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Beyond Teams: building the collaborative organization Published: Monday, July 19, 2010 8:00 am By: Ramón L. Rivera, President & CEO

The designs used for organizations in the past cannot be used given the demands on today's, much less tomorrow's, organizations. Connectivity, uncertainty, and speed combine to make work environments more complex and more demanding. Everyone now faces a speed requirement created by a dizzying rate of unpredictable, discontinuous change. New ways of thinking about how to structure and manage the people and the components of today's organization are required.

Traditional organizations were designed with the dominant practice of "repeat" rather than "create." As a result, the design is often too rigid, too simplistic, and too impoverished to adapt to a more complex world. It is too simplistic to match the complexity of the environment; it is too impoverished through suppression of human talent and collaborative synergies to create a rich variety of responses to the challenges of the 21st Century environment. Although pure bureaucracies are now less common, the assumptions that underlie them continue to influence management thinking.

Consciously designed and nurtured collaborative work systems provide a key foundation for achieving competitive advantage. Organizations that actively leverage the talent of their people through knowledge sharing, mutual support and co-creation, outperform organizations that depend on talent alone. Collaboration means working together. Effective collaboration means working together efficiently and effectively. This is not a new requirement for business success, but it has become a critical success factor that applies to all the relationships that create a business, including those with customers, business allies, suppliers, divisions, departments, functions, projects, specialties, vertical levels, and employees.

Knowing, learning, creating, and relating are the most important processes in contemporary organizations. They make intelligent and inventive decision-making and effective follow-up possible. The collaborative organization capitalizes on the abilities of its members and leverages the synergies that occur in networks of people. Collaborative organizations are characterized by intentional efforts to create structures, cultures, forums, and practices that reinforce collaboration. Designing the strategies, structures, processes, and culture enables improved flow of information and other resources across boundaries.

The most common structural change to improve effective use of collaboration has been the introduction of work teams. Typically, based on analysis that identifies interdependent processes, a boundary is defined around a group of workers and changes in responsibility, identity, and training are imposed. The team designation creates a pocket of collaborative practice that focuses team member effort and attention and supports collaborative relationships and processes. Work teams represent a leap forward in collaborative potential for many organizations. The problem is that most teams fail primarily because they exist in what can be termed a hostile environment, an environment that neither demands nor sanctions collaboration.

There are, however, significant differences in the ways that traditional teams, team-based organizations, and collaborative organizations approach similar goals. Much of this difference in approach is driven by the kind of work for which the models were derived. Traditional teams were initially implemented in manufacturing settings. The model created teams that were relatively stable, intact, and composed of members with similar status and expertise. Team-based organizations were designed primarily for organizations responsible for abstract and highly interdependent work, usually in the development arena. The concept of collaborative organizations represents an attempt to create a context and culture that embodies the values and behaviors common to the other two, but that recognizes the dynamic nature of today's environment and the need for collaboration in multiple arenas.

A culture that promotes collaboration includes adequate attention to the informal aspects of collaboration. Every organization depends on collaboration. By definition, people organize in order to accomplish tasks that cannot be accomplished as isolated individuals. The collaborative organization however does not require formal teams, but collaborative potential is often enhanced by the use of those structural devices. The collaborative organization is designed for effective coordination, shared decision making, and decision implementation, resting on a culture of shared responsibility, authority, and accountability for results

Intelligence comes into play when appropriate information from the environment is utilized in making decisions about what actions to execute. Business intelligence is a people process. Individuals from the executive suite to the shop floor can demonstrate it and sometimes do so in impressive ways. Using collaboration leverages the intelligence of individuals. This is most evident in creative problem solving, where complexity and uncertainty reign. That territory used to belong to executives, scientists, and engineers, but now it belongs to everyone associated with an organization. Routine used to be the dominant organizer, but changing environments require frequent non-routine responses, which means that intelligence is a key to organizational sustainability. In other words, collaboration between people, and especially across organizational boundaries, makes the organization smarter.

To compete in the business environment of the 21st Century, organizations must be designed to engage the minds and hearts of their members and create effective relationships across all boundaries. The hardware and software technologies have been tried often in the past twenty years, but they have often failed to create more effective organizations. The development of collaborative work systems has been emerging as an essential piece of the puzzle. As the competitive landscape shifts, those who are quickest to adopt the advanced social technology of collaborative design are likely to be the winners. The collaborative organization enables the optimal development of the intellectual and social capital that increases the financial capital for an organization.


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