Smart Collaboration And Collaborative Technology Platforms

Helen Edwards, Editor K&IM Refer

The evidence clearly shows that the complex problems knowledge intensive businesses face today require collaboration. However in reality this can be difficult to achieve, and, despite lip service to the contrary, many professionals remain in their silos, and knowledge sharing initiatives fail to deliver on their promises. In her new book Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed By Breaking Down Silos, professor at Harvard Law School and former McKinsey consultant, Heidi Gardner analyses her research data to prove the business case for collaboration and sets out her recommendations as to how it can be achieved.

Gardner presents the challenge: “how do you transform a competitive, star-driven culture into one that fosters cross-boundary collaboration?” The first part of the book focuses on her large-scale data analysis into the operation, functioning and cooperation patterns of global professional services firms. This shows, unequivocally, the business and people benefits of collaboration. However, while professionals are still compensated by “their book of business”, the clients they personally bring in or some other personal success measure, it can seem to make sense to the individual consultant to keep their expertise to themselves. Some professionals may feel in direct competition with their colleagues, or fear that others may not have the skills to fully service their clients, or that “cross-selling” will be negatively perceived. The book addresses these concerns robustly. Far from collaboration being an added cost that clients will not pay for, it is the firms and individuals who do not address collaboration robustly who are at the greatest risk of failing to grow, or even going out of business altogether.

Of especial interest to knowledge and information professionals is Gardner’s analysis of the importance of an effective collaborative technology platform. She comments: “By building a technology platform to help connect partners with the right opportunities and knowledge, you can mitigate many of the obstacles that stand in the way of contributors’ increased involvement in cross-practice or cross-geography collaboration. One study estimated that for professional service firms, 98 percent of the benefits of these sorts of technology platforms stem from improvements in collaboration—distinctly different from the case in other industries, in which the benefits derive from (for example) consumer insights or marketing.”

 Critical to the success of a collaborative technology platform, as opposed to the traditional knowledge management system, is that it should be social: “it connects individuals directly with each other, and makes their interactions available online to others. Rather than having the content curated by a website editor or database manager, excellent CTPs allow users to add or modify content themselves. They can comment on or respond to others’ posts, rate or recommend existing content (e.g., by clicking the “like” button), download and distribute materials, and interact in real time.” There is no point in waiting to the end of a project to “codify key learnings.” Most organisations do not have the structures in place to allow this kind of formal reporting to be maintained. Instead people should be encouraged to contribute content of all kinds – short videos, links, comments – as they go along, and use the platform instead of email – which is very easily buried – to share information about their projects with others.

Gardner recommends a light hand when deploying a new platform. She quotes from the PwC rollout of their platform Spark: “we didn’t have any governance groups. We didn’t actually know how people would use the platform and realized that people might not know themselves. We wanted to experiment, as well as to listen, learn, and iterate.” Of course there are some risks in giving up control, especially in the areas of confidentiality and data security, but Gardner believes that these are far less than the risk that the platform will not be used at all. For success, it also necessary to utilize energy and enthusiasm wherever it is to be found in the company. It is often the case that it is not from the most obvious and senior quarters or from the most strategic parts of the company that the drive to really use collaborative tools first appears. Gardner quotes from two McKinsey consultants:“our experiences working with change programs suggest that success depends less on how persuasive a few selected leaders are and more on how receptive the ‘society’ is to the idea. In practice it is often unexpected members of the rank and file who feel compelled to step up and make a difference in driving change.”

Once a collaboration platform exists, will people use it? The book quotes an executive with experience of both traditional and social knowledge sharing platforms: A traditional KM system is static and anonymous. It requires people to invest their precious time populating the database just in case some unknown Other needs the information at any point. But a collaborative platform lets someone respond to a specific human being—a colleague, no less—who needs that specific input at that exact time. It’s way more motivating.” Once the system is active, experts find they have to spend less time answering the same questions over and over again. New team members can be directed to the system to get up to speed. Some of the greatest benefits come to the participants themselves. As one young partner put it, “I can say that I’m a thought leader in digital transformation, but on [the firm’s CTP] people can actually go look and say, ‘Ah, she’s been involved in that discussion, and she’s part of these groups, and look what she’s authored and bookmarked—that’s credible.’”

This book is mainly about professional service firms, where the need to collaborate is increasingly driven by the need to extend traditional service offerings to include new areas, like regulation, cybersecurity and global business. To be able to pinpoint a relevant expert quickly in response to a client is to provide an important service. However, the same principles can be applied to other areas; and Gardner devotes one chapter to medical research with a case study – covering both pitfalls and successes -of collaboration initiatives at Dana Farber. Despite the challenge of getting brilliant researchers to work together, Gardner concludes:“like so many other knowledge-intensive arenas today, successful medical research increasingly depends on contributions from specialists who are willing and able to work across their expertise divides. It depends on people who can join forces, intellectually, to make themselves more innovative and productive.”

Smart Collaboration: How Professionals and Their Firms Succeed By Breaking Down Silos

Heidi K Gardner

Harvard Business Review Press, 2016.


K & IM Refer 33 (2), Autumn 2017


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