Collaboration changes everything

Our customers often tell us that encouraging and enabling collaboration has dramatically improved their business. We decided to dig a little deeper by conducting some original cross-industry research that measures the power of workplace collaboration in concrete terms.

For this study we teamed up with Raconteur and surveyed senior staff and C-suite executives at 258 North American companies representing a wide range of business sectors and sizes. What we found is that efficient ongoing collaboration has a significant impact on business innovation, performance, culture and even the bottom line.

We know that modern employees, especially digital natives, love work tools that make sharing and collaborating as easy as using consumer apps. But upper management and IT departments can be slow in adopting the tools workers really need. As a result, there’s often a gap between the innovation and collaboration a business wants and what employees are able to deliver. To gauge the progress companies have made in closing this gap, we asked respondents to categorize their company’s innovation culture as one of four types: Pioneers, Believers, Agnostics or Traditionalists.

In this report, we present our most significant findings along with collaboration stories from successful Google for Work customers. These real-life examples illustrate how a commitment to collaboration can foster innovation and fundamentally change a business for the better.

Efficient ongoing collaboration has a significant impact on business innovation, performance, culture and even the bottom line.

Executive summary

Our research explores the power of collaboration from four critical angles. First, we show why collaboration is good business. Next, we discuss who should drive the change that leads to greater collaboration. We explain why and how forward-thinking companies create a culture of collaboration. Finally, we explore how to choose the right collaboration tools for your own organization.

Collaboration is good business

The key lesson from our research is that the benefits of collaboration extend far beyond the success of any single project. An overwhelming 73% of respondents agreed that their organization would be more successful if employees were able to work in more flexible and collaborative ways. When asked what changes would have the greatest impact on their organization’s overall profitability, 56% of respondents ranked a collaboration-related measure as the #1 factor (Figure 4).

Who can spark change?

While respondents clearly look to departments all across their organization for innovation, IT was considered the most crucial. When it comes to driving innovation, 26% of respondents named IT as the leading department, followed by marketing at 17% (Figure 6). Expectations are high for IT because IT has a close relationship with every part of the business and has the greatest expertise with the latest technologies essential to innovation.

Creating a culture of collaboration

Another eye-opening discovery is that collaboration and employee happiness go hand in hand—88% of respondents who strongly agreed that their company fosters a culture of knowledge-sharing and collaboration also strongly agreed that employee morale and job satisfaction are high. The most serious threats to organizations in terms of people management are failure to attract enough talent (25%), inability to retain the best talent (18%), and concerns about a disengaged workforce (14%). While a direct causation hasn’t been proved, it appears that a culture of collaboration could potentially help alleviate these threats by creating a more desirable work environment.

Mastering the tools

In our survey, 34% of respondents identified their organization as ‘Believers’, making that category the most common (Figure A). Believer companies are those that have adopted new technologies and reworked their business models, but have not yet experienced the full gains of transformation. In other words, they’re moving in the right direction, but don’t have all the right tools in place to realize their goals. For instance, when it came to standard collaboration tasks, respondents felt that employees outperformed their collaboration tools (Figure 14). And when asked what would have the biggest business impact on knowledge-sharing and collaboration, respondents chose investing in technology as the #1 opportunity and listed it as a top-three factor more than any other option (Figure 15). In this section of the report, we explain what employees are looking for in their work tools and how you can deliver what they need.

About the survey

This study of 258 North American business and IT leaders, produced by Raconteur and sponsored by Google for Work, was conducted between January and February 2015. Respondents were asked to complete an anonymous online survey about their beliefs and predictions around innovation and collaboration in the workplace. The individuals that responded to this survey represented a broad spectrum of industries in terms of both their size and main areas of activity.

The survey analysis has been separated into four sections:

  1. Collaboration is good business
  2. Who can spark change?
  3. Creating a culture of collaboration
  4. Mastering the tools

The 4 culture categories

Pioneers
Staff work the way they live. People are free to use technology and tools they are most comfortable with. Agile and collaborative culture with a functional leadership strategy

Believers
New technologies are adopted and business model is reworked, but they are yet to experience the full gains of transformation

Agnostics
Management has the vision and certain structures in place, however, is slow to implement change across the organization

Traditionalists
Use basic technology and the company is highly hierarchical, hampered by barriers to changing culture

Figure A: Breakdown of respondents by culture type.

Figure A. Breakdown of respondents by culture type

Demographic

The 258 North American-based respondents were broken down by business orientation, size, sector and job function.

What is your company’s primary business orientation?

What is the approximate number of employees in your organization?

  • 1-250 33%
  • 251-6,000 47%
  • 6,001+ 19%

What is your company’s primary sector?

graph of respondent roles within their organization.

What is your current role within your organization?

