarah Cook explore how to create and sustain a collaborative culture in organisations

Working together in a complex global environment is challenging even though it can yield substantial benefits. Collaboration yields great results, but only if it is structured well. Despite its recognised benefits, achieving effective collaboration is no easy task – and how can HR and L&D play a substantial role.

What is collaboration

In an era dominated by technological evolution and remote work trends, collaboration represents a valuable key to future organisational success. Collaboration involves individuals uniting towards a shared objective, tapping into diverse strengths, and working cohesively to achieve optimal results. While the term holds varied meanings, its essence revolves around working together to mutually exchange ideas and resources to fulfil a common goal.

It is an essential advantage in the contemporary work environment where organisations face multifaceted challenges, including communication hold-ups, rapid technological changes, and shifting workforce dynamics. Collaboration, when implemented effectively, can enhance adaptability to an ever-evolving business landscape, foster a sense of community, and boost engagement. It creates a learning-centric environment that encourages innovation and utilises combined expertise to enhance productivity and efficiency.

L&D can play a central role in nurturing and sustaining a collaborative atmosphere within organisations

Companies where collaboration is fundamental

Several organisations have seamlessly built collaboration into their working fabric and structures.


Wikipedia is a company which is based on open collaboration and underpinned by shared knowledge. It allows anyone to edit and contribute to articles, enabling open and democratic collaboration. Uses discussion pages for editors to coordinate updates and achieve consensus and depends on a community of volunteer editors who collaborate to create content.


Through its internal and external collaborative approaches, NASA has consistently achieved world-leading space exploration goals. It uses integrated project teams that bring together various disciplines for collaborative problem-solving. Partners extensively with private companies, universities, and space agencies to achieve goals and holds collaborative workshops for scientists from different fields to work creatively on ideas.

Linux Foundation

The Linux Foundation is a nonprofit organisation that fosters collaboration among developers and companies in the open-source community. It brings together individuals and organisations to collaborate in the development of the Linux operating system and other open-source projects.

It provides an infrastructure and events for Linux contributors to coordinate their efforts. Supports open-source legal frameworks to enable collaborative development and hosts mailing lists and forums for developers to share ideas and provide peer review.


By valuing collaboration and fostering a safe environment for constructive criticism, Pixar has consistently produced critically acclaimed animated films. The collaborative nature of their creative process enables different talents to come together, share ideas, and collectively create imaginative results.

It holds regular reviews of works in progress to get constructive feedback from all teams. Lays out a workspace specifically to encourage unplanned collaborations and idea sharing and any employee can put forward creative ideas, which are then developed collaboratively.

What are important collaborative skills?

Lynda Gratton’s study on collaboration showed the top relevant skills out of several critical skills necessary for effective collaboration. These are appreciating others, being able to engage in purposeful conversations, productively and creatively resolving conflicts, and programme management.

HR and L&D fostering collaboration

HR and L&D can play a central role in nurturing and sustaining a collaborative atmosphere within organisations. Their tasks range from development initiatives that enhance collaboration skills; aligning performance metrics and rewards with collaborative efforts; facilitating team-building activities that underscore the importance of working together, and providing platforms and resources that bolster collaborative leadership development.

Leadership development programmes designed and implemented by L&D should focus on collaborative leadership skills, providing training and coaching on effective collaboration, conflict resolution, active listening, and other essential skills required for collaborative leadership.

Many reward and recognition systems in practice reinforce individualism. HR systems need to make sure collaborative efforts fit successfully with performance management by integrating collaborative goals and behaviours into evaluations. HR and L&D can also facilitate team-building and collaboration initiatives through activities and workshops that strengthen relationships and foster collaboration among team members. Additionally, they can provide learning resources to support ongoing collaborative leadership development.

Building a framework: taking steps forward

Introducing collaboration into an organisation is a structured journey. It starts with a widespread recognition and understanding of the need and the benefit of collaboration, progressing through the development of a leadership vision, skill development, and establishing a supportive infrastructure. As the new culture settles, norms are set, strategies are tested, and continuous improvements are made. This ongoing process requires consistent attention and engagement from everyone involved, ensuring the establishment of a robust collaborative environment.

Facilitating collaboration via technology

In the era of remote work, digital tools are vital for effective collaboration. Platforms such as Zoom, Teams, and Office 365 enable smooth communication. Additionally, augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) present new collaborative opportunities. Tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams support instant messaging and file sharing. Other tools can streamline task management, while Google Workspace and Microsoft Office 365 can enhance co-authoring capabilities. Meanwhile, Zoom and Webex are easily available tools for virtual face-to-face discussions.

Practical tips for fostering collaboration

Introducing collaboration into an organisation is a comprehensive process that must be tailored to each organisation. Whilst there can be no rigid template, with universal timescales and milestones, here are some practical tips for fostering collaboration on a daily basis:

• Where practical, open up workspaces to strengthen informal conversations and collaboration
• Identify and recognise different and new perspectives, thereby strengthening diversity
• Conduct frequent updating meetings for all team members, so that everyone is in the picture
• Introduce regular idea sessions to promote all team members’ contributions
• Hold teambuilding sessions to break down barriers and build trust
• Encourage leadership behaviours which are collaborative, for example, active listening, building on other people’s ideas, building consensus
• Review major projects to learn for the future
• Consciously build a safe and trusting environment, so that people open up to each other without unnecessary hesitancy
• Encourage role flexibility and support for other roles
• Introduce collaboration tools which improve cross-team communication
• Foster knowledge sharing across teams to promote cross-knowledge.

Tackling the hurdles

Like any transformative approach, fostering a collaborative culture comes with problems and barriers. These range from communication breakdowns and unequal participation to conflicts that must be resolved. By clearly defining roles, promoting open dialogue, and creating an inclusive environment, organisations can help mitigate these barriers.

Two examples illustrate common hurdles and potential solutions:

• A very traditional law firm feared its move towards a more collaborative environment would leave behind its longstanding individualistic and unique professional culture. The solution was to organise sessions and workshops to remind everyone of the firm’s founding principles and to integrate them into new working practices.

• A large financial services organisation introduced new collaborative software. However, many senior opinion formers carried on using their old ways of communicating and visibly resisted adopting this new method. The solution was to organise individual coaching sessions to overcome fears and to publicise successes.

Collaborative culture initiative: 10-point checklist

Use this checklist to check progress in your organisation in fostering a successful and sustainable collaborative culture:

1. Set a vision.
2. Involve leadership as visible role models.
3. Develop a comprehensive communication framework.
4. Invest in learning and development of collaboration skills.
5. Introduce and train on collaborative tools.
6. Make feedback a routine process.
7. Recognise and reward collaboration.
8. Promote openness and transparency.
9. Regularly review and incorporate improvements.
10. Build up and strengthen collaborative efforts across the whole organisation.

Sarah Cook is MD of the Stairway Consultancy, contact her at; Steve Macaulay is an associate at Cranfield Executive Development, contact him at

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