According to the Harvard Business Review, before technology made it possible for companies and organizations to connect with large groups of colleagues and stakeholders anywhere in the world in real time, the average team size was around 20 people. Today, however, it isn’t uncommon for people to work in teams comprised of upwards of 100 people—many of whom interact with one another virtually and not face-to-face.
Online communities have changed the way teams operate—and ultimately collaborate—regardless of size. And, by using an online community’s tailored tools and techniques, teams can come together in ways that acknowledge each member’s individual contribution while working together to meet the end goal.
The Difference Between Collaboration and Teamwork
Before diving into exactly how to make your teams collaborate more effectively, it’s important to define what exactly ‘collaboration’ is. How is it different than teamwork? And why can it be so elusive to create?
Collaboration needs teamwork—everyone working together on a common goal—but it goes beyond that. In teamwork, people stay in their lanes. Think of a soccer team. There is the goalie, defenders and midfielders. Everyone works together to win the game, but everyone has a defined role and they stay there. For example, it’s rare for a defender to score a goal, since their job is to block the other team from scoring.
In collaboration, the lines are blurred and roles are less siloed. Not only do people work together, they draw on one another’s unique skills to collectively come up with ideas and solutions. Since everyone can have access to the same discussions, documents and resource library, online communities give each team member the space to do what they do best while remaining mindful of what the other members are doing.
Help Collaboration Thrive
Online communities are incredibly effective at fostering collaboration. An environment designed to engage various perspectives, skills and ideas in one place is key to ongoing engagement and lasting productivity. Below are a few key considerations to take account as you build your community.
1. Shared purpose and goals
Why show up? If your members don’t have an answer to that question, then it will be nearly impossible to create a collaborative environment. People can have individual reasons for participating, but everyone needs to share the overall purpose and goals for the project or community.
Make sure the team’s and community’s goals are well articulated and easily found. Although this isn’t a new trick, keep in mind S.M.A.R.T. goals—specific, measurable, achievable, results-focused and time-bound. S.M.A.R.T. goals keep everyone on the same page, eliminate confusion and hold everyone accountable since they allow you to articulate expectations so clearly.
Just as you have community guidelines outlining how members should behave (and not behave) within your online community, create guidelines outlining proper behavior for building collaboration within the community, for specific projects.
Instead of making people figure out what collaboration looks like on their own, create guidelines that explain the types of behavior you’d like to see, how to navigate conflict if it comes up, and what type of behavior isn’t productive. Many of the points may seem obvious to you or other community minded individuals, but won’t be obvious people new to online collaboration.
As important as it is to have community guidelines and written rules outlining how you want members to behave, nothing beats leading by example. The best people to do that are executives and team leaders. People naturally look to leaders, and positive leader participation can do two big things for your community and projects:
- Leader and executive participation validates the community and projects, showing members and participants that your organization thinks it’s an important investment and place to spend time and energy. Because of that, leader and executive participation can inspire more members to participate and to take the platform seriously.
- People naturally emulate leaders. If leaders show up, connect and collaborate online, they teach members it’s important to do and, importantly, show them how.
According the the 2016 State of Community Management Report, 62% executives in mature communities participated regularly, demonstrating just how important executive and leader participation is.
4. Document sharing
Knowing how to participate in an online community is important, but if your platform doesn’t have certain capabilities, it doesn’t matter how well trained your members are. One feature to look for is good document sharing, where members can keep a clear system of record.
When collaborating, it’s important to know where your team is headed (i.e. what your goals are and what you want the end product to look like), but it’s also crucial to have a system of record to know where you came from, who did what, and what previous versions of documents looked like.
Lay the Groundwork
Lay the groundwork for collaboration early on. Collaboration is necessary for large, ongoing projects--like creating standards and regulations--but it’s also helpful for smaller projects or little volunteer opportunities. If you demonstrate collaboration in smaller day-to-day projects, your community will be more prepared to collaborate well when the big projects do come up.
In other words, a culture of collaboration is one in which sharing and connecting happens regularly without much effort or thought. This then becomes the norm, increasing the value and overall satisfaction of getting things done for the team.