Collaborative Working: It Takes an Orchestra to Play a Symphony

David E. Hawkins at at the Institute for Collaborative Working considers a human framework for success
Illustration of many people playing a single instrument

Collaborative Working: It Takes an Orchestra to Play a Symphony

Words: David E. Hawkins, Institute for Collaborative Working
Illustration: Sergiy Maidukov

How do you get organisations to collaborate? Certainly, there’s lots of good material out there by many gurus who talk about building trust and so on. But the real challenge is realising that most organisations tend to be incentivised the wrong way to get people to collaborate. Across an organisation, the drivers for different functions can be almost diametrically opposed.

Imagine you have a sales team marketing to a client, and one of the sales team’s dependencies is its supply chain. On the one hand, they are looking to collaborate with a client, but in terms of working with the supply chain, they are being very un-collaborative because the procurement department has been incentivised to save money, not spend. Tensions begin to build up, not just with the outside world but also within the organisation itself.

At the Institute for Collaborative Working, we look at collaboration in four dimensions: collaboration with customers, particularly where customers want greater integration of services; collaboration with supply chains where some of that supply chain will be mission-critical to the delivery of a service or a product; collaborations with external partnerships where organisations need to work cohesively with third parties because the solution for the customer requires technologies and capabilities which are outside the organisation’s current portfolio; the fourth dimension is internal.

I’ve spent most of my career working for multinational organisations and it’s often considerably easier to collaborate with somebody outside of an organisation than it is with somebody inside it. You’ve got constant tensions between marketing, sales, production, supply chain, quality control etc., all being frequently performance measured against different criteria.

And so it comes down to understanding that internal collaboration is all about identifying the various functions of an organisation, and how well they are aligned. If you look into those external relationships that have failed, the reason they have failed is generally because of internal tensions pulling against a common aim.

Internal collaboration is all about identifying the various functions of an organisation, and how well they are aligned

But internal collaboration has become less and less straightforward with modern business, and inevitably so. Half a century ago, organisations brought in materials, processed them and sold them. They effectively had everything under their own control. Now, you’ve got a very diverse platform of different stakeholders and different deliverers all required to operate cohesively. It’s also an inevitability that these diverse supply chains and support chains will increase, and there is no question that tensions will then build up between local operations and central control systems, some of which fly in the face of collaboration.

We have to understand the pressures, thoughts and considerations of people all over the world. Big organisations operating globally have tried to address this by standardising the processes they operate, but the more processes that are standardised without consideration of the implications for the individuals involved in them, the greater the potential for people to drift apart. They’re not in communication with each other, they’re communicating with a vast system; you’ve got a big machine full of data, but the data is in complete disarray.

It comes down to management. Senior managers understand the necessity for people to work together; people on the ground like to work together; the biggest blockade is the permafrost that sits between them. But management is changing, and the permafrost beginning to thaw. What you are now seeing is Henry Ford’s model of command and control being torn up as people build enterprises across the globe.

It’s a difficult challenge, particularly when you are not only working under the same brand across the world but also working with third parties outside the organisation, but the drum beat needs to be set, from the chief executive down, making sure that organisations are internally aligned, and then making sure there is compatibility between the various components of organisations.

I was instrumental in creating what’s known as the CRAFT methodology, which brought together a lot of experience and knowledge from our various members on what makes collaboration work. It became the foundation of framework BS 11000 – not a tick box exercise, but a process of addressing issues in order to eliminate friction and enhance engagement, and thus collaboration. Every one of the requirements within BS 11000 is there because it impacts on the way people behave.

As business becomes increasingly global, internal collaboration has never been more important – but it’s also becoming more difficult.


Awareness is about opening people’s minds. It’s about providing a mandate for an organisation to collaborate, and it’s about getting high-level support for the approach when it is appropriate. You need that clear direction from the top. The visions and values of an organisation have to be supported, and people need to recognise that collaboration is important.

One of the things I do when I go in to see an organisation is look for the Chief Executive’s Statement of Intent in which he or she says, “We are going to be a wholly collaborative global organisation.” Then I go into the HR Department to look at the staff appraisal process. I can say that in at least 60% of the cases I’ve looked at, collaboration wasn’t even a consideration. How do you expect the staff on the ground to take it seriously and be comfortable applying it if it’s not something they’re going to be measured against? It’s about taking a concept from chief executive to the frontline.


This stage is about applying collaboration to specific sets of circumstances. Does it make sense to be collaborative? One of the biggest threats to collaboration, particularly if you have to bring in third parties, is when employees inside organisations are made to question why they should be helping others. In some cases, particularly in the world of outsourcing, people are being asked to train others who are going to take over their jobs. It doesn’t inspire people particularly well. Case by case, then, you have to ask, “Does this interaction require collaboration, or is it transactional?” If it’s the latter, why bother? That starts to refine where you put a clear focus on collaboration.

Internal assessment

Intelligent people, having had their weaknesses identified, can manage them. It’s about picking a team, but it’s beyond the traditional Myers–Briggs way of saying, “This is a community-engaging individual.” Internal assessment means working out exactly who in our organisation has the propensity to work in a collaborative arrangement.

There are people who come to work from nine to five, and do what they are asked to do; they are intelligent machines. There are others who come to work and ask, “What could be done differently today?” They are completely different characters. You need some of both, but you certainly wouldn’t put a core team of the former together if you were looking at developing something new.