Collaboration research participants roles

Collaboration is good business

Customer engagement gives respondents a clear focus but the challenges of funding and efficiency make running a successful business anything but a walk in the park.

When we examined the responses from the C-suite executives that were surveyed, it became very apparent why some of them suffer from sleepless nights. There are quite simply a broad range of threats for businesses. For our panel it was the cost and speed of business, together with productivity issues, that topped the table of threats. Another threat that appeared frequently was ‘lack of innovation’. In a rapidly changing business world, the ability to adapt through innovation is vital to both survive and thrive. Innovation can also have a key role to play in mitigating the challenges associated with the top three threats set out above and in Figure 1.

Probing further on innovation, the survey showed that the biggest driver behind the need to innovate is customer engagement; 20% named it as the #1 factor. At a time when the ways in which businesses connect with their customers are more important than ever, this enabler of business performance is clearly crucial. What might be less obvious, though, is how to make those connections efficiently and effectively.

While customer engagement is considered the most important driver of innovation overall, the survey data does reveal some variation in the factors that influence businesses of different types (Figure 2). Strikingly, companies that are identified as ‘Believers’ tend to place more importance on factors that relate to growth (such as market share) and the notion of creativity and innovation (innovative culture). They put less emphasis on systems and processes, which could suggest that they consider these to be regressive and inhibitive. ‘Believers’ appear to be constructively frustrated with the status quo.

Figure 1: What are the main threats to your organization?

Figure 1. What are the main threats to your organization?

What are the biggest drivers behind the need to innovate within your organization?

Figure 2. What are the biggest drivers behind the need to innovate within your organization? (%)

Looking closer at Figure 2, a fascinating trend can be observed relating to both decision-making and workplace culture as drivers behind the need to innovate. The data shows that the importance of the two drivers decreases as the gap between the innovation and collaboration a business wants and what employees are able to deliver closes. For example, 18% of ‘Traditionalists’ identified decision-making as a key driver compared to only 8.1% of ‘Pioneers’. This trend suggests that decision-making processes and workplace culture become less of a driving concern as a business’ culture of innovation and collaboration develops.

Aspiration to innovate and transform the way that organizations function is important but, inevitably, there are barriers that stand in the way. Cost is the main one (14% of respondents cited ‘not enough funding’ as one of the main barriers to forming a robust innovation strategy (Figure 3). With limitation on budget always being a factor that inhibits the desired focus on customers and investment in growth, companies need to be smart and select changes that deliver results.

73% of respondents agree that their organization would be more successful if employees were able to work in a more flexible and collaborative way. What’s more, ‘employees working together more collaboratively in person’, ‘better communication between teams’ and a commitment to ‘open innovation’ are the factors that respondents would expect to have the most profound effect on the profitability of a company (Figure 4).

Figure 3: What are the main barriers to forming a robust innovation strategy?

Figure 3. What are the main barriers to forming a robust innovation strategy?

Figure 4: Which of the following changes have the biggest impact on an organization's profitability?

Figure 4. Which of the following changes have the biggest impact on an organization’s profitability?

We think this is an interesting and revealing piece of data. The benefits of communicating in person are pretty intuitive. As a 2013 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience found, face-to-face communication enables more effective communication by increasing interpersonal neural synchronization. Put more simply, face-to-face communication puts participants on the same wavelength. Unfortunately, in the real world, meeting in person is not always possible. So business leaders may find that they benefit from providing guidance to employees on increasing the effectiveness of remote communication. A good starting point is encouraging video conferences, which are still a significantly underutilized resource compared to the traditional audio conference call. Video conferences put people face-to-face, recreating some of those critical benefits of meeting in person.

Effective communication is the first step toward empowering each person in the company to take ownership.

– Kiyan Foroughi, Co-founder and CEO, BOTICCA

Today, the majority of respondents (53%) are confident that collaboration is having a positive and tangible impact on their organization (Figure 5). However, a significant minority (20%) still aren’t convinced. Part of this may be due to the fact that making a major commitment to collaborative working and effective teamwork is a new challenge for many organizations. It takes time to hone any new process or mode of working, but by reassessing the way we think about the notion of ‘work’ itself, the benefits of collaboration can be more easily realized.

Figure 5: How confident are you that collaboration between employees and teams has a positive and tangible impact on your organization?

Figure 5. How confident are you that collaboration between employees and teams has a positive and tangible impact on your organization?

73% of respondents agree that their organization would be a more successful organization if employees were able to work in a more flexible way.

Who can spark change?

With improved business performance the destination, and better collaboration the vehicle, who should be behind the wheel? The results from our survey suggests that IT should be in the driving seat.

Which of the following departments in your organization will be the biggest drivers of innovation?

Figure 6. Which of the following departments in your organization will be the biggest drivers of innovation?

