A common phrase that has become something of a personal mantra since I first heard it many years ago is ‘do what you’ve always done and you’ll get what you’ve always had’. Personal goals, like organisational ones, change over time. We may seek out change for personal growth, change may happen as an organic process over time, or sometimes change occurs very rapidly and we cope with it as best we can.  So it is in organisational life which must continually shift to stay as current as possible to improve competitive edge and internal efficiencies.  Whatever the size of the challenge, working jointly with others and utilising complementary skills to realise our goals can help ease the process. This article explores collaboration in the face of change and some of the factors that can improve its effectiveness.

Organisations are essentially social systems governed by an array of local (and often global) norms, practices, values and cultural complexities. For collaboration to occur to best effect within an organisation, the right conditions must first be present – organisational practices set the scene for employees regarding mandated behaviours.  Such behaviours extend to how teams are built, identifying useful synergies, and how communication and collaboration occurs across teams and departments. If normal practice is that everyone works as an individual, or teams/departments within silos, a cultural change may first need to take place in order to foster more collaborative working habits.

The most effective collaboration occurs in a climate where a specific shared goal and an understanding of others’ skill sets gives employees a reason to work together. Employees therefore need clarification of their own objectives and how these roll up into departmental objectives and organisational strategy. With this understanding, networking with others can then take place to harness the most appropriate expertise within the local team, across the wider organisation, and external links too depending on the goal that needs to be achieved. In this way, a clear benefit is realised from the collaboration of diverse groups which builds social capital between all those involved.

For collaboration to occur to best effect within an organisation, the right conditions must first be present – organisational practices set the scene for employees regarding mandated behaviours.

When collaboration works, clear value is seen in building broader social networks as it bridges the team gap in terms of task, knowledge, skills and strengths.  Although functional processes give employees a reason to collaborate with others because of necessary procedures, much project collaboration occurs as a result of trusted personal relationships rather than through functional requirement. For long-standing employees, an understanding of skill sets, personal networks and partnerships will have been built over time using formal and informal communication mechanisms. For new employees, breaking into these established internal networks and identifying the teams and individuals to work with most effectively can often be a complex and daunting task. Although varied, induction programmes are generally helpful in identifying high level relationships and synergies. However, they are not always able to help new employees navigate local social networks that are often crucial for building social capital, confidence and success. For new starters, collaborating with a formally assigned mentor or ‘buddy’ from day one who is very familiar with organisational norms and networks is an extremely effective way of aiding navigation through social and technical complexities.  This not only enables the new starter to understand local practices and procedures within their team, it helps them build broader collaborative networks quickly, increasing their confidence and performance. For the ‘buddy’, it can provide a good stretch target and raise their profile and confidence too.  Needless to say, this can also free manager time up and enable the new starter to ask more mundane questions of a peer without feeling too exposed.

IT infrastructure and processes have also become synonymous with the definition of collaboration within contemporary organisations. However, IT systems alone will not induce joint working unless there is already a conscious desire to do so with a realistic shared business goal in mind. The right culture and climate must therefore be displayed and encouraged by organisational leadership, and the business opportunity made available to managers and teams in order to promote collaborative working. Once employees know who they are working with and why, the infrastructure can help reduce complexity and provide enhanced opportunities for shared working. This is especially true for organisations that have multiple sites, globally dispersed teams, and employees who work remotely.

In David Hunt’s article he speaks of putting the ‘behavioural and cultural’ elements of organisational change before the rational systems side which was important for the collaborative merger of Hill Hire and Ryder. He notes that in this way the ‘best of both’ companies could then be harnessed and provide greater opportunity to add value to customers.

One of the biggest challenges to fostering broader collaboration comes after a reorganisation or acquisition/merger. For many companies, important expertise and knowledge may be lost during change with former teams and networks becoming fragmented or redirected elsewhere. This damages trust which takes a good deal of leadership courage and focus to rebuild.  The personal identities of employees may become shaken if roles and teams are significantly changed which influencies identification with the organisation itself. In the case of Ryder and Hill Hire, the goal from the start was that rather than assuming the identity of one company or the other, a new company with a joint identity would be collaboratively created.  This approach helped employees from both organisations see continuity during the merger.  Collaborative working helped realise the ‘best of both’ goal with the added benefit of retaining trust as far as possible and reducing resistance to change. Communication of a clear goal (i.e. direction setting), strong leadership and retaining some continuity are ways to regain trust, break down resistance, and foster increased collaboration opportunities.

Effective communication and collaboration are possibly two of the biggest factors that can be driven by leadership to re-engage employees following reorganisation. As each organisation has a unique dynamic, there is never a simple process recipe that can be applied as a quick fix for the challenges faced by senior leaders following change. However, communicating a clear vision and strategy and helping people make sense of it is a crucial first step. Developing the capability and confidence of next in line managers to filter new goals and objectives to enable more in depth meaning, is possibly step two. Managers can take a role in helping employees understand where continuities still exist following change, highlighting where objectives may be shared and provide guidelines for new accountabilities and decision making, enabling positive action to be taken.

Whether starting a brand new job or undergoing a highly significant organisational shift, the spectrum of organisational change offers an array of challenges and opportunities.  Despite the complexities of navigating change, strong leadership, communication, building social networks and identifying shared goals and continuities are some of the factors that can foster collaborative behaviours. Large or small, organisational change can provide an opportunity to enhance culture if managers and employees can work in collaborative partnership to become positively engaged in the process and feel a joint sense of ownership for it.

susan.carroll@oecam.com