6 questions for a collaborative culture

by | Jan 16, 2010

  • Culture change takes a long time
  • If you really want to change culture you need structural reform, not the overlaying of new and shiny values and behaviours.
  • It’s critical to truly understand your organisation and its desired end state before implementing any kind of online collaboration tools.

The word has come down from on-high. The CEO wants a more collaborative and communicatively oriented organisation (their words, not mine). Command and control is sooo last decade. This decade it’s about dialogue, listening, agility, flexibility, responsiveness, being in touch with each other and the customer. It’s about engagement. And there’s a tool for that, right? Plug it in and away we go?

Yeah, right…

This scenario is fairly typical in the major culture change initiatives we see today. It’s perhaps a bit more popular at the moment because technology has provided many tools to enable more collaborative communication. Yet, it is also common knowledge that culture change takes a long time to occur, and there are people who question whether you really ever change a culture.

Some argue that culture change initiatives are like multiple layers of corporate wallpaper, scratch the surface and you will see residue of past cultural imprints. The original wall is the ‘culture’ of the organisation. If you really want to change the culture you need structural reform, not the overlaying of more attractive values and behaviours.

The collaborative movement is not new – think Margaret Wheatley, think Peter Senge, think Chris Argyris and the organisational learning movement. What’s changed is the technology – now all kinds of communication and collaboration platforms are simple and accessible.  Before the likes of Trello and ESNs, people needed to have high interpersonal skills to achieve collective dialogue. Now, social communities are the norm, and information sharing and creating content are a given. But technology isn’t the saviour many people think it is. (Read more about why is it so hard to introduce a collaborative culture and why introducing enterprise software is fraught with challenge.)

For the aspiring CEO mentioned in the first paragraph to have a chance of success, there’s some questions that need answering.

1) What’s your cultural gap analysis like?

How big a leap is it for your organisation to move to its current behaviours to one that acts in a collaborative fashion?

Do a simple test.  Ask each division what the other divisions do. Score the answers on accuracy (e.g. shared knowledge) and the tone with which the answer is delivered (how do the teams actually feel about it each other – are they scornful, are they admiring?). If there is a lack of understanding about what others do, and not a lot of regard for them, you are looking at large scale culture change.

If you are looking at a significant transformation, as opposed to a relatively minor adaptation, then you are going to need to throw a lot of resources at developing a collaborative culture. It’s also going to take time, and there’s a high probability that as CEO, you won’t recognise the benefits within your tenure. Are you up for that? Having said that, never underestimate the power of small wins.

2) How long has the previous culture thrived or survived?

History matters, and may be a key reason for the success of the company. That’s a pretty compelling argument against changing the culture of the organisation.  If the external environment has remained relatively static, is your preferred change is fad? Or ego driven? Make sure any change you’re working towards provides a competitive advantage and is aligned with your strategy.

3)  Technology maturity

What is the technological knowledge in your organisation like? Are your employees comfortable with existing technology?

Companies who have enabled employees to have access to social networking sites at work are actually in a better position than those who have put up firewalls. They give non-technological-minded staff the opportunity to learn new skills and the fundamentals of posting, commenting and sharing in a web 2.0 world

4) What are the HR reward systems?

If I share something will it be to my detriment, or is it recognised in performance reviews?

I came across an interesting example of this in one of my PhD case studies. The new CEO was intent on introducing a dialogue-driven, continuously changing organisation of the Peter Senge type. One of his senior staff made a very expensive mistake with a client, and other staff members were angry and looking for reprisals. The CEO wouldn’t hear of it. Living up to the commitment set out in their desired future state, The CEO knew that employees needed to be rewarded for taking risks, and acknowledge that mistakes will sometimes happen. The episode became a very powerful symbol of transformational change.

5) What’s your communication plan for introducing the new culture?

The irony is that you will still require a communications 1.0 approach to introducing a web 2.0 world.  You need to research your employees’ attitudes and abilities towards collaborative work. It’s also important to realise that collaboration means different things to different people. Make sure you know how you’re going to bring people along with you for the journey.

6) Have you got an e-change agent?

An e-change agent is someone whose role is to nurture online interactions, support the use of enterprise tools, seed conversations, encourage those who do use the tools, and connect with those who don’t. They’ve probably got a lot of experience in change management and can provide content such as tools and templates to support initiatives. Traditionally they have operated out of programme offices, or as community managers.

So how does your organisation stack up? 

You can learn more about introducing collaboration tools to facilitate change in my book Conversations of Change: A guide to implementing workplace change.


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