Inter-company team collaboration

David Tebbutt listens to the reflections of two men who are very experienced at setting up collaborative teams across organisational boundaries.

26th June 2009 at 10:32 am

Jeremy Ettinghausen, head of digital publishing at Penguin, and Tom Thirlwall, managing director of small creative agency, MWorks, appeared recently in a session called ‘Alchemy, Chemistry and Collaboration’ at an event run by b.TWEEN. They thought they’d like to create a document about collaboration by collaborating with the audience. This was to be done using a rather nifty online collaborative editing application called Etherpad. The audience had other ideas but, as the discussion proceeded, it became clear why collaboration can’t be forced.

Referring to a 2007 collaborative book-writing experiment as a way of opening the discussion, Ettinghausen explained that Penguin got over 1500 people to collectively write a novel using a wiki. All of the contributions were anonymous so it meant that some well known writers could participate without risking damage to their reputation by association. This was just as well, because the end result was not at all good. He said it has been called, “not the most read, but the most written” novel in history.

However, Penguin learned a lot about collaboration which it has applied subsequently. In the case of the book, though, the question that hadn’t been asked was, “what was in it for the contributors?” And the answer was, “not a lot”. They got to exercise their writing skills and, presumably, saw what others made of them. So they learnt something. But the anonymity meant that no-one could see that they’d participated or, maybe, written a particularly scintillating chapter. The bottom line for these things is that everyone has to be a winner in some respect – learning, revenue, PR value, establishing new business relationships and so on.

Many organisations no longer have all the talents they need in-house, so collaboration with third parties, especially small businesses, is increasingly the case. Project team members can come from several organisations, large and small. And these projects, ideally, have a life of their own which is an obligation to meet certain agreed objectives but remain largely independent of their own organisations.

What turns out to be far more important than the contractual agreement is the chemistry between the participants. Figuring out whether a collaboration is likely to work owes more to flirtation and courtship than to project planning. The participants have to respect, like and trust each other. If not, the cracks will show as the project nears completion.

One audience member drew a distinction between the participants and the organisations they worked for, especially when it came to meeting up. He wondered if ‘neutral territory’ was important. (In the university world, for example, politics gets in the way. Hosting meetings gives a power advantage to the university, even if the project team couldn’t care less.) The speakers suggested that the money spent on such neutral venues, hotels and the like, would be better spent on content and product. They suggested that organisations need to empower people to be part of the project and not be a spokesman for their organisation.

Discussions about the causes of collaboration breakdowns followed and, fundamentally, the issues came down to clear initial objectives, an understanding of the benefits to the individuals, periodic reminders, continuous dialogue and meet up when possible. Not so different to an internal project really.

In wrapping the session, the speakers summarised the key elements for successful cross-organisation collaboration and took a few extras from the audience:

From the speakers:
– A need for the project (collaboration for its own sake will fail)
– A good chemistry between the participants
– Shared needs
– Mutual respect
– Leave egos at the door (acknowledge own strengths and weaknesses)
– Ongoing communication
– The right tools (Twitter, Huddle, BaseCamp, phone conferences, video conferences, phone calls, meeting up. Ettinghausen found phone conferences particularly bad.)

From the audience
– Clear objectives
– Ownership (who knocks heads together if things go wrong)
– Lots of decent human beings

A video of the session is on


David Tebbutt is an award-winning columnist and feature writer who specialises on the subject of using software and technology to increase business productivity. He's an analyst with Freeform Dynamics but, in previous lives, wrote for Director magazine, Real Business and was also editor of Personal Computer World.

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