Ways to strengthen your collaboration culture

This is a guest post from Shawn Callahan – Founder of Anecdote, a management consulting firm that uses its expertise in story to inspire enduring change.

Collaboration is a skill and set of practices we are rarely taught. It’s something we learn on the job in a hit-or-miss fashion. Some people are naturals at it, but most of us are clueless.

Our challenge doesn’t stop there. An organisation’s ability to support collaboration is highly dependent on its own organisational culture. Some cultures foster collaboration while others stop it dead in its tracks.


To make matters worse, technology providers have convinced many organisations that they only need to purchase collaboration software to foster collaboration. There are many large organisations that have bought enterprise licences for products like IBM’s Collaboration Suite or Microsoft’s Solutions for Collaboration who are not getting good value for money, simply because people don’t know how to collaborate effectively or because their culture works against collaboration.

Of course technology plays an important role in effective collaboration. We are not anti-technology. Rather we want to help redress the balance and shift the emphasis from merely thinking about collaboration technology to thinking about collaboration skills, practices, technology and supporting culture. Technology makes things possible; people collaborating makes it happen.

Today’s organisations can consider not only how to support traditional team-based collaboration, but can also adopt community and network collaboration where it serves their needs. Many of the things you can do can echo across all three types of collaboration, while some are unique to one type. Here are some possibilities.


Establish a collaboration coordinator

Establishing a collaboration capability requires someone to foster its development. People would think you’re crazy if you suggested an organisation establish a sales capability without sales people, or a human resources capability without an HR team. Yet we have seen many examples of organisations seeking to enhance their collaboration capability without identifying or resourcing people responsible for developing and nurturing it. Wishful thinking is not enough. Giving the role of collaboration coordinator as an ‘extra task’ to people who are already good collaborators can have unintended negative consequences, such as sending the message that the reward for being a good collaborator is getting more work to do. So time and resources must be allocated to the role, even if you start small. In fact, Peter Block is fond of saying that the projects that best succeed are the ones that are ‘slow, small and underfunded’. We reinterpret this to mean, ‘think in small steps, iterate and grow as you learn’.

The role of the collaboration coordinator (evangelist, manager, specialist—the title doesn’t really matter) could include:

  • Finding opportunities in the organisation where better collaboration would make a difference to the quality of products and services, the speed of delivering these products and services to clients, and the ability to use a diversity of ideas and approaches to ferret out good collaboration practices and tools
  • Connecting people and ideas so new collaborations can flourish
  • Helping people to learn and adopt collaboration practices and tools
  • Collecting stories of how collaboration really works, for the times you need to justify the role
  • Keeping up to date with the field of collaboration.
  • Build a group of collaboration supporters

The collaboration coordinator can’t do this job alone, so she should gather a group of supporters to help.

Collaboration supporters are your best option for tapping into the full power of both team, community and network collaboration. And they use a variety of skills and talents. So pay attention to what each person can bring and channel them into the area where they can best make a difference. For example:

  • People with strong project-management and strategic skills can be strong supporters of team processes and thus team collaboration. These are the people who like to focus on one thing at a time and support progress towards a defined goal.
  • People who are curious and want to build their personal knowledge and identity in their fields, are often interested in community participation as a way to attain these goals. People who are good ‘people connectors’ can also bring tremendous assets to both community and network collaboration.
  • People who are curious, global thinkers, who can scan and connect people and ideas, are great network collaborators. They are often the ‘bridgers’ who bring ideas into the community or team from the network and carry out ideas to test and evaluate. They don’t seem to be fazed by the flow and volume of network information.

Recruit and promote collaborative people

We used to recruit people based on their university degrees and years of experience in a specific field. Now, in the days of rapidly shifting work and knowledge, we need to recruit learners and collaborators.

  • What are key indicators to look for when hiring?
  • How do you measure ‘collaborativeness’?
  • What is the balance of promoting individual and/or group behaviours (i.e. what about free riding?)


Initiate communication with leaders

Don’t wait for the boss to ask for documentation of collaboration success, especially if they have invested in collaboration. Coordinators should start by telling success stories to senior leaders, then back these up with reasoning and data. Use the context of a story to engage. Leading with data and reasoning reinforces current ideas about the utility of collaboration, which is fine if those ideas are positive. But if you need to convince people of the value of collaboration, starting with the stories reduces the impact of our human tendency to look for any reason to confirm our current opinion, negative or positive (known as the ‘confirmation bias’).

Don’t forget that learning also comes through those things we dread to voice— FAILURES. Use failures to learn, and show how changes made in the system can mean improvements going forward. Collaboration that fears failure will never fully function. Failure is a part of the system!

Go beyond the leadership

Collaboration involves your whole organisational system. Staff may or may not perceive the value of collaboration, or understand how it works. So share the stories of success and learning from failures with the wider community, as recognition of their work and to reinforce that this is not just important to the bosses.

