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Mike Straw

Achieve Breakthrough

CEO

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Are you collaborating or really just cooperating?

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At Achieve we hear a lot about the need for teams and businesses to collaborate. Externally, partnerships, joint ventures, crowdsourcing and open platforms are all buzzwords for today’s age. The same collaborative imperative applies within organisations too.

But while HR directors recognise the need to work better with other parts of the business and the benefits of external partnerships, mere cooperation or coordination of efforts often gets confused with true collaboration.

These concepts, although often interchangeable, are quite different things when applied to an organisation. Collaboration can lead to real innovation and change; coordination and cooperation just lead to more of the same thing, only done more efficiently.

Mere cooperation or coordination of efforts often gets confused with true collaboration.

Cooperation good. Collaboration better.

Coordination and cooperation are useful – but they are not revolutionary. Hierarchies often still exist, and egos prevent people from fully embracing the partnership. At the same time, opinions are watered down in order to avoid conflict. It’s a negotiation and a suppression of tensions.

In contrast, collaboration is about working towards an agreed objective in a way that produces more than could have been produced individually. Whereas cooperation is about coordinating processes, collaboration is about reaching a goal through dialogue, open-mindedness and interaction. It’s about having a common vision, not just a common process.

Collaboration is about working towards an agreed objective in a way that produces more than could have been produced individually.

To take things to new levels, organisations need to find ways of genuinely collaborating. In our rapidly-evolving tech-driven world, no one has the expertise to do everything themselves anymore. 

Setting egos aside for the greater good

In some contexts, collaboration is becoming a necessity. New legislation, such as shared parental leave, means that HR departments are needing to collaborate with not just the rest of their organisation, but other companies’ teams.

The world of technology also offers a good example of collaboration. Thirty years ago Apple famously attacked IBM in an iconic commercial entitled ‘1984’, painting IBM as a big-brother-like figure protecting the status quo while Apple’s Macintosh provided a pathway to freedom. However since then they have collaborated on a number of projects, just recently announcing 32 MobileFirst enterprise apps. IBM has even begun to offer their workers a choice between a Mac or PC at their work stations!

As with Apple and IBM, there is a place for conflict and contention when collaborating. It is not about always just agreeing with each other. However, things must not be taken personally. It’s about having strong opinions, held lightly – being prepared to argue a point and then accept whatever the outcome of the debate is, without resenting or brooding on it.

Collaboration is about having strong opinions, held lightly.

A lot of the great sports teams have conflict within them. Think of the Manchester United team of the late 90s and early 00s. Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Keane rarely agreed, however they both were working for the team and during their time together, they were incredibly successful.

Don’t take the easy way out

Collaboration is definitely not a ‘soft’ option for those that can’t hack it by themselves. It’s actually the harder thing to do – to set ego aside and bring many minds together, working for a mutually beneficial outcome.

That’s why it’s hard for companies to do. The old hierarchies and pecking orders are deeply ingrained. To let go of that and open up to others and their ideas doesn’t come naturally.

It needs to though. The world has changed. Technology and social media have revolutionised how we act and behave. Ideas are crowdsourced, projects are crowdfunded – it’s all about people connecting and sharing in an ‘open source’ environment. 

Companies need to be prepared to be taken out of their comfort zone and to experience some conflict and disagreement – that’s part of the process.

Organisations, and their HR functions within them, need to mimic what now happens in our personal and social lives. They need to embed the social media ethic into how they operate. 

To do this, they need to be prepared to be taken out of their comfort zone and to experience some conflict and disagreement – that’s part of the process.

In my experience, it’s the organisations with the courage to collaborate who will be the most successful in the future. HR functions have an important role to play in facilitating this within the organisation – and leading the way in how they work themselves. 

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