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Collaboration, IT-style: How to do it right

By Tam Harbert
September 21, 2010 06:00 AM ET

For matrix management to work, employees must have the ability to communicate their ideas effectively, ideally engaging with and debating other team members. That, in turn, requires a certain level of confidence and maturity, he says, noting that such behavior was not necessarily encouraged under the old management structure.

To successfully effect that change, Kerley felt he needed a baseline of current communication patterns. So earlier this year, he surveyed the IT staff, asking them to name the people they went to when they needed information, help with projects or feedback and advice on ideas.

For matrix management to work, employees must have the ability to communicate their ideas effectively.

The answers produced a map of communication lines, which illustrated that communication was happening along traditional chains of management but also between and among people who were serving as hubs of collaboration. About half of these "highly networked individuals," as Kerley calls them, were the managers you'd expect to be consulted, but the rest were rank-and-file workers that people felt comfortable asking for help.

He brought 12 of these people together to discuss how to encourage a more matrixed style of collaboration. The team agreed that some IT staffers were inhibited by language and cultural barriers, others by a lack of confidence or leadership skills.

For example, although English is spoken throughout the company, some workers for whom it's a second language might not understand certain jargon or colloquialisms. They needed to be encouraged to speak up when they didn't understand something. In terms of culture, Japanese employees would sometimes not speak their minds in meetings because the concept of openly debating ideas is foreign to their traditional management culture, says Kerley.

To address those communication barriers, management initiated a process, called advanced development planning, that focuses on personal coaching for all employees, including all 250 IT employees. "We talk about their careers, the changes in the [work] environment and how they can be more effective [collaborators]," says Kerley. "And we reinforce the fact that these changes are here to stay and they have to adapt to them."

The company has also launched a leadership development program in which groups of 40 IT employees are mentored by Steve Finnerty, a former CIO now on staff at Applied Materials. (The company plans, eventually, to cycle all IT employees through the 10-month program.)

Finnerty, who was previously CIO at Kraft Foods and director of information systems at Johnson Controls, was passionate about mentoring and already did a lot of it on his own time, says Kerley. So even though mentoring wasn't officially part of Finnerty's current job as vice president of technology and vendor services at Applied Materials, Kerley tapped him to help with internal leadership development.

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The case for collaboration

A recent survey of more than 500 executives, IT decision-makers and business unit leaders worldwide found that businesses are trying to enable greater collaboration across their workforces.

More than 80% of the respondents to the survey, which was sponsored by Avanade Inc., a systems integrator jointly owned by Microsoft and Accenture, said that they believe that enterprisewide collaboration was a key to business success. Some 75% of the respondents said that they planned to increase their use of communication and collaboration tools in the next year.

Why all the emphasis on collaboration? Markets are becoming more dynamic, product-adoption rates are accelerating, and innovation cycles are getting shorter, says Markus Sprenger, director of information management and collaboration at Avanade.

In the midst of these changes, corporations are finding that their traditional management structures aren't able to keep up.

"Our clients are having to change their organizations, moving away from hierarchical structures where people do repeatable tasks to a more matrixed organization where people come together to solve problems as projects," says Sprenger. "Everybody is a part of two or three different teams and has several jobs."

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