Collaboration is in vogue as a virtue word at the moment, but it is used in such a variety of ways it is almost in danger of having no meaning at all. It is incredibly difficult to define; it is a journey not a destination, a description of an approach not a specific activity. It is certainly not an end in itself, but merely a means to achieving increased productivity; it is the sharing of intellectual, operational and financial resources to lead to more effective, efficient and creative outcomes.
It is also a management term and not frequently used by employees. Nobody has time marked on their schedules to do some collaborating. Yet it is a thing that organizations are constantly striving to have lots of.
Collaboration is not the automatic outcome of more than one part of an organization cooperating with each other. For it to be true collaboration, everyone involved must have something to gain and to lose from the endeavour. It requires all participants to be prepared to change their minds; being in violent agreement from the start is consensus, not collaboration.
Technology is now playing an increasingly central part in the facilitation of collaboration, but the most crucial tool remains the ability to build, navigate and maintain a strong personal network within the organization. Whom you know is much more important for getting things done than what you know, and the right relationship is much more powerful than the best technological interface.
Too much collaboration has its downsides. Nothing gets achieved in a total free-for-all, and any imperative to involve more people than truly necessary only results in everything slowing down. But there is also the career agenda of the capable individual to consider. Those with the ability to develop and leverage great personal networks don’t really want the company to level the playing-field with improved protocols and extended toolsets.
Instead companies should focus on building a collaborative culture. Only when challenging assumptions and being open to new ideas from others becomes part of “the way things get done around here” does any company every truly become collaborative. Few companies manage to be that honest, which is why collaboration is much easier to proclaim than genuinely achieve.