Alan Davis, chief HR officer at BT Global Services, discusses the importance of collaboration in business and observes how it has changed over the years, becoming more dynamic and extensive.
After the 'greed is good' era of the 1980s and 1990s, it is quite a surprise to find that openness and collaboration have become such important skills in today’s world of business.
Increasingly, in fact, these hitherto underdeveloped skills are the keys to corporate competitiveness and growth. There’s even a new word to describe the "the more you share, the more you win" style of business that’s come to the fore: wikinomics.
The term was coined by business consultants, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams, in their book of the same name, and there’s one paragraph in the book’s introduction that I think sums up the new situation really well: "A new kind of business is emerging — one that opens its doors to the world, co-innovates with everyone (especially customers), shares resources that were previously closely guarded, harnesses the power of mass collaboration, and behaves not as a multinational but as something new: a truly global firm."
It’s a different world to the one in which the majority of today’s senior executives learnt their trade. They began their careers working in firms where departmental boundaries were set in stone and collaboration between colleagues working in different parts of a business was difficult, if not actively discouraged.
The rules businesses worked to were well documented. Most commonly attributed to the former CEO of the giant General Electric Corporation, Jack Welch, they said that organisations had to keep themselves lean and mean, reward those who excelled and dispose swiftly of anyone who didn’t.
In pursuit of these rules, competition was encouraged at all levels. Many companies operated internal marketplaces, for example, and the door was firmly closed between 'us' – the company – and anybody outside, be they customers, suppliers or competitors.
My experience is that we’ve been moving away from these old certainties for quite a while now. Many of us – particularly those of us in professional services – now operate in highly-flexible organisations where matrix management is the norm, teams are distributed all over the world and collaboration is an absolute essential.
These days, it’s the way you organise that counts – the informal set of ground rules that governs how you put teams together to tackle specific tasks and makes it easy for your people to engage with each other as they go about their work.
The kind of matrix structure we operate in BT, for example, doesn’t have one hierarchy – it has many that overlap, and all are constantly changing. As a result, managers often have to lead teams where they aren’t the 'boss' in the traditional sense. They may not even 'own' the budget or the other resources they need to get the job done.
This obviously places very different demands on the skills of our leaders. Deprived of the levels of authority managers would once have had over their subordinates, they depend much more on their ability to inspire and lead. They may have to manage people who are senior to them in terms of experience, know-how or even pay grade. And if that doesn’t make their job hard enough, they also have to be good at getting the best from those who work for alliance partners and suppliers – people over whom they have no management control at all.
Harness a rich diversity
So what’s important in this collaborative age? The traditional leadership skills still matter, of course. Leaders need to be good at setting direction and balancing competing priorities. But they also need to be comfortable with the levels of ambiguity that are inherent in any matrixed and globally-distributed organisation, adept at dealing with the issues that arise and getting the best out of cross-functional teams they neither command nor control.
Modern leaders also need to be effective at harnessing the rich diversity that people from different cultures and backgrounds bring to a business, especially when it comes to understanding and responding to the needs of customers in different parts of the world. And they have to be good at dealing with conflict – something that’s inevitable in any complex organisation. Sometimes conflict is damaging, of course, and needs to be eliminated.
But there are also occasions when it can be a source of tremendous creativity. In fact, we often find that the best outcome for a customer is arrived at through rigorous debate. Those in charge need to be good at spotting such situations and taking advantage of the energies they produce.
Communication and influencing skills are important as well, and not just because leaders have to be good at operating a collaborative organisation. They also have to be effective collaborators themselves – people who are in constant contact with what’s going on around them, alert for opportunities that could help deliver business advantage, and constantly in touch with their peers to ensure the organisation as a whole achieves its objectives.
It’s a lot to expect, perhaps, but there’s also a lot to gain. Global networks, conferencing and a whole panoply of networked IT services enable collaborations that are much more dynamic, productive and extensive.
But it’s no good simply buying the technology and rolling it out across an organisation. If we really want our businesses to excel in this new collaborative age, we need leaders who can make the most of the new opportunities, bringing everything and everyone together.
As chief HR officer for BT Global Services, Alan Davis is responsible for building the organisation’s capability, employee relations, resourcing and other HR issues. Since joining BT in 1972, his career has included working as group talent and HR strategy director for BT Group; director of human resources and management services in BT Retail; and director, HR Policy for BT UK. Alan is a chartered member of the CIPD.