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"Collaboration" is becoming a bad word…in some circles

The concept of “Collaboration” has been getting a lot of grief lately. For instance, recent articles in the Harvard Business Review and the Economist emphasize that collaboration has reached the point of “godliness” in modern business, and that managers are overwhelmed with collaborative tools.  They complain that multi-tasking through collaboration is reducing the quality of work, and actually renders the time to complete tasks to take too long.  HBR estimates that 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. The cost of collaboration is also estimated to be severe, with researchers from the University of Virginia estimating that knowledge workers spend 70-85% of their time attending meetings, dealing with e-mail, talking on the phone, or dealing with an avalanche of requests for input or advice.  they estimate the “soft costs” of collaboration are enough to procure a small company Learjet!  Such distractions are believed to make “deep work” difficult if not impossible. Schumpeter (in the Economist) suggests that distraction is the enemy and we need to recognize that workers have a finite amount of time, and that small demands can quickly escalate into massive invasions into their ability to get work done.

While this perspective has some merit, I beg to differ.  This point of view ignores the fact that not all collaboration, is in fact, productive collaboration.  I’ve discovered that leading supply chain companies have found a way to manage the fine line between too much invasion into people’s thinking time, and the ability to drive improved decision-making through a more process-driven form of collaboration, one that has a level of governance and oversight to it that results in the right behavior. Jeff Ng from Steelcase put it very well:

“Trust is the currency of collaboration, in that it requires individuals to demonstrate that there is a visible effort to listen, understand, and be inclusive. It is up to senior executives and all leaders to invest in relationships with local leaders, to establish a culture that seeks to understand what is happening.”

This need to understand many different points of view is the central theme of collaboration. It requires that you be able to understand who people are, and what they do. It also requires that you understand how work happens today, and be willing to allow some variation in processes, up to a point.

There has always been a need for organizations to establish standards of performance embodied in policies and procedures, but in a recent global study of logistics providers published by BVL, we discovered that leading organizations develop a form of governance that allows some level of flexibility to adapt to local requirements. This is achieved by establishing a global standard in the form of a “maturity framework” against which to measure outcomes and results.

For example, many of the leading organization we met with have recognized regional logistics requirements are very different, and as such have moved to a regional logistics design, governed by a centralized supply chain council. The council establishes overall guidelines and structures for regional work to operate at a world-class level. Typically such councils have developed standards consisting of three components: process, policy, and playbooks. First, the standards define the processes that must be in place (e.g. customer order promising, transportation planning, order fulfillment). Second, they define the policies that must be followed (e.g. finalizing orders, allocation, scheduling). Finally the standards come with “playbooks” that act almost as a user guide on how to think through the process requirements and get them done!

In cases when there are major tradeoffs or conflicts that occur between regional requirements, organizations have adopted a global sales and operations planning function to optimize global requirements across regional requirements, especially around global product lines. Once established, however, top executives realize that these plans will be interpreted and acted on differently at a regional level.

This approach is based on the simple thesis that supply chain leaders cannot standardize the entire world, and need processes that will be a solution in 80% of the cases, allowing for local adoption for the remaining 20% of cases, (so long as the outcome meets the process playbook). This requires a clearly defined organization, with clear roles, and responsibilities, so that people can speak to the same processes, with the same toolboxes. This ensures that all parties are “speaking the same language” and are using comparable metrics and plans. At the same time, differences should be highlighted. Leaders should be aware of the challenges and successes of regions, what they struggle with, and what they are proud of. Leaders should also be prepared to accept a different point of view on what is working locally and what is not, and be prepared to adapt the process to fit the right local requirement.

So what does this mean for collaboration? It means that organizations need to create a culture that welcomes transparency, for the very reason that it leads to trust. When there is a culture of transparency and trust, collaboration becomes something that occurs naturally, and I not “forced” on people by apps, social media, or forced tools. The central theme is that people speak up when there is a need to speak up, but otherwise, the guidelines to maximize flow and velocity drive the right balance of input.