To the Career Counselor:
Our new president is making some seemingly good changes across campus that are now beginning to affect me — but I am not sure how to join in. The president has been emphasizing how important it is for everyone in the institution to work together, and how everyone needs to contribute and collaborate. IT staff are already working on several projects that include folks from different campus groups — but this collaboration definitely does not come easily. Many technical staff are not good at this type of thing, so we often spin our wheels. Do you have any suggestions that would enhance our collaboration across campus?
— Confused on Collaboration
Dear Confused on Collaboration:
You are not alone! Collaboration does not always come easily, but successful collaborative ventures can pay multiple dividends: for you, your team, your organization, and your campus. The many articles written about collaboration emphasize both the enormity of the issue and the potential worthwhile outcomes. Collaborative approaches lead to better decision making because everyone involved gets all of their information on the table. This allows conflicting issues to surface and gives all involved parties an opportunity to discuss them until the group comes up with innovative solutions that meet the needs of its multiple constituents.
Collaboration is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together to realize shared goals — for example, using virtualization of specialized desktop software instead of computer labs — by sharing knowledge, learning, and building consensus. In particular, teams that work collaboratively can obtain greater resources, recognition, and reward when facing competition for finite resources. According to a quote long attributed to Charles Darwin, "It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed." A team of people working together brings more to the table and is better able to solve problems than one person cloistered away in their ivory tower. Throughout natural history, collaboration has been a necessary part of life, leading towards realization of a desired outcome.
In looking at potential options, remember that collaboration is not the same as cooperation. Collaboration requires assertiveness as well as cooperation — an insistence that others' interests and yours are both met, with no enforced compromise for either party in terms of interests. You need to be just as clear about and committed to your own interests as others' interests if you want to collaborate.
Establishing a Collaborative Environment
Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself as you begin collaboration initiatives across campus:
- What, really, is the problem? While technical solutions might result from successful collaborations, technology is not usually the sticking point that makes working together difficult. Conflicts that arise from collaboration are more often due to human behavior, and technical staff might need to work on their soft skills to become successful participants. Your organization should consider whether staff need new tools to improve their collaborative abilities. Understanding the problem is the first step toward resolution.
- What result do I want to create? If you are having a conversation, you could get combative and yell and scream at others, but what results would you get? Instead, look for other options to achieve your goal — brainstorm innovations, develop standards for working together, or build mechanisms for working relationships. Chances are these types of actions will provide the results you want to achieve.
- How do others feel about this situation? If your collaboration partner is perceived as a bully, or someone who would take advantage if you showed any weakness, ask yourself why they engage in these behaviors. Are they hiding insecurities? If you empathize with them and try to meet their hidden needs, the impact could be staggering. Add to this the fact that others in the institution depend on the success of your collaboration, and surely you can come up with some powerful questions about and insights into people's underlying interests — the very things you need to know to collaborate effectively.
- What three (or four or five) strategies can I use to accomplish my purpose for this situation? Multiple strategies are important because they allow us to learn, change course, or improvise. Alternative strategies might even include aggressive strategies, such as removing obstructive people from your project if no progress occurs. Hopefully this type of negative action will not become necessary, especially if you have multiple positive-action strategies likely to lead to a positive solution.
So what do you do if you work on a team that is not collaborative? Of the many answers to this question, some will depend on the specific situations that each team encounters. Here are a few suggestions to help you address this issue:
- Look for examples of successful collaboration. The first tendency many people have when there is a problem with collaboration is to focus on the problem and try to fix it. Sometimes this can exacerbate the problem. It is often more productive to begin where you see success. Are some of the relationships on the team collaborative? If so, why? Do some circumstances bring out greater collaboration from the team? If so, what is it about those circumstances that led to collaboration? Can they be re-created? If some relationships on the team seem perpetually negative, can you find any exceptions where the two people worked collaboratively before? If so, what made it possible for them to collaborate at those times? Look to the success, learn from it, and build on it in the current conflicts.
