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The Collaborative Organisation: Beyond Tools, Time, and Space | Nomensa

The Collaborative Organisation: Beyond Tools, Time, and Space

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13 minutes, 40 seconds


Long before COVID-19 dismantled our everyday working relationships, organisations have studied ways to improve their teams’ abilities to work together. With the world slowly recovering, leaders are rethinking their perspective on work, re-visiting many of the key questions about collaborating in shared physical space.

  • To what extent has this past year’s disruption irrevocably changed the way we work?
  • How can we accommodate flexible arrangements, sometimes onsite, sometimes remote?
  • What combination of policies, incentives and technologies will enable our teams to collaborate regardless of where they sit?

As it turns out, these questions are not any simpler to answer today than they were in the past, but at their root lie an even more fundamental question: What does it mean to collaborate?

By looking at collaboration through these lenses, leaders can begin to address many of the pressing questions they have about working together in the contemporary era.


In the world of work, collaboration is a powerful differentiator, enabling organisations to wield the combined experience of employees well beyond the sum of their individual expertise. But as Hansen, Morgan and other experts in the area of collaboration caution: it is often better to not collaborate than to attempt to do so without careful investment, preparation and training. Collaboration is a powerful tool, but like any power tool, it can make a team more effective or, just as easily, wreak havoc.

Effective collaboration requires the combination of leadership, technology and skills building. In my team’s work at Intel in the early 20-teens, we crafted a collaboration framework that informed both the technologists in the enterprise and leaders in human resources. Our framework laid the groundwork for investment, both in IT infrastructure and employee training, to help the organisation accelerate innovation on a global scale.

We identified four key principles in our framework:

  1. People collaborate for a purpose
  2. Collaboration is just one of several ways people work together
  3. In general, people don’t collaborate all that much
  4. People collaborate, not machines; at best, technology enables collaboration

People collaborate for a purpose

In one of the studies we reviewed, >73% of the respondents considered the key purpose of collaboration was to solve a business problem, and solving a business problem, noted the respondents, was as good as a financial ROI. That’s a pretty strong endorsement for collaboration!

People collaborate for a purpose. The operative words are a and purpose. A singular purpose. This principle forms a critical element in our framework. People collaborate on a unified purpose. A singular unified purpose. Think about that for a second. Let’s make it concrete. Or, if not concrete, at least grounded. Let’s say you want to plant a garden with a friend. Imagine all of the tasks the two of you need to complete to reap the benefits of your hard work. Who’s going to do what? Have you figured out all of the tasks? Do you agree on all of them? Before you can figure out all of the messy details of growing a garden, you need to decide that creating a garden is something you both want to do…together.

While you may decide to work together for any number of reasons, you aren’t collaborating unless you are working on a shared singular purpose.

This is the first principle of collaboration: you may find yourself working with people in a variety of ways, but you are only collaborating with them when you are working together on a shared objective.

Collaboration is just one of several ways people work together

Which leads into our next principle: there are several different ways to work together. Working together is not synonymous with “collaboration.” Collaboration is reserved for a specific way of working together: on a shared objective.

But there are less restrictive ways of working together. Let’s say that your friend wants to work with you, but decides that they aren’t interested in getting their hands dirty…in that way. They want to open a produce stand. Where they are fascinated by market dynamics, you are interested in plants breaking through the soil. These are not the same objectives at all, yet there’s still plenty of reasons to work together. In this case, you are focused on growing things, while your partner is focused on selling things.

In our framework we call this cooperating. Each of the partners has an objective that is intrinsically interesting to them, and together their aligned objectives lead to mutually satisfying outcomes. It turns out, this happens far more frequently than collaborating. Yet, even as frequent as it is, it still doesn’t happen all that much.

(Now, I hear objections: isn’t it true that the two of you are still collaborating on a shared objective to bring vegetables to market? And I couldn’t argue against that. But in this scenario, your objective stops at growing things; you don’t really care if the vegetables are sold or not. Similarly your friend doesn’t really care where the vegetables come from; she’s interested in selling vegetables.)

It turns out, your friend and you can work together in even less intertwined ways and you would still be serving each other. Let’s say the two of you are still focused on gardening: you want to grow vegetables native to your region using organic nutrients; your friend wants to grow fertiliser-intensive flowers. Together you survey the garden plots and figure out how to do both so that each of your growing practices don’t impact the other’s. In our framework, we call this sort of working together coordinating. Each of the actors has very different objectives, but they are willing to adjust their objectives to not get in the way of each other.

