Mark Craemer 2 Comments

In my last post I wrote about collaboration as one of the essential elements in order to thrive in the knowledge economy. Though most companies boast of their own collaborative workplace environment, all too often this is more of a public relations talking point rather than an internal employee reality.

Changing the corporate culture from one that is competitive to collaborative is a huge challenge. To be meaningful, it needs to be fully embraced and articulated by the entire management team, and implemented throughout all departments.

Back in the twentieth century, employees made themselves valuable based on what they knew. Today people make themselves valuable by seeking opportunities to work with others and tapping into their expertise. Content is jointly developed through participation. The content is fluid and leveraged to create opportunities with ongoing collaboration.

Knowledge-hoarding and the accompanying silo mentality that takes place in many large organizations blocks this collaboration. The end result is power struggles, a lack of cooperation, and lower productivity.

Lack of true collaboration can also diminish innovation as competition for resources can cripple efforts for new products.

In a New York Times editorial earlier this year, former Microsoft executive Dick Brass wrote that Microsoft has a “dysfunctional corporate culture where big established groups are allowed to prey upon emerging teams, belittle their efforts, compete unfairly against them for resources, and over time hector them out of existence.”

“Unlike other companies,” wrote Brass, “Microsoft never developed a true system for innovation. Some of my former colleagues argue that it actually developed a system to thwart innovation. Despite having one of the largest and best corporate laboratories in the world, and the luxury of not one but three chief technology officers, the company routinely manages to frustrate the efforts of its visionary thinkers.”

Time will tell whether this year’s release of Windows Phone 7, Windows Azure and Kinect will nullify any of this.

John Chambers, chairman and CEO of Cisco Systems, in a recent Newsweek interview explains how abandoning command-and-control leadership has enabled Cisco to innovate more quickly, using collaboration and teamwork.

“At Cisco we are moving to collaboration teams, groups coming together that represent sales, engineering, finance, legal, etc. And we’re training leaders to think across silos. We now do that with 70 different teams in the company.”

Chambers continues, “So we’ll have a sales leader go run engineering. A lawyer go run business development. A business development leader go run our consumer operations. We’re going to train a generalist group of leaders who know how to learn and operate in collaboration teamwork. I think that’s the future of leadership.”

In author Evan Rosen’s book, “The Culture of Collaboration: Maximizing Time, Talent and Tools to Create Value in the Global Economy,” he explains how and why collaborative tools can motivate employees and drive business. What follows are what he considers the ten cultural elements present when collaboration is working.

  • Trust – To exchange ideas and create something with others, we must develop trust. This is a challenge, especially in competitive organizational cultures. Nevertheless, we must get over our fears and develop trust if we are to collaborate freely.
  • Sharing – Hoarding information prevents the free flow of ideas and therefore sabotages collaboration. Sharing what we know improves collective creation by an order of magnitude and therefore makes everybody more valuable.
  • Goals – Taking the time to agree on goals at the beginning of a collaborative project pays off exponentially by providing the impetus for shared creation.
  • Innovation – The desire to innovate fuels collaboration. In turn, collaboration enhances innovation. After all, why collaborate just to maintain the status quo?
  • Environment – The design of both physical space and virtual environments impacts innovation and collaboration.
  • Collaborative Chaos – While all people and organizations require some order, effective collaboration requires some degree of chaos. Collaborative chaos allows the unexpected to happen and generates rich returns.
  • Constructive Confrontation – Great collaboration requires exchanging viewpoints, and sometimes that means construction confrontation—expressing candor about ideas. Collaborators must confront each other so that they can hash out their differences and make their shared creation better.
  • Communication – Collaboration is inextricably linked with communication, both interpersonal and organizational.
  • Community – Without a sense of community, we often lack comfort and trust. Therefore, community must be present for effective collaboration to occur.
  • Value – The primary reason we collaborate is to create value—reducing cycle or product development time, creating a new market, solving problems faster, designing a more marketable product or service, or increasing sales.

For organizations to meet the competitive challenges in the external marketplace, they must change the internal corporate culture from competitive to collaborative. This is a radical change and it is one that is vital for sustained innovation and increased productivity.


  1. I could agree more with your assessment Mark. Having worked at Microsoft for a number of years the climate while I was there was a collaborative hostility with other groups, viz, how can my group benefit from, or at the expense of, your group. Where I’m working now we use agile methodology (Scrum/Kanban) in an open collaborative environment which has proven to be a creative chaos – resulting in good ideas becoming great ideas because of that open collaboration.

    • Hi Phil, Thanks for the comment. This notion of “collaborative hostility” is definitely working to the detriment of Microsoft and many other companies. It’s hard to change course when it’s been the predominant methodology for so long. I will investigate agile methodology a bit further to better understand the merits of it with regard to collaboration. I’d love to see how you are implementing creative chaos at Novel. It’s been quite a few years since we both worked at Aldus, and I’m glad to see you seem to be doing well. Let’s try to get together early in the new year.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

The reCAPTCHA verification period has expired. Please reload the page.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.