Moving beyond co-operation to true collaboration

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We hear a lot about the need for teams and businesses to collaborate. Externally, partnerships, joint ventures, crowd sourcing and open platforms are all buzzwords for today’s age. The same collaborative imperative applies within organisations too. But I believe that, while HR directors appreciate the need to work better with other parts of the business, mere co-operation/co-ordination of efforts often gets confused with true collaboration.

So what’s the difference between cooperation and collaboration?

  • Co-operation is about co-ordinating processes to obtain specific outcomes. Hierarchies often still exist, and ego is still in play. At the same time though, opinions are watered down in order to avoid conflict and cause harmony. It can be a negotiation and a suppression of tensions.
  • Collaboration however is something much stronger and more powerful. Rather than process, it encompasses relationships and purpose and action. It is not so much about working together as working on a common purpose in a way that produces more than we could have produced individually. It has more to do with dialogue and opening up problems than simply getting to answers and conclusions. It’s also about sharing learnings and not being afraid of failure and truly to explore.

Crucially, it is also a place where conflict and contention can still exist – but things are not taken personally. There are strong opinions, lightly held. Things are not watered down. There is a creative tension and energy such as you see in great sports teams where individuals clash with one another but ultimately everyone is working together for the greater good – to be the winning team.

True collaboration results in many minds coming together to explore unknown territory to create innovation. I recently worked with a major pharmaceutical company headquartered in the UK. They realised that their sales function was under performing relative to their peers. The HR function firstly needed to collaborate with the rest of the business to analyse why this was the case, and devise a programme to revitalise the sales leadership team and managers. This involved developing a programme to equip the sales team with a mindset to win and a process to achieve it. They developed a blended programme of training, workshops and self-learning. The HR function needed to collaborate closely with the business to create this – really understand the blockages and solutions. A six -month pilot resulted in roughly a 15% uplift in sales. The programme is now being rolled out to the sales function across Europe.

In some contexts, collaboration is becoming a necessity. For example new legislation such as shared parental leave means that HR departments have to collaborate with other companies’ teams.

However, collaboration is definitely not a ‘soft’ option for those that can’t hack it by themselves. It’s actually the harder thing to do – to set ego aside and bring many minds together, working for a mutually beneficial outcome. That’s why it’s hard for companies to do. 

But in my experience it’s the organisations with the courage to collaborate that will be the most successful in the future. And if HR can find the way truly to collaborate with other colleagues and functions, they will really prove their value to the business and become seen as a strategic business partner – not just an admin function or overhead!


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