Collaboration is the Name of the Game

It's the New Year and time to think about fresh starts and resolutions. One of the banes of business intelligence (BI) managers over the years has been getting different departments to "play nice" with each other when building and using the BI environment. Getting representatives from different departments to agree on the definition of any entity or attribute is hard enough, but just try to get them to share their data! In keeping with New Year's resolutions, how about if we make this the year of corporate collaboration?

Sounds good - but what does that mean and how do we get started? The first thing to recognize is that collaboration performed just for collaboration's sake is probably doomed to failure. Unless your company has a specific process through which collaboration becomes a natural requirement and a goal or objective is associated with it, it may be seen as forced, unwarranted or even just gossip mongering!

Next you should understand just what is meant by collaboration. My dictionary defines collaborate as "to work together, especially in a joint intellectual effort." It also says that it means "to cooperate treasonably, as with an enemy occupational force!" The definition can be as controversial in the business world. It is certainly not synonymous with only communication - forms of communication (e-mail and telephones) do support collaboration but, by themselves, they do not add up to collaboration. The best definition I have seen for collaboration is two or more employees working together toward a common goal or objective that generates some sort of mutual benefit. The collaborators create something together that they could not create by themselves - sort of the whole is greater than its parts routine.

It certainly sounds appealing, so why don't we see more collaboration between departments? There are a number of reasons of which I have documented just a few, along with some suggestions to help you mitigate these roadblocks:

Unequal sharing of credit. How do you split up the resulting intellectual property created from the collaborative effort? Who gets the benefits and resulting kudos for it? Without working through this upfront, you can bet that there will be less than optimal sharing of ideas and expending of effort by the collaborators. Let's face it - the results from this effort can be extremely valuable. If people feel taken advantage of or as though they are not receiving proper value for their work, they will pull back and refuse to contribute.

Suggestion: You need to design the effort so that both parties receive mutual benefit and mutual recognition for their efforts. If one side is constantly focusing on the intellectual property rights, then you probably have a bad collaboration in the works. This is not to say simply split the benefit down the middle. One collaborator may in fact deserve more credit than the other, but both sides must feel that they are getting their fair share of the ensuing value.

Zero sum game, or the "I win - you lose" mentality. We have this embedded in our culture. Each of us has been indoctrinated with the desire to maximize our own benefits while minimizing those of other people or departments. This is reinforced by most bonus and incentive plans set up by corporations. Vertically focused incentives leave no room for collaboration time. For example, a downstream group requires "extra" data from the order-entry process to help them analyze the segments of customers buying their products. This information has nothing to do with the fulfillment of the order, so the order entry clerks - who are paid by the number of orders they enter in an hour - have no reason to "collaborate" with the analysts just to help them with their jobs.

Suggestion: It must start at the top. The executives on both sides of the collaboration point may be reluctant to collaborate with each other out of a lack of trust. Perhaps they don't understand the requirements from the other group. Or, maybe it is a natural cautiousness to "change the way we do business." In any case, the executives must have confidence in each other and understand each other's value. This understanding must be communicated down through their chain of command. Secondly, they must adjust the incentive plans for their employees to enhance the likelihood of collaboration occurring. Finally, education throughout the departments can help garner overall understanding of collaboration and the need to change.

Even after overcoming the first two problems, the thorniest problem still remains - integration. Departments that want to share data must trudge through the integration issues bravely faced by many a BI implementer. Both the data and systems must be integrated to enable collaboration. Incompatible data and/or systems can be a real death knell for collaboration. The frustration level becomes insurmountable. Unfortunately, the business users often underestimate the level of complexity required for the effort - especially given the need today for real-time technological support for collaboration.

Suggestion: We are lucky today to have a number of real-time and asynchronous technologies to aid the collaborative effort. Real-time technologies include instant messaging, teleconferencing and portals. Asynchronous technologies consist of e-mail and online collaboration tools such as IBM's Lotus Workplace, Microsoft's SharePoint, Documentum eRoom, OpenText Livelink or Interwoven WorkSite. These offer a number of useful features such as document management, calendaring and workflow automation. In addition, many contain some form of repository or shared space much like the data warehouse component of a BI environment. Such a repository is a mandatory part of the collaborative environment.

Fortunately, the asynchronous tools also offer an especially useful feature for a collaborative effort - an archive for keeping track of who did what and when. This feature can be quite useful in overcoming the first two issues in this list.

As a final thought, remember that much of the intangible returns developed through the collaborative effort come in the form of unstructured content. You would be wise to think ahead in terms of what you will need to "mine" this form of information just as you have for the traditional, structured data. Much can be garnered through intelligent reuse or improved through analytical learning for the next collaborative effort.

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