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How to effectively manage employee collaboration

Posted by Chad O'Connor  July 9, 2013 11:00 AM

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How do you manage creativity, communication and the exchange of ideas? There are ground rules for communications and collaborating ; we know them from basic meeting etiquette – respect other people’s ideas, no question is a bad question, criticize the thought not the person, and so on, but to actually “manage” the collaboration process? That’s like asking if you can manage or control innovation.

When I think of successful collaboration, I’m reminded of the movie Apollo 13 – great film, by the way. The lives of three astronauts are in jeopardy, millions of miles from Earth and the team at NASA is charged with finding a solution. You may remember the line, “Failure is not an option.” This happened a long time before PCs, the Internet, or Twitter; folks got together in meeting rooms, wrote on blackboards, came up with ideas in the rest room or at the water cooler – they talked, they listened, they shared information, they thought; then they talked, listened, and thought again and again and again. They tested ideas quickly, failed fast and tried again. The goal was clear – save the astronauts; the mission, personal; the time frame – beyond urgent.

Today, we have so many tools to aid collaboration and they can all be connected so that we can collaborate anytime, from anywhere, on any device. We can post any idea that comes to our head and share it with the world on Twitter – we just have to keep it to 140 characters. In the workplace, we have enterprise social networks that go beyond email and chat, and give us the ability to share and compare content, discuss ideas in real time from anywhere in the world and with video, see and watch the process as it happens -- if we so chose. Collaborating has been made easier than ever to do and is ubiquitous, but is it relevant? Is it important? Is it driving innovation?

Like the ground crew at NASA during the Apollo 13 crisis, collaboration is only effective if there is a clear goal – what problem are we trying to solve together? The mission has to be personal -- not from an individual perspective, but from the team aspect – what can “we” do to solve this collectively. Of course, there needs to be a time frame – what’s the urgency; when do we have to get this done by; what’s at stake if we don’t complete it in time.

Without these three things – goal, mission, and time frame – we are NOT collaborating. We are simply having a discussion and there is no need to manage that. So before engaging in any “collaboration” project, manage upfront: What problem do we need to solve? Who do we need on the team? When do we need answers?

I’m not suggesting that you then let the process loose and see what happens – visibility and control into who is collaborating and what they’re collaborating on is still important because you don’t want to put the business at risk. Most employees understand and respect the confidentiality of certain content (think mergers and acquisitions or new product development) but Ponemon Research has found that almost 40 percent of corporate information breaches come from employees unintentionally leaking information electronically – through email or their collaboration platform. No malicious intent, but damaging results.

Therefore, managing your collaboration environment should be a lot like managing the swimmers at the public pool on a hot summer day. Think about the lifeguard: she is there watching over all the swimmers – she is letting them swim, have fun, play Marco Polo; but that whistle blows pretty loud and clear when someone is standing on someone else’s shoulders or running. The lifeguard is there – not to prevent the fun, but to make sure no one gets hurt and that’s how you should manage collaboration; make sure there are rules so no one will get hurt, but let creativity flow and innovation flourish.

Mike Alden is President and CEO of Axceler, providing the safety net that makes collaboration powerful, safe, and productive.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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