Intelligent people can manage their weaknesses

Partner selection

Let’s say you’ve got a group in the UK working with a group in Malaysia – both very smart bits of an organisation and both operating under the same brand. Finding somebody in Malaysia who can talk to somebody from Newcastle may be quite difficult, and that’s a potential constraint. Sometimes managers assume that we’ve got all of the clever material and that we can email each other, but we don’t necessarily read the same words in the same way.

Internally, this diversity can be a huge opportunity to challenge what doesn’t make sense, but at the same time it’s a risk. If employees don’t understand one another, the sides of the collaboration will start banging up against each other. You need to start saying, “I’m going to create a global team to achieve something,” and then make sure team leaders across the globe meet certain criteria: they need to be able to communicate, they need to be incentivised, and they need to have a propensity to collaborate.

Working together

full-banner-coffeeTeamwork has a value, and it has a contribution, but how do you build and orchestrate teams across the globe? It’s hugely expensive to shift people to one place so that they can actually coalesce as a team. Instead, then, teamwork needs to stem from leadership that doesn’t tolerate non-collaborative behaviour. Again, you have to go back and ask, “How many of our leaders and senior managers actually have collaborative bents themselves?” It’s not about looking at leadership in its older sense, but about influencing groups of disparate people to march in single directions without giving them uniforms and 12 weeks of basic training. People tend to work together if they are encouraged to and inspired to.

Value creation

You may look at your own bit of a business and be very enthused by it, but when a colleague across the other side of the world comes up with an idea, it goes in the back pocket. Encourage cross-fertilisation and get people to understand that different people look at the same problems in different ways. Whether you engage in kaizen, lean or a full-blown continual improvement programme, it doesn’t really matter; it’s all about creating an environment in which different views are valued.

You get two benefits from doing this: the first one is that every so often you have a brilliant idea pop out; the other is that by encouraging a group to look at alternatives and come up with new ideas as a group, you actually help to reinforce the group dynamic. If an employee in China comes up with a great idea and sends it to a colleague in Germany, the colleague should be saying, “OK, what does this mean?” In deliberating that in a non-contractual and non-rigid way you actually help to break down barriers because even if it’s not a good idea, you’re having a great conversation; you get more of an understanding of each other. It’s about building an environment where engagement is valued, and not devalued by machines.

Staying together

Quite clearly, any collaboration is made or broken on the level of trust that exists between individuals. If you are working in a challenging, creative environment, you are inevitably going to have issues and frictions coming up, but I actually think they are constructive. It’s not the problem that is the issue, but the way in which you manage it. What tends to happen in most organisations is that every time an issue arises between one or other divisions it immediately escalates up and becomes a dogfight – it’s easy to send an email to the boss. Instead, the management on both sides needs to be pushing the issue back down and saying to the people on either side, “Sort it out – come up with a solution!” It’s all a matter of joint team management.

It's all a matter of joint team management

Exit strategy

In a big organisation a plan might be laid down for the development of a product in India, and once that project is developed the team will be disbanded and moved into manufacturing in Vietnam. But what happens to that group that you’ve spent a lot of time and effort creating in India? How do they see the future? If they are really that good, should they be moved on? People forget that this is not a tick box exercise or a process of winding up contracts and closing down operations; it’s about making the most of investments made and knowledge gained, and sharing that internally.

About the author

David E. Hawkins is Operations Director and Knowledge Architect for ICW. He has had an extensive career in projects and procurement, particularly in the construction industry, working in many parts of the world. He has developed training programmes and has been a leading speaker in the field of exploiting relationship management through effective leadership and strategy development.

This article was written for Reflect, the Equatex Magazine and blog.

Tools for the job


Equatex’s Head of IT, Martin Wüthrich, on their approach to collaboration

Technology is changing the way we collaborate; it’s a facilitator. Whereas before we worked in a very static way, we now use collaboration software, such as Confluence and JIRA, which allows multiple people to work together on one platform wherever they are in the world. As with any tool, it requires upfront investment but the benefits far outweigh this initial cost.

I’ve found that the platforms are very lively and people are receptive to each other’s ideas – one member of the team can start a blog post or a document and then other people contribute to it. Confluence’s news feed also allows you to join in your colleagues’ conversations; JIRA is similar to a shopping cart so we can trade tasks and assign them to people. This all means an accessible knowledge base is created and we can comment on projects much earlier, which then helps in avoiding problems further down the line. To ensure our employees get involved, we employ the concept of gamification, so award people who are the most active on the platforms – it’s fun and gets us all talking.

To ensure our employees get involved, we employ the concept of gamification, so award people who are the most active on the platforms - it's fun and gets us talking

People are more connected than ever before and it makes life much easier, especially in an age of remote working and global organisations. We have teams based across the world – Oslo, London, Zurich and New York – and technology has helped in keeping us close together. By using a tool like Skype for Business, there is no difference in phoning a colleague on the 12th floor here in Zurich or in Norway. Everything is mobile phone friendly too; we can access Equatex’s collaboration tools on our smartphones so we are always involved in the conversation.

Collaboration can be strategic and then sometimes it is very organic. I see it as an opportunity to explore people’s ideas and have a better understanding of your colleagues’ projects. Technology is fantastic, but it’s also important to meet with people and talk to them face-to-face. When we are working on a project, we sit people together in a way that makes sense and ensures great collaboration. I personally find social events important too as you can learn so much from people in different areas of the business. Many initiatives at Equatex have started because of small talk during a coffee break.