What Makes Collaboration Work

Rethinking SharePoint Maturity, Part 2

Paul Culmsee

by Paul Culmsee on 11/5/2014

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collaboration, Glyma, governance, hackman, Paul Culmsee, SevenSigma, SharePoint, SharePoint maturity

Hi all

Welcome to part 2 about my research efforts that has led me to thinking a little differently in how we understand and measure SharePoint and organizational “maturity.” In the first post, I gave a glimpse into the work of JR Hackman, who had presented some really interesting ideas about what leads to outstanding team performance. In case you have not read the first post, Hackman presented the notion that trying in vain to come up with the causes of team efficacy was a rather dumb idea and instead, looking at the conditions that enable great teams was a much more productive approach.

This notion of conditions over causes is really important to understand because we all routinely get suckered into conversations about whether one process, approach or model is objectively “better” than another. This sort of discussion frustrates me and I usually find it all rather pointless because it all but ignores the underlying conditions that enabled or disabled things. As a result, we incorrectly attribute success or failure of SharePoint to how we used methods, processes and models, rather than focus on what really matters — the conditions under which those methods, processes and models operated.

Now, Hackman was not looking at SharePoint projects when he came to this realization. He was looking at leadership and the performance of teams in general. He synthesized his years of research work down to six conditions that he felt led to better results if they were in place. Those conditions are:

  1. A real team: Interdependence among members, clear boundaries distinguishing members from non-members and moderate stability of membership over time.
  2. A compelling purposeA purpose that is clear, challenging, and consequential. It energizes team members and fully engages their talents.
  3. Right peoplePeople who had task expertise, self organised and skill in working collaboratively with others.
  4. Clear norms of conduct: Team understands clearly what behaviors are, and are not, acceptable.
  5. A supportive organizational contextThe team has the resources it needs and the reward system provides recognition and positive consequences for excellent team performance.
  6. Appropriate coachingThe right sort of coaching for the team was provided at the right time.
So I very much bought into Hackman’s conditions over causes argument, but wasn’t sure whether his six conditions were directly applicable to SharePoint projects. To find out, I got lucky, coming across some really great work on the subject of collaboration by the Wilder Research Group.

Collaboration: What Makes it Work

Earlier this year, I  bought a crap-load of books on the topic of collaboration. One of them had the rather long title of “Collaboration: What Makes It Work, 2nd Edition: A Review Of Research Literature On Factors Influencing Successful Collaboration” written by Paul W. Mattessich, Marta Murray-Close, Barbara R. Morrisey and published by the Wilder Research Group.

This book is quite short — just over 100 pages, but it packs a heavy punch nevertheless. The core question asked in this book was “What makes the difference between your collaboration’s failure or success?” and it sought to answer the question by providing an in-depth review of lots (and lots and lots) of academic research on collaboration. In all, the authors examined more than 281 research studies on collaborative initiatives (and their success or failure) and synthesized them. I love these sort of meta-analysis studies, because I am lazy and its terrific when someone else has done the rigorous hard work!

Why Wilder Matters for SharePoint

The intent of the report is to help readers expand their thinking about ways to help projects succeed, gain background information before beginning a collaboration, compare their situation with others, determine collaboration strategy including necessary ingredients, uncover and resolve trouble spots. It also provides a tool called the “The Collaboration Factors Inventory” that allows you to self-assess how your collaboration is doing against the success factors they came up with. Examples are also provided of how organizations have used the inventory as well as a case study illustrating how one collaboration assessed itself and how it used the results to take action to improve its success.

Thus, it should be fairly obvious why this particular work should be of interest to SharePoint practitioners. After all, improving collaboration in organizations and teams is one of the core value propositions that underpins SharePoint and has done so for years now. Under the guise of “governance,” we do lots of work and produce processes (and usually lots of documentation) in the hope that we have put in the necessary plumbing for collaboration to take root and blossom. So when someone has taken the time to distill the learnings from 281 research efforts into collaborative success, there is bound to be valuable takeaways to be had for us SharePoint peeps — especially if our organizations have bought heavily into “social” features of the product.

Now while that all sounds good, there is another less obvious, but cooler reason to be interested in this book — especially given my examination of Hackman in part 1. The Wilder team found a total of 20 factors that were identified as “ingredients” for successful collaboration and guess how many categories they distilled them down to?

Six! — precisely the same number of conditions that Hackman distilled for great team performance. So, wouldn’t it be interesting to see how much overlap there is between what Hackman says are the six conditions for great teams versus Wilder’s six “differences” between collaboration failure and success?

I thought so too…

Back to the Wilder team…

So what are the factors that make a difference in successful collaboration identified by Wilder? Below are their twenty ingredients, divided into the aforementioned six categories…

1. Membership characteristics: (Skills, attributes and opinions of individuals as a collaborative group, as well as culture and capacity of orgs that form collaborative groups)

  • Mutual respect, understanding and trust: Members of the collaborative group share an understanding and respect for each other and their respective organizations: how they operate, their cultural norms and values, limitations, and expectations.
  • Appropriate cross section of members: To the extent that they are needed, the collaborative group includes representatives from each segment of the community who will be affected by its activities.
  • Members see collaboration as in their self-interestCollaborating partners believe that they will benefit from their involvement in the collaboration and that the advantages of membership will offset costs such as loss of autonomy and turf.
  • Ability to compromiseCollaborating partners are able to compromise, since the many decisions within a collaborative effort cannot possibly fit the preferences of every member perfectly.

