In reviewing the new i4cp research on collaboration, a number of key themes emerge that practitioners should consider. On the central question of the relevance of collaboration today, some of the insights are straightforward “YES” answers. Some start with a cautionary “BUT.”  

Let’s start with the affirmations. The research findings agreed with conventional wisdom that organizations that collaborate well also compete well and are stronger marketplace performers. In looking more closely, we find that high-performance organizations—those that meet i4cp’s standard of exceptional firms (the market performance index, or MPI)—value collaboration more that the average firm. It’s part of their strategic game plan to win. In other words, the best organizations use collaboration to achieve a specific mission or strategic intent.   

Furthermore, high performers take the commitment to collaboration more seriously and make better choices to use their resources, management practices, and talent programs to advance collaboration. And as the new research points out, high collaboration/high performance organizations have the exceptional culture surround that enables, supports, and affirms collaboration.  

So here is where we find the cautionary “BUT.”  

I would observe that while getting the culture right is primary, a single, frontal assault on culture is rarely successful. “Cultural transformation” is an appealing notion and an all-to-common part of a change story—as well as something promoted in a consultant’s toolkit. Yet it rarely works alone, and more often than not, well-intending internal practitioners find it’s quite hard to make sustained progress after the launch. (I can share a few stories of my own—just ask.)  

A collaborative culture is important—i4cp’s first in a series of briefs focuses on the essential components of such cultures—but it doesn’t stand alone. It starts with a genuine link to business imperatives, strategic priorities, and meaningful choices. Collaborative culture is both the enabler and by-product of focused talent and HR practices. The research shows that high-collaboration/high-performance organizations hire and promote more collaborative leaders, move their pay and recognition schemes to meaningfully reward better collaborative behavior, and provide tools and training to support collaboration. By the way, it was interesting to note the research did not find better collaboration was due to better collaborative information systems and technology—in a way, you can’t buy your way into high-performance collaboration with technology alone.  

Perhaps the biggest BUT is the collaborative overload signal. The research hints at a next practice in which the best cultures have an environment where employees experiencing too much of the good thing in the form of collaboration can seek support from their manager to balance out the overload. They also make an effort to proactively sense when collaboration is unnecessarily slowing down decisions as well as unfairly burdening performers.  

Yes, collaboration is a good thing. This study affirms the value as high-performance firms use it well with the culture both enabling and surrounding it. BUT smarter organizations marry a modifier to the siren call of collaboration: call it strategic collaboration, purposeful collaboration, or focused collaboration. And after digesting this research, practitioners might consider reformulating their approach to collaboration— more or less.  

Download i4cp’s new report, Purposeful Collaboration: The Essential Components of Collaborative Cultures now (i4cp members only).  

Kevin D. Wilde is a strategic business adviser with i4cp and former Chief Learning Officer, General Mills.