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Collaboration - Only a word until you have experienced it

Shifting to a collaborative Workplace – How to do this?



I now think that we have misnamed the New Economy – this is not simply the “Information Age” it is the “Relationship Age”. Why Relationships? Relationships are the route to information  Why is this different?  Because the type of relationship we have as a norm in the workplace blocks the development and deployment of information.


Why does the traditional workplace set of relationships not help this process? We operate inside a command and control approach where relationships are vertical and are based on the power of position. As such, all the organizational thinking and information sharing happens at the top. Such an approach is now too slow to cope with the dramatic shifts in demography and  changes in technology. The extent of change is so great that we need to tap into the full intelligence of the entire organization. The pace of change is so great that we have to short-circuit the top and allow information to flow any way it wants to. By simply thinking about information itself we risk missing the key: that information development is a social process. Organizations that have the best social process for developing information will be the winners in the information age. The best social process is one where it is normal for people to converse with each others as equals.


We need an organization where we are all peers. Where relationships are horizontal and where power is based on insight and contribution. The course that this post is taken from is designed to show students the difference between the traditional system and the new relational system. Ironically it looks at the US Army as a model.


The US Army is now currently the world leader is finding ways of abandoning “command and Control” and in finding mechanisms that allow the full intelligence of the entire organization to be released. They recognize that the new technology is redefining the battlefield (just as it is the workplace). Their primary concern is to ensure that their people have the capability to keep up with these changes, exploit them best so that they can dominate the battlefield with the lowest cost in human lives.


All organizations share these concerns today. They have started this work because they cannot see an alternative to

their need to create a workplace that will attract and retain the very best that the nation can provide. Only the best will be able to understand and deploy the new technology competitively. This implies that the US Army will compete with all the best employers and must therefore offer the most opportunity to employees and to managers (officers)


To achieve this, we know that we have to shift our organizations from a model where command and control from the top is the dominant "meme" to a new meme of distributed intelligence. So how do we make this shift?


Simply knowing that we should give up smoking, lose weight, have a better relationship with our parents, stop fooling around etc is not enough. We have to find a way of changing hard-wired behaviour.

Culture - Relationships and Habitual Behaviors

Change is difficult. We can see resistance to change as people being bad or we can see it as being a natural response and plan accordingly.


All systems naturally resist change. Your body is a good example. Your body, and all living systems are designed to prevent change from happening all the time - it would be too unstable.


The problem that is unique to humans is that we have extended this "immune system" to shared mental models as well. We naturally attack and resist changes to ideas that require us to change our “normal” behaviour. We see the world and ourselves though the lens of these shared mental models. If an idea is outside this model we either cannot see it or we tend to fight it. They are especially powerful when they are shared by many others.


Shared mental models are "culture". Culture is not opera or high art, it is those commonly held views of what is important. Culture is expressed in our behaviors. Most importantly culture is expressed in our behaviour toward each other in the form of relationships.


Let’s look at an example of how two cultures can completely misunderstand each other.


It was hard for the First Nations to negotiate treaties with the white man about land when they had no concept of "property".


They had a different relationship to the land than we did. We saw land as an economic resource: something to be controlled and owned. They saw it as a systemic source of life for all creatures which meant that they could not own it.


You can learn the new word, “property” but if you have no shared mental model for what it means, you don't really understand the underlying concept. It has no meaning for you. So when negotiating the land treaties, the First Nations could not imagine that we saw a land as an economic and not a social resource. So farming. lumber and mining were ideas that could not be understood. At the heart of the misunderstanding was the difference between the two cultures in relationship to the land. They could not imagine using the land as we do.


So the lesson is that what you have not experienced you cannot know.


So this too extends directly to us today. Until you have experienced peer to peer, you cannot understand it.

Our Traditional Model

You can hear the words about "teamwork", "supportive manager", "cooperation", "distributed intelligence" the need to change etc but, like the First Nations in the 1870's  who were struggling to understand the idea of "property", these are only words that have no meaning for you. You have no experience of these things and hence they are not real and in fact threaten you. You are not a bad person you are only a normal human being.


To change an embedded model is very hard. Think of your eating or exercise habits. Think of giving up smoking. The model is embedded in years of behaviour. Worse, when the model often has roots in success in the past it is even more difficult to change.


The Manager/Employee Relationship – the Key Relationship

I am now convinced that at the heart of the "problem" in organizations today is the habitual relationship between the manager and the employee. This relationship drives a set of behaviors.


I am now certain that by changing this one relationship, we change everything.