Celebrate both the people who have collaborated and the fruits of their work. Raise the visibility of collaborative leaders and followers. Be careful, however, about explicit rewards for collaboration, because this can backfire and collaboration will be done only for the reward, rather than being driven by the motivation to deliver value, having pride in doing good work, and the joy of working with others to create what was impossible for any single individual.


New tools can help support all three types of collaboration. The key here is to identify what collaboration activities you want to support, and then match the tools to them. Be careful to start simply and not go overboard. Bells and whistles look nice, but they can also be off-putting, especially to busy people who are not tech-fans in the first place! Here are the basic technologies that might be useful for collaboration, but which will be doubly important for people who are geographically dispersed, something that is becoming the rule rather than the exception these days.

  • Telephone and conference-call capability, including call recording, can support teams and communities to focus work and make decisions
  • Email and relevant email distribution lists are good for information dissemination, though be cautious about volume and make sure content is relevant to the recipient for any kind of collaboration
  • A place to share electronic documents
  • Ways to share ideas and create content together (e.g. shared document editing, blogs and wikis)
  • People directory with photos of your collaborators at the team and community levels
  • Instant messaging to see when someone is available for a chat (presence) or to ask a quick question
  • Directory of relevant networks
  • Social bookmarking to share internet treasures
  • Tools to aggregate content from the ‘outside world’, such as RSS readers.

Many of the above features have been combined in commercial and open source collaboration software tools. They often also include features like group calendar, discussion threads, and photo and video sharing.In terms of network collaboration, many people in organisations are unaware of how network collaboration tools work or understand their value. So the starting point is to make these tools available and help people to use them. Start with social bookmarking and show early adopters some tools like ‘delicious’, which enables people to bookmark and tag web-pages. Unlike individual bookmarks or ‘favourites’, anyone can see everyone else’s bookmarks. Here are Shawn’s bookmarks.

However, the real value is in the ‘tag’ associated with each bookmarked page—the word or label that indicates what the web-page is about, and a way of finding that web-page again. Encourage people to perform a search on delicious for a tag they want to keep track of. I track the tag ‘storytelling’. The search results has its own RSS feed to which you can subscribe with your ‘information aggregator’. Ron Lubensky, one of our commenters on the Anecdote blog, explains that this means that whenever someone tags a web-page with your tag (word/phrase) of interest, you are immediately notified.


Developing communities of practice is an organic activity. You never quite know what is going to happen or whether it will succeed entirely. This is why a big bang approach is a mistake. To herald to your entire organisation that you are going to develop a community of practice on topic X is likely to cause pain if the initiative fails to gain sufficient support. We have seen this happen, and it is even more common when the organisation has just invested in community technology which has forums functionality—“We must get CoPs going so that people are using this forum functionality”.

We recommend you take a more gentle approach.

  • Identify some people with common interests in a domain that is important to the business
  • Meet with each person separately and ask them about the things that interest, challenge, excite or intrigue them. Common items of interest invariably emerge
  • Report to your potential community members that they have some interesting things in common and offer to organise a meeting so they can discuss them
  • At the meeting, suggest they might meet regularly to enhance their learning around this important topic.

Once the group starts to develop a rhythm (meeting regularly), suggest they think of small tasks to work on together that might improve their practice. Only when the group members say things such as, “How are we going to share these documents?” or “Can we discuss this online?” do you investigate technology support. Some groups will get to this point faster than others will, and it does not matter one bit.

Keep a look out for indicators that suggest your community is making progress. But whatever you do, don’t let management turn these indicators into targets! You don’t want a situation where management, for example, is mandating that the community post X number of messages or have Y number of people attend the community meetings. Indicators are useful. Turning them into targets creates perverse behaviour.

Testing the likely adoption

Before you start on the journey of creating a new community of practice, we recommend you conduct the following simple test. When someone says, “I would like to start a community of practice”, simply ask, “Can you describe the potential members by completing the following sentence? ‘I am a …’.” If they can fill in the blank with a word or phrase that people can passionately identify with, then there is a chance a community might emerge. Let me give you an example. I was helping the Department of Defence design a community of practice for project managers. I asked the sponsor to complete the test sentence and the answer was, “I am a project manager”. It was a strong descriptor, so we knew we had a chance of establishing a CoP. During the design process, the client had another job type for which they wanted a community. The job type was called ‘technical’. “I am a technical” failed the test and we knew it didn’t have a chance.

From a White Paper by Shawn Callahan, Mark Schenk and Nancy White. 

About Shawn Callahan

Shawn is a pioneer in the application of story methods to business and has helped some of the world’s top companies, including IBM, Shell, AMP and KPMG, to inspire lasting change and make sure their company values really stick. He regularly publishes his world-leading ideas on anecdote.com.au, one of Australia’s most visited blogs.

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