Collaboration consulting—fostering a collaboration culture

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —March 9, 2008
Filed in Collaboration

Have you invested in the latest and greatest in collaboration technology but still feel people are still not collaborating? How many Microsoft Sharepoint servers and IBM Quickplaces remain relatively untouched or only used by the organisation’s technorati? I think it’s a big problem because this narrow view of collaboration starts to get the concept a bad name: “yeh, we did collaboration but no one used it.” And then there the issue of the vast amount of money wasted and opportunities lost. We can’t afford to loose faith in collaboration because the external environment is moving in a direction that mandates we collaborate. The problems we face now and into the future will only increase in complexity and it will require teams of people within and across organisations to solve them.

At the heart of the problem is collaboration culture. Does the organisation have a culture that supports collaboration? And if not, how do you change your culture to be more supportive?

Creating a more collaborative culture

In helping organisations develop collaboration cultures we’ve confirmed what Edgar Schein noted a decade ago: cultures are largely created and modified by the actions of the organisation’s leaders. And here we view leadership in its broadest sense as someone who people take notice of and follow their lead. There are a relatively small set of things leaders do that affect culture:

  • What leaders pay attention to, measure, and control on a regular basis
  • How leaders react to critical incidents and organisational crises
  • How leaders allocate resources
  • Deliberate role modelling, teaching, and coaching
  • How leaders allocate rewards and status
  • How leaders recruit, select, promote, and excommunicate

The short-hand for this list is, “How do you get ahead around here?” And if you get ahead by working as a loner, shafting your team mates, taking the recognition when others were clearly a part of the success and having reward mechanisms that reward individual pursuits above all else, then your culture will be the antithesis of what’s required for collaboration to flourish. So how do you turn it around?

Steps to foster a collaborative culture

Here are some of the steps we help organisation to implement to move from the state of the ‘individual is king’ to one where collaboration is activity encouraged. Of course this is not as simple as this list might suggest but it gives you an idea of they types of activities required. A full explanation is coming soon in a white paper Mark and I are writing with Nancy White, so here is the expurgated version that mainly links to other posts we have written.

A. Appoint a collaboration co-ordinator

If there is not a resource appointed the capability is unlikely to be implemented. Someone has to be responsible for moving the activities forward.

B. Create a network of collaboration supporters

The collaboration co-ordinator can’t do this on their own so they need a network of supporters across the business lines. How you create this network and who is included is vital to your success.

C. Help people understand the process of collaboration

People will need to know what the organisation means by collaboration and how to collaborate.

D. Ensure the Collaboration Co-ordinator reports regularly to senior leaders

Find stories of success and take every opportunity to informally tell them to the leadership. Then have data and good reasoning to back up your stories.

E. Get the most from your collaboration tools

Make sure you are getting the most from your current investment in collaboration tools. Learn the techniques and practices that will make these tools truly valuable.

F. Start communities of practice

Perhaps I’m biased, but CoPs is a mode of organising that takes collaboration to the next level above team based approaches.

G. Promote good collaborators and hold back bad collaborators

No sense talking up collaboration then promoting the worse collaborator in the business. This one is simple and will have the biggest impact on the culture. Promote good collaborators and let everyone know they are being promoted partly because how they collaborate.

H. Practice collaborating for when a crises occurs

When the shit hits the fan we watch our leaders intently and we learn about their character and what it takes to get ahead around here. If you want collaboration to flourish have a plan to collaborate when a crises occurs. Demonstrate that the leadership team collaborates. A crisis is a vital moment in an organisation’s cultural development.

Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Culture and Leadership. 3rd ed. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2004.

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Jack Vinson says:

    As soon as I read this, I was reminded of Leandro Herrero’s _The Leader with Seven Faces_ which makes some similar connections. It’s not about collaboration per se, but it does harken back to Schein. What the leader does is what everyone follows.
    p.s. The blog asks for a TypeKey identity, but then TypeKey says you haven’t signed up.

  2. Hi Jack. I’ll check out The Leader with Seven Faces.
    I have been having a bad run with Typekey. It should work but I get Ron the superwiz to check it out.

  3. Ron Rogers says:

    typekey works for me no prob

  4. Paul Roberts says:

    I like the emphasis on ‘what leaders do’ and allocating resources to collaboration. All good. Can I add that ‘networking’ is very effective too. When I say ‘networking’ I mean networks of individuals who are connected and self-motivated to learn (and willing to share knowledge and information) and who like coming together to work on projects because they enjoy the challenge. That’s all part of it too.

  5. CW Lin says:

    I think that ‘individual is king’ should be emphasized and the culture is of a group or a community so that everyone should be involved and their commitment should be taked care of when the culture is to evolve. However, there should be one very important colleague who should be invited to act as an initiater. This colleague should be the most trusted one and should have the charisma for the successful creation of collaborative culture.

  6. I might have misunderstood your comment CW but my feeling is that an emphasis on the individual as king would work against collaboration. What is required is interdependence where collaborators share goals and a desire to tackle an issue which would be impossible to wrest to the ground on their own.

  7. Bruce Lewin says:

    Hi there Shawn,
    This post really helped me in researching and writing a piece on collaboration – thank you very much! I’ve tried to ping this post from my own blog, but I’m not sure how reliable pingback/trackback is, so I thought I’d say hello the old fashioned way!
    btw, my piece is called ‘The Tension in Collaboration’ and is online at;
    Best wishes,

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    Collaboration What is it?  One of the hardest parts of talking about Collaboration is deciding what it is, and getting agreement.   Wikipedia has this definition.   NIH,…

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