The past decade has brought a wave of collaborative solutions to organizations worldwide. Open office concepts with fewer barriers and enclosed areas are embraced and encouraged. Progressive meeting styles, such as standing cross-functional meetings, have become the ideal. Social software like SalesForce, Chatter, Yammer, and Slack are taking over workplaces.
These technologies have been successful because they address a fundamental need: the need for people to communicate with those they work with. Most of these methods of communications involve horizontal communication. People correspond with those they have worked with in the past and who are adjacent to them within the organizational chart.
But there is another fundamental need that is only just starting to be addressed: the ability for organizations to collaborate vertically.
Vertical Organizations vs. Horizontal Organizations
Structure within any organization is essential to maximizing your staff’s productivity, but depending on your organization and business objectives, one may benefit by implementing one structure type over the other.
* Vertical Organizations: When mapped out on paper, vertical organizations resemble pyramids. The president or CEO is at the top, and a cascade of divisions and different levels of leadership follows. A vertical organization is far more rigid than horizontal in communication, collaboration, and decision making. A set of specific guidelines are given to employees to follow and employees must work with the existing hierarchy of leadership to make changes, incorporate ideas, offer suggestions, and so on. Meetings and monitoring are two key aspects of vertical organizations.
* Horizontal Organizations: This type of structure allows employees to have more freedom in their work, having no middle management and being allowed to make their own operational decisions. The staff is driven by achieving production goals, and often collaborate organically with different groups in order to reach those goals. Employees mostly consult management only on larger issues.
It is important to note that one type of structure is not better than the other. What is important, however, is for organizations to be able to identify which type of structure they are. For example, if you are a horizontal organization, you do not need vertical collaboration. But if you are a vertical organization, the vertical collaboration is essential.
What Is Vertical Collaboration?
Vertical collaboration is all about having the big decision makers in leadership being able to share and receive ideas from frontline staff (aka those who are directly affected by their decisions). This brings an element of co-creation between the head office and the front lines.
The problem is that many organizations have a few key people making decisions in head office, with a far greater number of people performing work based on these decisions. These frontline workers rarely if ever have the opportunity to not only communicate but collaborate with those in head office.
This is a tricky problem to solve because of scale. The large population of frontline workers far outnumbers the few head office employees who are already strapped for time. As a result, head-office does its thing, frontline workers do their thing, and the two operate almost independently.
Failing to collaborate vertically leads to less productivity, less efficiency, and greater frustration. For example, not collaborating vertically often leads to decisions being made by head office that are off target because they did not consult their frontline staff enough (if at all). This results in one or both negative effects:
- Slow Adoption: If frontline staff perceive a decision as being sub-optimal, they will either be slow to adopt the change in behaviour or fail to do so all together. They are logically rejecting the change because they do not see its merit.
- Lack of Alignment: Some staff may accept the change while others will reject it because they feel as if it is being forced upon them. They likely had no say, or the idea may feel as if it is coming out of left field.
It is not a coincidence that lack of adoption as well as lack of alignment are two of the most frequently cited challenges that companies face when dealing with their frontlines.
What Is Needed?
For an organization to collaborate vertically, it will need a lot of the same things as they would to collaborate horizontally. First, there has to be the desire to change. For most top leaders, the idea of “collaboration” is obvious and inevitable. However, leadership must recognize and iterate that changing how people collaborate within the organization will add value in the long term.
Once an organization recognizes the merit in collaboration, the next step is to provide people with the tools and the structure they need to take on this desired behaviour.
Finally, as with any change, the desired behaviour has to be encouraged and reinforced throughout the workplace. How your organization chooses to do this may differ from another, but the message needs to be clear: vertical collaboration is the new way of how your business does business.