Coordinating happens all the time. Far more frequently than Cooperating. And both happen far more often than Collaborating because Collaboration requires a unified objective where the other ways of working together don’t. Not only that, but it takes more effort to Collaborate than it takes to Coordinate or Cooperate.

People don’t collaborate all that much

Which leads to our next principle. Working together happens pretty frequently, but working together on a unified objective happens relatively less frequently than other ways of working together.

And that’s okay.

In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s brilliant. As Hansen says over and over again, striving to collaborate may be overkill in an organisation that isn’t structured to support it. Which is the better outcome: attempting to collaborate and failing, or working together in other ways that successfully moves your objectives forward?

Getting people to collaborate assumes the organisation has several key structural elements in place:

“Tell me how you measure me and I will tell you how I will behave…” —Eli Goldratt

  • People are incentivised to collaborate. For any business transformation to succeed, team members must be rewarded as part of that change. If I am being rewarded for my individual achievements, what’s in it for me to help others? If middle management is measured on individual performance, if bonuses are allocated based on individual meritocracy, if competition is the cultural norm then there is zero opportunity for collaboration.

“Collaborative leadership is the capacity to engage people and groups outside one’s formal control and inspire them to work toward common goals-despite differences in convictions, cultural values, and operating norms.” July 2011, Morten Hansen

  • Leadership is organised to enable collaboration. By definition, collaborative leaders aren’t incentivised to build fiefdoms but rather are expected to develop cross-organisational connections.
  • Technologies are in place to enable collaboration and reduce the friction of working toward a common purpose. This is where many organisations start their journey: investing in video conferencing, smart whiteboards and other digital technologies to make working together easier across time and space.

But as Morgan describes, tools and technologies will never substitute for a well understood reason to collaborate. With that said, our team found that by removing the constraint of a common purpose, tools and technologies performed more than adequately to help people coordinate or cooperate.

People collaborate, not machines

When we developed these principles, AI was still an emerging notion. In 2021, we can imagine working with machines as partners (under specific circumstances). Whether that work rises to collaboration remains arguable: does the machine know what its objective is? Does it actually share the same objective as its human partner?

Ignoring the philosophical murkiness for the moment, we can agree that technology enables humans working together (or obversely, creates friction by making it harder for two people to work together). The point is that people work together. They sometimes use tools to improve their ability to work together. Perhaps it’s a video conference system, a shared whiteboard, a common code repository or a shared file system. The presence of these technologies doesn’t mean folks will collaborate; just as their absence doesn’t mean they are prevented from collaborating.

With a well-established set of technologies, and an understanding of how to use them, people can leverage those technologies to improve their ability to work together. When they share a common objective, those people’s ability to collaborate will be maximised.

But that doesn’t mean they will actually collaborate.

Our team discovered that the barriers to collaboration are enormous, extending beyond the organisation’s willingness to collaborate, incentives to collaborate and technical infrastructure that enables collaboration.

The 5 Cs Model

Illustration showing the 5Cs Model - description in text

The collaboration framework we established comprised three parts: the 5Cs model, the Time-and-Space model and the Interpersonal Model. As the five-step model suggests, Collaboration, Cooperation and Coordination all depend on two fundamental layers: Cognizance and Communication. Before you can start working together, you need these two layers at the bottom. Without them, by definition, two people can’t work together under any circumstances.

Let’s go back to that gardening example. You and a friend are hoping to work together so that you can grow vegetables and she can sell things. But what if you didn’t even know each other existed? How can you expect to work together (whether as coordinators, cooperators or collaborators) if you don’t even know the other is alive? Or, perhaps you know about each other, but all you know about her is that she plays lead guitar in a grunge rock band. You have no clue about her sales interests. Without Cognizance, working together is a non-starter.

Illustration showing The 5Cs Model - barriers to overcome. Description in text

But let’s say that’s not the problem. You know all about her and her sales interests: she posted it on a bulletin board at a café you frequent. So you call her up or send her a text. But she never gets back to you. Is the number still current? Is she not interested? Did she get the message? These are just a few of the fundamental elements of Communication. Perhaps she got the messages but she doesn’t speak your language. Or she was offended by the way you phrased the request.

For two people to work together, they must know about each other, know about each other’s competencies and they must be able to communicate. It turns out those requirements are so challenging to overcome that it’s miraculous when disparate groups get anything done together.

The barriers to working together, in general, and to collaborating specifically, are many and varied. For organisations to reap the benefits of collaboration they must either reduce these barriers or reward their teams for overcoming them. In practice it’s a little bit of both.

