Successful collaborators create relationships, not transactions
Peter Hirst, UNICON Board Chair 2018-2019
Ever since our UNICON Team Development conference at the University of Maryland Robert H. Smith School of Business last November, the topic of collaboration has been on my mind even more than usual. Of course, all of us are involved in all sorts of collaborations on any given day, whether with academic partners, technology or content vendors, or other kinds of organizations and individuals who make our work better as a result of working together. Even the words “collaboration” and “collaborate” have become such a part of the zeitgeist that their abbreviation is now part of the business vernacular; “collabs” are springing up in a variety of contexts, from co-working spaces to science labs to startup incubators.
Yet it wasn’t that long ago when the word “collaborator” carried a much darker meaning. The term has existed since mid-1850s, with a primary (original and benign) meaning of “working together.” And then it changed dramatically, as its secondary—and much more sinister—use came into prominence to describe individuals who chose (or were coerced) to work with an enemy during World War II. It’s not clear what linguistic rehabilitation took place since the end of that war, but somehow “collaborator” has managed to clear its name. As you can see on the chart below, by the early 2000s “collaborate” had eclipsed its infamy of the 1940s and most likely returned to its original, positive meaning.
(Image source: GoogleBooks Ngram Viewer)
I marvel at the many forms collaboration takes in academia and, more specifically, in executive education. We collaborate within our own and with other universities on both custom and open-enrollment programs to bring the best possible content to our program participants. We collaborate with companies that enable us to offer that content in a variety of innovative formats to make our programs more accessible to more people. We collaborate with our clients to design educational experiences for their employees that are instrumental in solving immediate business challenges.
To be adding value, it’s important that collaboration is not a zero-sum game (unfortunately a pattern of behavior all-too-often observed). To add net value, collaboration needs to happen in a way that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Usually that means understanding, accepting, and valuing the fact that other people and organizations have their own interests, motivations, contexts, challenges, and goals. Often, if not always, collaboration benefits from and arguably requires trust between the collaborators.
Trust can be experienced implicitly and flourish in the context of a relationship, or it can be inferred and observed at arms-length by virtue of reputation. In today’s digital economy, reputations can be both built and damaged extremely quickly. If you are, as you should be, concerned about enhancing and protecting your reputation, you might think very carefully about the kinds of risks you may be taking in your collaborations.
Moreover, collaborations often involve a great deal of innovation, thus it’s hard to legislate in advance for all the different situations and circumstances that might arise. This can become a barrier to doing anything, because you’re worrying about unknowns—the risks that may or may not materialize. How then do you proceed, if at all?
Furthermore, many of us think of ourselves as active collaborators, while others in our organization may not agree. Perhaps our peers may not view collaboration the same way we do.
So, how do we resolve these paradoxes? In a word: communicate! Look at collaborations as building relationships. Trust should be at the core of these relationships, including an understanding of where the resources are coming from, what risks can be preempted and/or legislated, and what can be left to happen organically. Without a mutual understanding of wishes and needs, even the most well-intended acts may be misinterpreted by your collaborators. That said, relationships evolve, and it’s important to keep an eye on the continued alignment of interests and outcomes for everyone.
In universities, we like to think that being collaborative is in our organizational DNA, including the way we work with clients and customers. Perhaps this is true, but I believe that collaboration involves both a mindset and a skill-set, and skills are something that we can and should improve with practice. UNICON’s very existence and source of value requires the collaboration mindset. And UNICON provides many opportunities for practicing collaboration skills. I see this every day in the work of our UNICON committees, in the many formal interactions between our members, and in the informal ways that we help and support each other and our parent institutions. If you want to hone your essential collaboration skills, getting more involved with and taking advantage of what UNICON has to offer is a great place to start!
With that in mind, I look forward to the 2019 UNICON Directors Conference hosted by Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO, April 24 – 26, 2019. Don’t miss the chance to collaborate in person—register today if you haven’t done so already.
Peter Hirst, UNICON Board Chair 2018-2019