Saturday, June 5, 2010

From Single Star to Team Player

A single star is someone who performs really well in his or her job but does not help others. Or one asks for help and is sometimes even abrasive when asked to do something for the company that does not benefit him or her directly. The problem with these people is that they can poison the organization—they set a bad example for others if executives keep rewarding and

promoting them. Managers may feel that they need them, of course, as they do perform well. So it is pretty gutsy to fire them in today's rather poor economic environment. But if you're really serious about building a collaborative company and want to reap the economic rewards from doing so, you have to screen for single stars

Companies, industries, and functions that reward hugely based on individual performance are prone to this problem. It is a problem in investment banking and can also be a problem in sales organizations where individuals are compensated for their own sales and not for helping others and sharing best practices.

Many companies have focused on knowledge management the last couple of years. While that has been a good start, it is only one part of the overall challenge of creating an effective collaborative organization. KM is only a special case of instilling a collaborative organization, which also includes coordinating activities and doing joint work across organization boundaries.

Why Employees Don't Collaborate
Executives first need to understand why people in the organization are not collaborating and sharing as much as they should.
There are four obstacles involving employees' motivations and abilities that must be overcome.

First, unwillingness to seek advice and learn from others. Employees may not want to seek advice across the organization, either because they believe they cannot learn anything or because there is a prevailing norm that people ought to fix their problems themselves. No electronic knowledge management system can fix this problem; simply making documents and links to experts available does not help if employees do not want input from others.

Another method is to recruit employees who have a natural inclination to ask for help. A chain of restaurants in the U.S. does this deliberately. At interview, it asks: "What obstacles have you faced in a previous job that prevented you from doing a good job and how did you overcome these obstacles?" The desirable answer should include asking for help and communicating the problem to others, not trying to be a hero and fix it alone.

Second, there is inability to find expertise. There is often someone who knows the answer to a problem but it may be nearly impossible to connect the person who has the expertise with the one who needs it. Clearly, databases and electronic search engines serve a useful role here but more in the capacity of being "electronic yellow pages" than as self sufficient electronic repositories. In most management consulting companies, for example, consultants upload sanitized documents containing their finished work into databases, which are then accessed by other consultants who review prior work and contact the consultants who did it.

However, technology has its limits. Expert directories become out of date and do not fully capture what each person knows. More importantly, they do not allow for creative combinations of ideas and individuals. Companies therefore need to cultivate people who know where experts and ideas reside. These "connectors" tend to be long-timers who have worked in many different areas in the company and hence have an extensive personal network. They see opportunities for new value creation based on the combination of talent, ideas, and expertise in different units.

Then there is unwillingness to help. Is knowledge hoarded in your company? Employees may be willing to seek advice but others are sometimes reluctant to share it. The growing emphasis on performance management has fuelled this problem: People no longer have the time to help others, or they do not care, because they are only asked to deliver on their own targets. While performance is important, executives also need to develop incentives to help others and cultivate a shared identity among employees. This is a notorious problem in many investment banks, where bankers chase their own opportunities without properly assisting others.

Lastly, there is the inability to work together. A "chemistry" problem can sometimes prevent people working well together, even if they want to and are part of a project team. It is a very different problem from the other three obstacles and requires different responses, including training sessions on teamwork, coaching people as they try to work together, and the development of strong relations between people from different units.

For example, a study of time-to-market performance of new product development projects in a high-technology company found that project engineers who worked with engineers from other divisions took 20 to 30 percent longer to complete their projects when they had not established a personal relationship. Engineers found it hard to articulate, understand, and absorb complex technologies that were transferred between divisions when they had not learned to work together beforehand.

Managers must respond to each of these obstacles in different ways. For example, developing an electronic knowledge management system will not help if the underlying problem is that employees hoard knowledge and will not seek help; it will only make people cynical about collaboration. Likewise, making promotion contingent on the extent to which people seek advice from others will not help if there is no way of identifying experts. All four obstacles need to be overcome for effective collaboration to occur. Solving one problem, but not the others, will not help.

by Morten Hansen

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