Respondents see IT as the department that is the most important driver of innovation within individual organizations. Some 26% of respondents named it among the top two, whereas the second most frequently mentioned department was marketing at 17%.

A closer inspection of Figure 6 shows that in companies with a population smaller than 250, 20% of respondents see IT as the biggest driver of innovation. Interestingly, larger companies consider IT to be more prominent, with 29.3% and 28.3% in companies with 251–6,000 and 6,001+ employees respectively.

Expectations are so high for IT departments because they have close relationships with every part of a business. As such, they are uniquely positioned to drive innovation and improve organizations’ capacity and capability for collaboration. On top of that, IT is the department that has the greatest responsibility for getting to grips with new technology. And, so often, it is new technology that is responsible for driving innovation.

Effective, forward-thinking IT departments are able to immerse themselves in the rest of the company and combine a deep understanding of business needs with a mastery of technology. In some cases, they can take a proactive role in providing solutions and improved ways of working.

Respondents also consider IT to be the department that is most accomplished at collaborating both with other departments in the same organization and externally (Figure 7).

Figure 7: In your organization, which departments are accomplished/less accomplished at collaborating interdepartmentally and externally?

Figure 7. In your organization, which departments are accomplished/less accomplished at collaborating interdepartmentally and externally?

However, the strong performance of IT departments doesn’t mean that other parts of a business should think that collaboration and innovation are outside of their responsibility. The most successful companies will, increasingly, be those in which every department adds value in this way.

When respondents were asked to think in terms of processes, some 20% said that ‘planning and decision-making’ would derive most benefit from collaboration. Project management (17%), problem-solving and information gathering/research (14% each) also featured prominently (Figure 8).

Figure 8: Which processes would derive the greatest benefit from increased collaboration in your organization?

Figure 8. Which processes would derive the greatest benefit from increased collaboration in your organization?

Planning and decision making, project management and problem-solving, when not done in person, have traditionally been sequential processes involving circulation for comments and laborious reconciliation. We believe that these responses indicate that mentalities have changed. People crave the ability to work together effectively and simultaneously, drawing on the business’ collective intelligence, irrespective of geographic proximity. This is a big ask but one that the right technology can facilitate.

When respondents were asked to think in terms of processes, some 20% said that ‘planning and decision-making’ would derive most benefit from collaboration.

Creating a culture of collaboration

Collaboration has been shown to support productivity and business performance but what impact does it have on employees themselves? Respondents appear to suggest that it could positively impact job satisfaction and employee engagement. We think they could be onto something.

When we plotted the data for job satisfaction against the extent to which a company fosters a culture of knowledge-sharing and collaboration (Figure 10), the two sets of values appeared to correlate quite clearly. While it is important to remember that correlation and causation are two different things, this does strongly suggest a link. And, with failure to attract enough talent (25%), inability to retain the best talent (18%) and concerns about a disengaged workforce (14%) ranking as the most serious threats to organizations in terms of people management, it’s clear why the culture of an organization is so important.

Figure 9: From a people management perspective, what do you feel are the biggest threats facing your organization? (%)

Figure 9. From a people management perspective, what do you feel are the biggest threats facing your organization? (%)

Figure 9: How much do you agree with the following statements? (%) - 1) My company fosters a culture of knowledge sharing and collaboration. 2) Employee morale and job satisfaction is high in my company.

Figure 10. How much do you agree with the following statements (%)

But implementing and encouraging the right culture for a given organization isn’t necessarily easy, as can be seen in Figure 11. The difficulty of changing working styles and habits (22%), a lack of incentives for employees to work collaboratively (17%) and a lack of leadership (14%) were the challenges named most frequently by survey respondents. There’s no doubt that each of these barriers should be taken seriously, but with strong leadership, exact communication, and inspired change agents within the business, none of them is insurmountable for any business.

When you make a big change, you are going to face resistance–that’s just the nature of the beast.

– Bhupesh Arora, Senior Director of New Technologies, Avery Dennison

What are your biggest challenges in creating a more collaborative work culture?

Figure 11. What are your biggest challenges in creating a more collaborative work culture?

The first step is to work out what a strong, effective culture would look like for a given business. This will change according to sector and other specifics, but there are some things that remain constant.

Agility is key. Or, put another way, the ability to anticipate and respond quickly to changes in a business environment. Transparency is important too; if information is allowed to flow freely through an enterprise, and if siloes are broken down, then open dialogue is encouraged. And that should mean that everyone from the leadership of a company to its frontline employees feel as though their voice matters and is heard. When we isolated the data for particular sectors, an interesting finding emerged. Media companies cited geographical separation and the underutilization of communication technologies as the biggest challenges in creating a more collaborative work culture. It is also interesting to note that half of the media companies surveyed identified themselves as ‘Believers’, acknowledging that they have adopted new technologies and reworked their business models, but still feel that they are yet to experience the full benefits of transformation.