2. Purpose(The reasons for the collaborative effort, the result or vision being sought)

  • Concrete, attainable goals and objectives: Goals and objectives of the collaborative group are clear to all partners, and can realistically be attained.
  • Shared vision: Collaborating partners have the same vision, with clearly agreed-upon mission, objectives, and strategy. The shared vision may exist at the outset of collaboration, or the partners may develop a vision as they work together.
  • Unique purpose: The mission and goals or approach of the collaborative group differ, at least in part, from the mission and goals or approach of the member organizations.

3. Process and structure: (Management, decision making and operational systems of a collaborative context)

  • Members that share a stake in both process and outcome: Members of a collaborative group feel “ownership” of both the way the group works and the results or product of its work.
  • Multiple layers of participation: Every level (upper management, middle management, operations) within each partner organisation has at least some representation and ongoing involvement in the collaborative initiative.
  • Flexibility: The collaborative group remains open to varied ways of organizing itself and accomplishing its work.
  • Development of clear roles and policy guidelines: The collaborating partners clearly understand their roles, rights, and responsibilities, and they understand how to carry out those responsibilities.
  • Adaptability: The collaborative group has the ability to sustain itself in the midst of major changes, even if it needs to change some major goals, members, etc., in order to deal with changing conditions.
  • Appropriate pace of development: The structure, resources, and activities of the collaborative group change over time to meet the needs of the group without overwhelming its capacity, at each point throughout the initiative.

4. Communication: (The channels used by partners to exchange information, keep each-other informed and convey opinions to influence)

  • Open and frequent communication: Collaborative group members interact often, update one another, discuss issues openly, and convey all necessary information to one another and to people outside the group.
  • Established informal relationships and communication links: In addition to formal channels of communication, members establish personal connections — producing a better, more informed, and cohesive group working on a common project.

5. Environment: (Geo-location and social context where a collaborative group exists. While they can influence, they cannot control)

  • History of collaboration or cooperation in the community: A history of collaboration or cooperation exists in the community and offers the potential collaborative partners an understanding of the roles and expectations required in collaboration and enables them to trust the process.
  • Collaborative group seen as a legitimate leader in the community: The collaborative group (and by implication, the agencies in the group) is perceived within the community as reliable and competent—at least related to the goals and activities it intends to accomplish.
  • Favorable political and social climate: Political leaders, opinion-makers, persons who control resources, and the general public support (or at least do not oppose) the mission of the collaborative group.

6. Resources: (The financial and human input necessary to develop and sustain a collaborative group)

  • Sufficient funds, staff, materials and time: The collaborative group has an adequate, consistent financial base, along with the staff and materials needed to support its operations. It allows sufficient time to achieve its goals and includes time to nurture the collaboration.
  • Skilled leadership: The individual who provides leadership for the collaborative group has organizing and interpersonal skills, and carries out the role with fairness. Because of these characteristics (and others), the leader is granted respect or “legitimacy” by the collaborative partners.

Now that you have seen Wilder's six factors that influence successful collaboration, think about where you focus on your SharePoint projects in the name or guide of “governance.” How many of these factors did you consider when you started on your quest to use SharePoint for improved collaboration? Which of these really scream out at you as something worth pursuing? Go back in time and with hindsight, imagine if you had considered these and acted on it… Would it had led to better outcomes?


I have previously stated that collaboration is a classic SharePoint platitude, and chasing goals like “improved collaboration” are a surefire way to create elaborate SharePoint solutions that miss the mark. Thus, this work by Wilder is a crucial resource in helping organisations determine what collaboration means to them. Furthermore, anyone interested in assessing SharePoint “readiness” (whatever your interpretation of readiness), would be well served to think about how they can incorporate the Wilder work into their readiness or maturity models. After all, how many other meta analyses of 281 studies on the topic have been done, eh?

Consider also that the Wilder team asked themselves a different question than Hackman. While Hackman framed his question around “What are the enabling conditions?” the Wilder team asked “What makes the difference?” This broader question posed by the Wilder team explains a lot about their results. Some of their collaboration success factors can be seen as potential enabling conditions as Hackman described, whereas others are a more retrospective look on what successful collaboration looks like during and after collaboration has taken place. Consider also that Hackman and the Wilder team used very different areas of research to come up with their answers. Wilder examined 281 case studies on successful collaboration, whereas Hackman used decades of research in teamwork and leadership. While research on collaboration might seem related to teamwork and leadership, in the world of academic research, you are talking about completely different bodies of knowledge.

Nevertheless, if you compare Hackman’s six conditions to Wilder’s six collaboration factors, there are more overlaps than there are differences.

This I find exciting because it tells me that these independent research efforts are coalescing around the same themes. But I am going to defer a detailed examination of them both in context till a future post, because as I started to synthesize Hackman and Wilder together, I came across a third area of research that also led to some important insights — perhaps the most important ones of all… the work of PhD candidate Stephen Duffield in the area of risk and organizational learning on projects.

That my friends, is the topic of the next post…

Thanks for reading.

Topic: Strategy and Adoption

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