The Time-and-Space Model

Illustration showing the Time and Space Model - description in text

Clarence Ellis, Simon Gibbs and Gail Rein are credited with first documenting the idea of a time-and-space model of collaboration in their 1991 seminal article, Groupware. Clarence A. Ellis, Simon J. Gibbs, and Gail Rein. 1991. Groupware: some issues and experiences. Communications of the ACM 34, 1 (January 1991), 39-58.

In our updated version of the model, we addressed a variety of human and technology factors that arise depending on which quadrant collaborators occupy. Organisations that expect teams to collaborate must address each quadrant’s challenges. There is no “one-size fits all” for enabling collaboration across time and space.

The Interpersonal Model

Our team concluded that even if two or more individuals understood how to navigate the 5Cs and Time-and-Space models, they would still encounter barriers that we called “the messy people stuff.”

Consider the hypothetical gardening project. Your friend and you are intent to collaborate, but she only speaks Chinese and you only speak English. Language is an obvious barrier, but most communication barriers are far more subtle. As we strive for greater diversity, inclusion and equity, we face a broad set of challenges even when we speak the same language. Perhaps you thought you were being polite, but your friend interpreted it as passive aggression. Maybe she thought she was giving you space to make a decision, but you understood it as indifference. Wires get crossed, codes don’t switch. Well-meaning actors with radically different power relationships, in-/out-group status and relationships with institutionalised bias/racism may fail to bridge the divide between them.

And all of that assumes positive intent! Collaboration doesn’t have a chance if both parties aren’t motivated to work together in the first place.

Illustration showing the Interpersonal Model. Text reads 'You have power over me in the hierarchy, and because of how I feel under your management style, I don't trust you, but you trust me'. Further descriptions in text

Collaborating doesn’t happen “naturally”

The barriers to working together are many and varied, and teams must consciously decide to overcome those barriers in pursuit of collaborating. They can improve the odds by focusing on the three models.

Recognise which step of the 5Cs model they are in

  • Is there a problem of Cognizance?
    Address technologies to improve knowledge sharing.
  • Is there a problem with Communication?
    Determine what the underlying problem is: if it’s a matter of technology, invest in technologies that reduce friction. If it’s a matter of language, power, institutionalised bias or culture, empower Human Resources to effect change through training, hiring and incentives setting (and expect it to take years to manifest)
  • Is there a problem with one of the upper three layers?
    Train teams in the theory and practice of goal setting, including understanding the value of separate, aligned and shared objectives.

Leverage the advantages of each Time-and-Space quadrant

  • Co-located, synchronous work is enabled by physical space; technology disappears
  • Remote, synchronous work is fully dependent on digital technologies, requiring relatively formal communication and interaction among team members
  • Co-located, asynchronous work combines policies and procedures, along with physical and digital technologies to reduce errors in handing off work.
  • Remote, asynchronous work requires a combination of all of the above; expect productivity to be impacted the most as teams spend proportionately more time maintaining alignment than on the actual work.

The most important areas to focus on reside in the interpersonal model

There are dozens of interacting dynamics teams must manage even when they’ve addressed the 5Cs and Time-and-space:

  • Power
  • Motivation
  • Perspective
  • Culture
  • Trust
  • Institutionalised bias

Taken alone, each is challenging, but rarely do these dynamics appear in isolation. For any given team, for any given organisation, the variety and intensity of each will vary, sometimes moment to moment. Even in presumably monocultural organisations, in which team members share a cultural history, a common language and norms, conflict arises from individual needs, motivations and power discrepancies.

Collaborating is challenging

If all of that sounds daunting, it is! How can organisations, teams and individuals overcome the seemingly impossible number of obstacles getting in their way to collaboration?

As with any change management, the basic principles apply:

  • The organisation must want to collaborate. This means executive leadership that “walks the talk” and maintains a steady, consistent cadence towards the desired outcome.
  • The organisation takes stock of their current collaborative capabilities. Each organisation faces a multitude of barriers, but no organisation or team faces the same types or intensities of each. Using a standardised assessment tool, an organisation can evaluate their current “state of collaboration” in both their human and technology factors
  • Create a roadmap for investment in change. Understanding the desired outcome and the current state, change leaders can establish operating goals, with commensurate investment, to move their collaboration capabilities forward.
  • Create a closed-loop process to manage change. Taking the first step toward crafting a collaborative organisation is a necessary and powerful action, but it’s insufficient to effect change. Organisations must institute a set of feedback loops at the leadership, middle-management, team and individual layers to continually assess and modulate next steps.

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