If you want to break down silos and get your teams collaborating, you’re going to have to give them a reason. Two fundamental needs draw people’s attention toward collaboration: content and community. In other words, “what can I learn?” and “who can I meet?” Collaboration is an umbrella covering a wide range of business practices. They all have one thing in common—more than one person is involved. What gets collaborating?

First of all, it’s got to be voluntary. To make collaboration attractive, you have to appeal to individuals’ logical self-interest. Create collaboration metrics that relate to their compensation, or develop a shared sense of a common mission, vision, or enemy that only collaborative action can turn to advantage. Trying to persuade individuals to collaborate just for the sake of collaboration won’t work, because there’s no motivation. We all need reasons to collaborate—either a chance to improve skills, or a promise of personal or professional growth, or a success story from respected peers that makes collaboration seem as attractive as any other activity “the cool kids are getting into”.

Unfortunately, today’s organizational structures don’t lend themselves to effective and efficient collaboration. Silos within an enterprise practically demand that we focus on our customer segment or departmental unit exclusively. This is basic human self-preservation. If I’m rewarded for results in my division, I don’t care about other divisions. I only care about my sandbox. (And by the way, don’t mess with my sandbox or you mess with my rewards.)

Until you can show individuals how working across the enterprise will benefit them, you won’t see voluntary collaboration. C-suite executives must become much more intentional in driving understanding of the whole enterprise and how divisions within it drive results across silo boundaries.

One of the most sought-after benefits of collaboration is knowledge-sharing, a subject of increasing concern to leaders. Layoffs during the recent financial downturn and the looming Boomer retirement are two trends pruning away implicit knowledge walking around in the heads inside your organization. If your staff has become leaner or younger in the last year, you are facing a strategic business need for effective knowledge management.

The challenge is that some people see information as job security! Instead of sharing it, they hoard it. This behavioral challenge that can only be addressed by “WIIFM” – “what’s in it for me?” People will share knowledge when they see how they benefit from that behavior. This confirms the need to build stronger intracompany relationships. Only when Tammy in Transaction Solutions sees how the technique she shared with Bob in Business Services benefits the company as a whole—and returns to her in her quarterly bonus—will cross-functional collaboration boom.

Lack of collaboration actually wastes money and time; increased collaboration leads to innovation, efficiency and cost savings. But how do you make those business benefits motivating to individuals? Show them. Make it relevant to them, and they’ll believe you! Recognize that your staff members find their peers much more credible than their superiors—we’re all a bit suspicious of the motives of people in authority, and rightly so. To shift your culture toward a more collaborative approach, find and share the success stories emerging within your company. Once individuals see that light and heat goes toward the groups that collaborate, they will begin trying it within their own projects.

Collaboration is a flexible, agile approach. Each collaborative initiative must walk the line between looping in the correct people and wasting others’ time. Getting the right team dynamics for the right initiatives, at the right time, is critical. I recommend you institute a systematic and disciplined process for assembling the right team; moving forward effectively; and wrapping up a project at its conclusion so the intellectual capital gained among the team is captured and disseminated. Knowledge management is not a system–it’s a process. It works through dialogue and healthy debate.

Twenty-first century business demands collaboration—don’t doubt it for a moment or you’ll be left in the dust by competitors who make it a strategic priority. To move your organizational culture toward collaboration, keep your eye on the “WIIFM” and make sure the biggest rewards go to the individuals who voluntarily demonstrate collaborative behavior.

Nour Takeaways:

  1. For your best talent, “what can I learn” and “who can I meet” are worth more than gold—so make sure collaboration delivers learning and networking opportunities. Otherwise it’s just shared piecework.
  2. How many of your managers know the roles and responsibilities of others outside their department or market segment silos? Cross-functional networking fans the fires of collaboration.
  3. The knowledge management needed for effective collaboration is a living process, not a static function. Feed it with dialogue and debate before, during, and after each project or initiative.
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