How to Improve Cross-Functional Collaborations

May 2, 2016
8 Min Read

How to Improve Cross-Functional CollaborationsIn the past, the only time the tech department and those in finance or business operations might have interacted was at the annual holiday party. But even then, the employees pretty much huddled with their own department, like Super Bowl teams plotting the next interception.

But it’s a different story these days, as more companies encourage – or even require – cross-functional collaboration. For example, a recent Robert Half Management Resources and Robert Half Technology survey finds that 51% of CFOs report they’re collaborating more frequently with their company’s CIO, compared to three years ago.

“Before, these functions were run as silos,” says Tim Hird, executive director for Robert Half Management Resources. “But business has become more complex and organizations continue to invest in technology to make strategic decisions. A few years ago it wasn’t necessary to work together – now it’s essential.”

This cross-functional collaboration will not only change how a company operates now, but also how it hires for the future, Hird says. Specifically, more organizations will seek those who can not only do their jobs – such as data collection – but are also able to communicate and collaborate with those in finance, sales or operations.

“Teams that make it a priority to focus on collaboration help pave the way for smoother integration of new systems and processes,” he says.

Still, it’s not always easy to achieve full cross-functional collaboration, especially since research shows that 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees. These employees who go the extra mile and become top collaborators can become real bottlenecks as work doesn’t move forward until they weigh in. Another problem is that these collaborators often don’t get credit for their contributions.

Currently, it’s easier to find examples of cross-functional teams that don’t work. Benham Tabrizi, who teaches transformational leadership at Stanford University’s Department of Management Science and Engineering, says his research finds that in a study of 95 teams in 25 leading corporations, 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional.

“Cross-functional teams often fail because the organization lacks a systemic approach. Teams are hurt by unclear governance, by a lack of accountability, by goals that lack specificity, and by organizations’ failure to prioritize the success of cross-functional projects,” he says.

However, those teams that had support by a high-level executive leader who championed their efforts had a 76% success rate, he says.

In their research, Robert Half recommends that companies seeking to successfully boost collaboration among various departments must begin with a company-wide effort. They suggest, for example:

  • Providing greet and learn opportunities. Guest speakers from other departments can meet with employees or set up mentoring programs to help new and long-time employees stay current on issues impacting different areas of the organization.
  • Communicating priorities. By using consistent messaging – including common terms – throughout the company, understanding of detailed objectives and challenges can be better grasped and implemented. However, industry jargon and acronyms should be scrapped to avoid alienating or intimidating employees from various departments.
  • Huddling up. Team-building exercises that focus on combining employees from different functions can help build rapport.
  • Asking for advice. It can be helpful to seek the insight of someone from outside your organization who can objectively assess strengths and weaknesses, and the best ways to boost cross-functional collaboration.
  • Celebrating wins. When cross-functional collaboration works, ensure the whole team is recognized for their contributions and try to cite specific instances that led to success.

Another critical element to ensuring that interdepartmental collaboration truly works is to make sure that managers understand the difference between collaboration and cooperation, writes Ron Ashkenas.

“[M]ost managers are cooperative, friendly, and willing to share information — but what they lack is the ability and flexibility to align their goals and resources with others in real time,” he writes.

He suggests better collaboration comes from:

  • Making a map. Determine individual team responsibilities, what’s required from other department teams and the timing of activities. “When people know what’s needed, in what form, and by when, they can tell you whether it’s possible or not, and then you can have a real dialogue about what can be done,” he writes.
  • Getting everyone in the same room. Managers often try to “cobble together” an agreement among different functions. Instead, it’s better to get all the collaborators together at once and as early as possible to solidify plans, make adjustments and find ways to share resources and align incentives.

Ines Mergel, associate professor of public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, recently published a report on managing and sharing knowledge internally in the public sector.

She says that while the traditional sharing of knowledge in a company is “limited to memos, the sharing of documents with a limited contact list, or administrative cables,” knowledge is rarely created “in the open and observable to the whole organization.” That’s why leaders need to consider the various technologies that are available to support the sharing and socialization of knowledge.

For example, she found in her research that some organizations set up blogs and wikis and allowed employees from various functions to share information, stay updated and learn from the “experts” in an organization. But the real key, she says, is for leaders to use these tools to encourage employees to continue to share information so that communication channels remain open. That way, all employees contribute to the “organizational knowledge base,” she says.

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