HR & Collaboration: Strategies and Execution

Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, Cornell University ILR School

In today’s hyper-accelerated business environment, radical, game-changing technologies disrupt entire industries overnight. Companies can’t take years to build capabilities in emerging markets; they must mobilize quickly or lose competitive advantage.

This is why organizations can no longer afford to count on a select number of "problem solvers." Relevant knowledge and ideas exist at every organizational level—but it’s difficult to find and exploit them. To do this, organizations need to create the right motivation, infrastructure and social climate for encouraging employees to speak up, share knowledge and collaborate to achieve common goals.

Keys to collaboration success: motivation, networking, trust

Having talented employees is important, but research shows it’s not the only factor impacting a firm’s ability to consistently innovate. Employees must also be motivated to work together, and have access to other employees who can communicate and evaluate new ideas, and who value exchanging ideas and collaborating.

In their research, Chris Collins, director of the Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies (CAHRS) at Cornell University’s ILR School, and University of Maryland’s Ken Smith found that firms can motivate employees to contribute their efforts to company goals by using certain HR practices, including high-commitment ones such as stock ownership, group or organizational incentives, internal promotion policies, and flexibility programs. These practices show an organization’s commitment to employees’ success and motivate employees to return the favor.

In their study, they also found that collaboration and information sharing were significantly related to networking practices, which include team-based job design, job rotation, mentoring, and socialization activities. Previous research shows these practices facilitate the flow and usage of information among employees by exposing them to new information via cross-functional teams, giving them access to people and departments beyond their own, strengthening their social connections, and passing new knowledge to them directly from more experienced colleagues.

Finally, Collins and Smith found clear evidence that commitment-based HR practices enhance company performance by creating greater trust, cooperation and shared codes and language among employees, which leads to knowledge-sharing and collaboration.

Do the right thing: motivation

To drive collaboration, companies must first make sure employees behave in ways that support knowledge-sharing. As Collins and Smith found, HR plays a key role in motivating and rewarding people to collaborate.

To tie individual actions to organizational performance, many high-tech firms now offer employees at all levels company stock or stock options. But such incentives are often confusing for employees. Instead, Cornell ILR associate professor Collins says that offering group performance incentives to small project teams or business units is more likely to motivate members to share knowledge and collaborate.

Several technology firms use internal idea generation events to motivate employees to work together to solve business problems, and to publicly recognize accomplishments. Comcast Communications hosts a "lab week" each quarter where self-directed employee teams are given one week—away from their day jobs—to work on their own projects. Teams present their ideas to top executives and peers at a "science fair," and ideas from winning teams are immediately put into production.

Other companies, such as Qualcomm, Symantec, Microsoft and Air Products & Chemicals, host similar events. At Air Products (AP), a Fortune 500 chemical, equipment and services company, employees are recognized with annual Technology Innovation awards, an annual Technology Symposium and recognition dinner, the chance to participate in innovation roundtables and to win the $70,000 Chairman’s Award for the best innovation commercialized that year.

Companies like General Electric, IBM, AP and Amgen go even further by incorporating desired behaviors into their performance management systems. Instead of focusing only on the "what" of an employee’s performance, they also assess the "how" that led to those outcomes. Employees are assessed on performance, as well as behaviors related to team work, collaboration, inclusion and knowledge-sharing.

At AP, 360-degree feedback from members of new product development teams is part of overall performance reviews. Biotechnology firm Amgen embeds collaborative behaviors into its company values—connecting company success to team work, collaboration, communication and accountability. Similarly, IBM recently revamped its global competency model to ensure employees have a deeper level of cultural intelligence and the ability to collaborate and lead across the globe.

Trust: a climate for collaboration

Researchers generally believe that an organization’s social climate is a key driver of collaboration. Employees must feel comfortable sharing knowledge and new ideas, without fear of being ostracized, ridiculed, or demoted. It may sound basic, but organizational trust is the foundation for cooperation.

Trust, often called the "glue of the global workplace", is built over time and based on employees’ interactions. That’s why companies like Cisco and Air Products use several kinds of permanent, cross-functional groups to allow employees to interact and build rapport with each other. AP’s communities of interest and practice are formed and run by employees, and are integral to the company’s best practice transfer process.

At Cisco, inclusion and an appreciation of differences underpin collaboration. Brian Schipper, Cisco’s chief HR officer, believes it’s critical that "every employee has the opportunity to contribute to the full extent of their capability and has an equal opportunity to grow professionally, and be rewarded for his or her results and impact." Cisco has evolved its business practices and culture to allow employees to impact business results outside their functional responsibilities, removing bureaucratic barriers and asking leaders to give up some power and control over team members.

Lay the foundation for collaboration

Technology is drastically changing the world of work, providing greater opportunities for employees to engage and work together. But technology alone won’t drive business collaboration. Organizations have to lay the foundation with management and HR practices that remove barriers to effective collaboration. This foundation rests on the basics—motivating employees to share ideas and cooperate, providing an inclusive organizational climate and creating opportunities for employees to build trust and confidence in each other.

Other pieces in this series:

Business Collaboration: Innovating Together

Driving Effective Teams to Improve Business Performance

The Power of Co-Creation

Building Buy-In

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