So we don't need a whole pile of workplace programs. In fact, until we have changed the relationship, workplace flex programs will not work - because the underlying model remains the same - real men do not take time off! Real men do not ask for help! Real men have all the answers! Workplace flex programs risk making the workplace even more stressful. Why? Because they raise expectations that cannot be fulfilled until the mental model changes


This traditional manager/employee relationship triggers habitual responses from both sides leading to autocracy from the top and victim hood from the bottom. It prohibits "Straight Talk". It weakens trust. It prohibits peer to peer conversations and it prevents effective collaboration. If you try and get all these things without thinking of how to overcome this model, the "immune system" will kill you.


So how do we change?

We need help to break these patterns.

  1. We have to see them first
  2. We need a system to change the habits and the behaviors.
  3. The support system has to be in place for long enough to create a new habit.

1. Seeing the Problem first – the need to create shared view of the risks of not changing

If there is not a general view inside an organization that there is a problem, why should anyone consider change at all? Most of us are unaware that we face true revolutions in demography that will change the demand side of employment. Most of us are unaware that values are changing and that most young people today see the world very differently from their parents. Most us have no idea how fast technology is changing and how this will affect organizations.


Until there is a general understanding of these forces there is no motivation  for change.


Like the frog in the pot, we are too busy to see trends that are blindingly clear once we look up and notice them. A good first step then is to set up conversations where we look at what is really going on.


2. Creating a system that will set up the conditions of change

To create understanding of the new relationship, we need to experience it. We cannot “program” or mandate it. If the new is delivered with a the full fanfare of yet another corporate program, we will trigger the immune system.


It is helpful to see change in terms of  disease. If we insert the virus, it will do the job. The AAR is such a “virus”. All new experiences have to be “offered” freely and will be taken up, or not, if they provide value.


3. The Essential Support System

We cannot make deep change on our own. All successful change has a facilitator and is long term.


This is what the AAR is all about - it depends on the use of a "facilitator" who breaks the pattern in the vertical ranking and enables a peer to peer relationship to happen. The AAR has to be in place a new norm for a long time so that straight talk becomes a new habit and enters the shared mental model of the organization.


Such processes have to be seen as long term. It so easy to slide back - especially under stress. Giving up smoking on your own is very difficult especially at times when your habit was most strong say after a meal, with a coffee or even after making love. When you have a bad hair day - you long for a smoke. Most of us need support for at least six months to help us either create new habits or to weaken old ones. In organizations this may take years.


All the work of organizational transformation that I have seen that works involves a facilitator shifting the vertical relationships at work to horizontal relationships. Effective interventions have to be in place for a long time and have to have a powerful reason for being introduced.


This is what the AAR really is and why it has had such success over time. The Army installed it because the top management understood that they needed the distributed intelligence of the entire organization to cope with the impact of the exponential growth of the impact of information technology on the new battlefield. So the AAR was mandated by the top who had the most habitual investment in the old.


CIBC use a facilitated process in its health management system.


CIBC need not only to reduce their workplace health costs but also to establish greater organizational resiliency so that CIBC can make the changes that it needs to reinvent itself as a sales organization. Workplace health is not only a major cost now - up to 15% of payroll - but the quality of the work place will be THE competitive staffing and success factor in the future. This is true with all workplaces when we understand the impact of the new values and the shift in demography. So it is worth CIBC's while to invest in changing the core of the problem - the manager employee relationship. CIBC are not only saving money, over $12 million, but they are also creating a competitive workplace. The bank was selected by the ROB as one of the top 35 companies to work for in spite of the fact that they have a huge churn in culture and have implemented a $500 million cost cutting program. Remember that the US Army also made most of its best reforms when cutting costs as well..


BP is another good example of a massive traditional bureaucracy that is making effective change by this focus on the manager/employee relationship.


BP’s challenge is they recognize that their long term survival depends on their reinventing themselves as an energy company not solely and oil company. They “know” that the oil will run out and that alternatives will displace oil just as their investment in the oil end game peaks. So they have to unlearn their oil engineering mental model and learn to become the leaders in many alternatives such as solar etc. They have to both unlearn and to learn. They too have to offer a workplace that is exciting and where people can become the best they can become. For they also see that it is not the technology but the people behind the technology that will be the secret.


BP have taken on the AAR and have extended this to entire system of building learning though connecting individuals and communities of practice with a facilitator so that they can work better peer to peer. It is having a huge impact: they have saved $700 million in the last 2 years as a result and of course they are creating a workplace that is a ferment of new ideas and support.

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Last update: 05/01/2003; 3:23:15 PM.