Mastering the tools

More innovation, more engagement, more collaboration. Technology is key but needs to be selected carefully and made to work hard

As we saw in Figure 4, there is an expectation among survey respondents that working more collaboratively would have a positive impact on the profitability of a company. That’s just one of the reasons that technology has to take center stage. The right technology, used in the right way, makes collaboration easier by putting people, their passions and their talents ahead of anything else.

But as we saw at the start of this report (Figure A) many companies that have been willing to invest in new technology and to embrace transformation don’t always get the most of their investment.

On average, survey respondents consider file-sharing tools to be the most effective communication and technology innovations in terms of their capacity to improve individual output and performance (its mean score was 4.8 out of 7, Figure 12). But it’s interesting to note that no single tool came out head and shoulders above the rest. This may be because the most effective ways of working tend to leverage a number of tools that are used together.

Figure 12: To what extent do you believe that the following communication and technology innovations in the workplace improve individual output and performance?

Figure 12. To what extent do you believe that the following communication and technology innovations in the workplace improve individual output and performance?

The data shows that respondents tend to feel that the effectiveness of the tools they have at their disposal lags behind the level of collaboration, suggesting that the tools available inhibit rather than promote collaboration (Figure 14). This implies that there is a need to improve the effectiveness of the tools, which should also boost the overall level of collaboration experienced. In addition, when asked to name the realistic measure that would have the biggest business impact on knowledge-sharing and collaboration, investment in relevant technology came out on top. It was named most frequently as the #1 measure for business impact, and also appeared in respondents’ lists of top three factors more than any other option (Figure 15).

Figure 13: How much do you agree with the following statements? (%) - 1) My company fosters a culture of knowledge-sharing and collaboration. 2) My company is very receptive to adoption of new technology and processes.

Figure 13. How much do you agree with the following statements (%)

Figure 14: In your organization, what are your current levels of collaboration and the suitability of collaboration/knowledge-sharing technologies respectively?

Figure 14. In your organization, what are your current levels of collaboration and the suitability of collaboration/knowledge-sharing technologies respectively?

Taken together, these two results suggest that many organizations have not yet equipped their employees with the best tools available. As a result, investment in collaboration tools could be reasonably expected to give rise to improved levels of collaboration and, therefore, better business performance.

Actions that concern personal interaction were also considered important for increasing the business impact of knowledge-sharing and collaboration. Ensuring support from senior staff was the measure that accrued the second-highest aggregate score (Figure 15) and also featured prominently when respondents were asked to come up with two of their own suggestions for tangible actions that could be taken by their organization to address the same challenges.

Responses such as “Discuss with the senior team whether we want to embrace a culture of innovation, then determine what this means for our business” and “Determine if upper management will support this type of change” were typical.

It was also apparent that many respondents felt that more information and data was required to convince them that their organization really would benefit from updating its stance toward innovation and collaboration. Perhaps the evidence that has now been gathered and published in this report will help to do just that.

Figure 15: What could feasibly be done in your organization to increase the business impact of knowledge-sharing and collaboration? (%)

Figure 15. What could feasibly be done in your organization to increase the business impact of knowledge-sharing and collaboration? (%)

The right technology, used in the right way, makes collaboration easier by putting people, their passions and their talents ahead of anything else.

Conclusion

The data from our research has provided some revealing insight into the role of collaboration today.

As we’ve seen, companies are at varying stages of development when it comes to the adoption of digital technology and the way that they have embraced a culture of collaboration and innovation. But an overwhelming majority recognize that they haven’t yet fully experienced the benefits of the tools that are at their disposal. There’s still room for improvement.

There’s also evidence to suggest that collaboration has the power to boost innovation and efficiency—two things that are crucial for negotiating business challenges. But collaboration has a strong relationship with job satisfaction, too. That plays a critical role in attracting and retaining the most talented employees.

IT departments are widely expected to be the chief driving force behind innovation. In practice, that means not only having a mastery of relevant technology, but also taking the lead by coming up with new, improved ways of working that allow organizations to make the most of it. That is likely to include developing ways of communicating that are as natural, frictionless and immediate as possible. Working together in-person is still highly valued, but it’s not always practical.

And although IT departments are important, the picture of an effective, collaborative and innovative company can only be complete if all parts of the business buy into the idea. Management must commit and invest in creating a culture that enables talented, engaged people to connect, share ideas, develop them and get things done from anywhere. That’s when work gets better—and when the true value of collaboration can be felt.

The picture of an effective, collaborative and innovative company can only be complete if all parts of the business buy into the idea.

  • Author
    Veronique Lafargue, Senior Product Marketing Manager, Google Apps for Work

  • Topics
    Collaboration, Innovation, Productivity

  • Roles
    All

  • Industries
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