- Label conflict as natural. Many of us see conflict as bad, an example of our failure to get along, or as an example of personality defects. This is unfortunate, because conflict is simply a form of difference. Organizations create difference simply by having a division of labor, so conflict is naturally and inherently embedded in the system. Conflict, then, should be labeled as an opportunity to collaborate — to learn, to innovate, to grow. Simply changing the label, and getting others to change the label, can change your whole approach to dealing with conflict.
- Talk to disinterested friends. Get the perspective of people who are not a part of the situation and will be honest with you about the part that you might be playing in the situation. An objective perspective can help enormously in dealing with the situation.
- Don't be afraid to ask for help. If the team has tried several approaches and still cannot collaborate successfully, it might be time to seek additional help. Identify someone on your campus who is known for their mediation skills and ask them to facilitate a discussion, or a series of discussions, with the team. The objective, directed assistance of a trusted colleague with no stake in the outcome could help clear the air and get the team back on track.
Collaboration is clearly a new mandate from new leadership, in this case a new president. How can your organization change to adopt this approach, one that is essentially a new value on your campus and within the culture of your institution? There are certainly training experiences that can assist members of your current team to become more astute collaborators in the short term, especially across units. Ultimately, you should consider how you might need to change your unit's vision, mission, strategy, and values in order to align with new institutional standards. Once you have established (collaboratively with your team) these new components of your organizational framework, it is critical that the new values, vision, mission, etc., be clearly communicated and discussed with your team. When your team hits their stride and completes successful projects in which collaboration was a key to success, recognition and reward will help reinforce these efforts. By establishing, communicating, and rewarding collaboration, you will have a framework for recruiting and hiring new or replacement team members who fit the framework and share your unit (and institutional) values.
Tools for Collaboration
Two useful resources for considering collaboration from the leadership's point of view are:
- Stephen J. Laster, "Leading the Higher Education IT Organization: Six Building Blocks of Success," EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 46, no. 3 (May/June 2011); in the pyramid of higher education IT value, see Block 2, Vision, Mission, Strategy
- Patrick Lencioni, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2002)
Often, collaboration is difficult because the people involved don't understand each other well. Consider some team-building exercises, or perhaps use a nontraditional tool as a team-building exercise. For example, you might consider using the Clifton StrengthsFinder tool for each individual to explore their own strengths, and then share them with the rest of the group. This can be a great way for people to get to know each other better, and it allows everyone to better appreciate the strengths that each individual brings to the table.
Structured methods of collaboration encourage introspection of behavior and communication. These methods specifically aim to increase the success of teams as they engage in collaborative problem solving. Forms, rubrics, charts, and graphs are useful in these situations to objectively document personal traits with the goal of improving performance in current and future projects. Here are a few resources to help you find these extra tools:
- Joanne Kossuth, "Perspectives in Collaboration," EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 42, no. 2 (March/April 2011)
- Carole Turner and Jim Twetten, Creating a Landscape for Successful Educational Technology Communities, Midwest Regional Conference, 2010
- Cyprien Lomas, Michael Burke, and Carie Page, Collaboration Tools, ELI White paper, 2008
- Lauren Shawl, Beth Martin, and Christine Lupton, Building Campus-Wide Collaborative Relationships to Support Innovation and Maximize Achievement, ELI Fall Focus Session, 2009
Software tools to facilitate online collaboration projects are also available, many of them free:
- Jacob Goob, "15 Free Tools for Web-based Collaboration," Six Revisions, October 31, 2008
- Robin Good, "Best Online Collaboration Tools 2011" (updated weekly), MindMeister
- Lifehacker, "Top 10 Web Collaboration Tools (that aren't Google Wave)," August 5, 2010
- Sean P. Aune, "Work Together: 60+ Collaborative Tools for Groups," Mashable, July 22, 2007
Miracles do happen when you try to build positive work relationships, but remember also that relationships are usually built over time and are more likely to succeed if everyone invests in each interaction. The effort devoted to create collaborative forces in your work environment will be worth the rewards you and your team will reap.
Do you have a question for the Career Counselor? Please send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. (Your identity will be kept strictly confidential.)