Companies that understand how to collaborate effectively and how to share the right information at the right time are better positioned to reach their objectives. Electrical contractors need to take a fresh look at how they support collaboration and not only implement the tools, but move beyond them to address the role corporate culture plays in promoting or sabotaging the process.

Key studies of large companies, such as IBM, Dell and Deloitte, show that collaboration drives innovation, reduces cost, and improves productivity and employee engagement in the workplace, said Jacob Morgan, principal of Chess Media Group, San Francisco, and author of “The Collaborative Organization.”

“Collaboration within an organization allows it to effectively execute its strategy, creates value by enabling employees to connect with each other and with information, and provides an opportunity for them to contribute more,” he said.

The result is known as the crowd sourcing effect; the organization, as a whole, becomes more effective than its individual parts.

According to Evan Rosen, executive director of the Culture of Collaboration Institute, San Francisco, and author of “The Culture of Collaboration,” this coming-together approach makes companies operate better by breaking down barriers among function, departments and levels.

“People share, rather than hoard, information in a collaboratively based culture,” he said.

When employees come together, they hash out issues and make better, faster decisions, which reduces the bottlenecks that plague almost every organization.

“The value created by collaboration may be measured in reaching goals faster and reduced project time,” Rosen said.

Building collaboration is becoming one of the most important skills necessary in today’s workplace because more of what is produced or built is now done collectively, said Mark Craemer, principal of Craemer Consulting, Seattle.

“Very few products or services are developed, marketed or sold singlehandedly. Instead, a team of people and a great deal of cooperation and support by both individuals and the entire organization are necessary to get maximum value from collaboration,” he said.

Understanding how value is created from collaboration requires understanding the value that results from how people work together and communicate, according to Carmien Owen, principal of Collaboration Consulting Inc., Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

“Ultimately, understanding the value of collaboration is related to how people work and share information within an organization,” he said.

Collaboration tools
Although tools and technologies never create collaboration, they can be key to extending and enhancing it. However, “the collaborative culture and processes must be in place to get the most out of tools,” Rosen said.

Unified communications—the integration of real-time communication services, such as instant messaging, text messaging and Twitter—is a powerful tool that enables people to find colleagues, experts, and key decision-makers and connect with them.

“Unified communications enables people to see who’s available, chat with them online, and then escalate to a voice or video call. But to realize the value from unified communications, a company’s culture must support spontaneous interaction, regardless of the person’s role in the company,” Rosen said.

The next step, combining unified communications, telepresence, or videoconferencing and specialized software, creates a virtual design environment.

“This is relevant for electrical contractors because it enables architects, structural engineers and contractors to come together and design buildings virtually, speeding the design process and eliminating time lost passing changes back and forth,” Rosen said.

There are many technology products that offer collaboration in some form or another, according to Craemer.

“Microsoft SharePoint, for example, can help individuals share ideas and expertise in order to make better business decisions,” he said.

Another option, Citrix’s GoTo Meeting, enables people to meet virtually across geographic boundaries to discuss projects.

“Ultimately, however, it’s not the technology but the attitudes, values and incentives of the organization and individuals that will promote and help collaboration succeed in the workplace,” Craemer said.

While social networking can democratize the workplace and empower people throughout society and inside organizations, it its not the same as collaborating.

“The key is to use social networking tools in working together to create value, rather than just using these tools to broadcast,” Rosen said.

One emerging piece of software, the collaboration platform, is an online software as a service (SaaS) model, where users pay a subscription or usage fee. Some common features include real-time communications; nontext interaction such as voice and video conferencing and telepresence; more lengthy communications, such as email, wikis, or blogs; desktop or application sharing; and vertical collaboration platforms with features customized for specific purposes, such as procurement, human resources or legal.

According to Morgan, Twitter for the Enterprise provides status and message feeds to employees, allowing them to focus on information that is relevant to them and discover new ideas to to help them perform their jobs more effectively.

“It’s a great way to get and share information, which is how collaboration is promoted,” he said.

Collaboration platforms can also create workplaces and groups within them, enabling employees to work together on a particular project and get relevant information and access to the people who are pertinent to what they’re working on.
According to Owen, it’s important for an organization to objectively prove the value provided by collaboration.

“It’s no simple matter to prove an objective understanding of value, but it can be done,” he said.

One approach is the use of Six Sigma methodology—a business management strategy that intends to improve quality and lessen defects—to analyze and improve processes within any collaborative initiative.

“Six Sigma is a proven approach to understanding the challenges in a work situation, to drive improvement, and to implement a control plan that ensures that the changes made will endure,” he said.

Corporate culture and collaboration
Perhaps the most notable effect of a successful collaboration strategy will be accountability and openness.

“However, an organization that has been managing performance without meaningful measures will struggle to shift to a culture of accountability,” Owen said.

According to Craemer, corporate culture is improved through collaboration because employees are more engaged in the work.

“Collaboration requires us to interact with each other, and this leads to greater trust and improved communication,” he said.

“Collaboration will fail if it is not supported by the culture,” Morgan said.

For example, competitive companies that reward employees for strictly individual performance will not generate collaboration if the culture doesn’t change to support it.

“There’s nothing wrong with rewarding good performance, but if inter-employee competition is the only measurement of value, employees won’t want to share information with others and develop a more collaborative approach,” Morgan said.

Roadblocks
The biggest roadblock to any change is people. After all, any culture is defined by the values and behavior of the people within it.

“The fundamental challenge to any collaboration initiative is for management to consider exactly what each person does in his or her job and to understand questions employees are going to have, such as ‘How does this make it easier for me to do my job.’ If management fails to answer employees’ concerns, the strategy to change to a collaborative culture will fail,” Owen said.

Management’s overall attitude toward collaboration also can be a challenge, Craemer said. Upper management must fully endorse and support the new culture.

“It is not enough for the CEO to say he or she wants a culture of collaboration. It needs to be continually backed through proper incentives and open communication throughout the organization,” he said.

Management also needs to realize that some collaboration efforts will fail; some will reveal personality conflicts or experience communication breakdowns or misunderstandings, or there could just be general resistance.

“The results of collaboration won’t always look pretty or be successful in every instance, but in the long term, the effort will yield greater results and create a better place to work,” Craemer said.

There also is the difference between internal and external collaboration.

“Internally, the biggest roadblock to collaboration is when there’s no trust or common goals, resulting in people working at cross purposes instead of in concert,” Rosen said.

Externally, when collaborating with business partners, a lack of guidelines and agreements governing intellectual property is a challenge.

“To collaborate effectively, people must feel comfortable sharing, and that will only happen if each party knows the boundaries,” Rosen said.

But the biggest mistake many companies on the path to collaboration make is to think that it is about tools and technologies.

“When collaboration becomes a technology project, it hinders the adoption of the very collaboration it’s meant to promote,” Morgan said.

Implementing any technologies requires both business unit and information technology leaders to review and make decisions together.

In the end, for collaboration to take hold, everybody in the organization needs to have access to the same data and have the same standing to provide input into how business is conducted.

“This means moving from a ‘need to know’ and ‘do as you’re told’ culture to an information democracy with the expectation that everybody has knowledge to contribute,” Rosen said.

Companies, including electrical contractors, are realizing that their employees need to come together spontaneously to make decisions, solve problems and complete projects, regardless of their role or title in the organization.

“There’s a growing realization that we must work together to create value, whether we’re in the same room or on another continent,” he said.


BREMER, a freelance writer based in Solomons, Md., contributes frequently to ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR. She can be reached at 410.394.6966 and darbremer@comcast.net.