“There’s a very tight coupling between a company’s ability to collaborate and the effective output of innovation.”

Speaking at HR Tech Europe, Google’s Director of Enterprise in Northern, Eastern and Central Europe, Thomas Davies shared with the conference the way in which Google values the benefit of collaboration amongst its people. Perhaps most telling was the idea that Google’s sales strategy was based more on the ability of employees to sell the idea to each other than on any strategy dreamt up by a sales director.

Google is one of the organisations, which are regularly held up as examples of innovation culture in action so it is no surprise to hear Thomas Davies’ comments. But the idea of transforming the strategy of an organisation so that it rests on the collaborative abilities of its people is one, which is still alien to many businesses. And it’s not surprising. Since the industrial revolution, businesses have traditionally seen employees as disposable assets, which are expected to follow workflows and task allocation with little thought. True, a few ‘boffins’ have been tasked with coming up with something new but they have generally been locked away from the mass of employees and seen as something ‘different’. Even then they have been expected to create to order, for profit rather than for differentiated experiences with business leaders expecting creativity and innovation to come at the simple flick of a switch.

So what has changed? Well to put it simply the world has changed. Technology has advanced to a point at which it is readily available to all. Products can no longer be the preserve of one when all can access the same technology. This homogeneity has resulted in a new imperative in which customer experiences allied to the speed of taking products to market has become the new differentiator. But when 68% of UK corporates take just as long to take their products to market as they did five years ago something has to change and that change is the creation of an innovation culture which values collaboration.

When we talk about collaboration we are not just looking at internal employee collaboration, although that is one of the prime movers. True collaboration draws in customers and suppliers and even in some instances rival organisations. It can do this because short-term profits, extracting the most from a customer and then discarding them and moving on, are no longer the name of the game. What matters now is a differentiated experience, producing products and services which resonate with customers and which will provide a long-term future for the organisation. And HR sits right at the heart of this move towards collaboration and driving innovation. 

Employees who are used to target driven performance, who have worked in such tight groups that they scarcely know the names of those in other teams, let alone what they do, will need help in moving towards a culture of collaboration. New contracts, new working methodologies and new training regimes are just the tip of the transformation iceberg. Leaders, both at the top and throughout the organisation will need help in changing outlook and expectations; ‘me first’ has to vanish in favour of ‘us’ and selfishness has to be replaced by inclusion. It’s not going to be easy when 66% of major UK business leaders claim that their current organisational structure makes it difficult to collaborate but there really isn’t any alternative. As Thomas Davies says, “if you want to increase your shareholder value and have incredible employees working for you this (collaboration) is a very simple but effective blueprint.”