It takes more than appearing collaborative to achieve The Culture of Collaboration.
As collaboration has become a trend, companies and people talk collaboration without being collaborative. Just as greenwashing involves deceptively promoting the perception that an organization’s products and policies are environmentally-friendly, something similar is happening with collaboration. It's called collaboration washing: promoting collaboration as a corporate or product trait without any real collaboration happening.
When the first edition of my book The Culture of Collaboration® appeared in early 2007, consciousness for organizational collaboration was just beginning. One prominent Silicon Valley company had pre-ordered thousands of copies of the book. A new chief marketing officer disliked the word collaboration, and so the books remained in the company’s warehouse until the following year when more people, organizations and media outlets began embracing collaboration. Then the technology company distributed the books to customers globally.
Now collaboration is a buzz word. Marketers link myriad products to collaboration, and human resources people embrace the word as a corporate culture label. And guess what? The meaning of collaboration is getting diluted. In The Culture of Collaboration® book, I define collaboration as “working together to create value while sharing virtual or physical space.”
Many people regard social media use as a mark of a collaborative company. As I’ve demonstrated to many audiences, it’s quite possible to use social media and create zero value. It’s also possible to use any collaboration technology without creating value and, therefore, without collaborating. Some consider a youthful workforce as an indicator of a collaborative culture. But I’ve observed, interviewed and worked with numerous engineers in their fifties and sixties who have designed everything from game-changing software to airplanes. Without significant collaboration, these products would have been dead on arrival. And it’s easy to find internally-competitive, command-and-control behavior among people in their twenties working in technology and other leading-edge sectors.
Real collaboration requires adopting a collaborative organizational structure as I outline in my most recent book, The Bounty Effect: 7 Steps to The Culture of Collaboration®. This goes well beyond buzz words and window dressing. The Bounty Effect is the second book in The Culture of Collaboration® series. The first book, The Culture of Collaboration®, is about raising the consciousness for a new way of working. The Bounty Effect focuses on how to achieve collaboration in organizations
Open-plan workspaces are a current popular marker of a collaborative company. Collaborative workplace design is much more than window dressing. It’s a key practice in adopting a collaborative structure, but it’s only one element. Citigroup is the latest Fortune 500 company to jump on the open-plan workspace bandwagon. Citi reportedly is adopting a “non-territorial” or “free-address” deskless approach similar to the one GlaxoSmithKline uses in its Philadelphia Navy Yard building. In The Bounty Effect, I explain GlaxoSmithKline's approach to collaborative workspaces and culture.
Citi CEO Michael Corbat told the Wall Street Journal that he is particularly excited about a “town square” space on the ground floor that will increase serendipitous encounters among team members. This, in turn, he expects will enhance communication and exchange of ideas. Also, Citigroup anticipates that the open-plan workspace will flatten hierarchies.
Essentially, Citigroup is taking a step towards adopting a more collaborative culture and structure. However, transforming a company into a global collaborative enterprise requires many more structural changes than the physical workplace environment. Many organizations such as police and fire departments, newsrooms and trading floors have operated with open-plan workspaces for years. Yet a lack of collaboration still compromises many of these organizations.
Citigroup and the increasing numbers of organizations adopting open workspaces can create incredible value through collaboration if they go beyond the most obvious manifestation of a shifting culture—the physical workplace environment—to embrace principles, practices and processes of collaborative organizational structure. These include everything from replacing the traditional organization chart and the traditional meeting to changing the recognition and reward system and keeping measurement mania in check.
Anything short of structural change is collaboration washing.