The three levels he identified (the first level ever so slightly altered by me) are:
- At the level of its genome, its deep DNA, or put more straightforwardly: its gut values and beliefs about its vision and purpose.
- At the level of its processes and activities, or put more straightforwardly: how it goes about its day-to-day life and activities.
- At the level of its products, services and knowledge, or put more straightforwardly: the stuff it produces.
Anyone working in collaboration needs to consider these three levels very carefully. This is because they help collaborations not only focus upon the right things at the right times but also identify why there are problems and failures to deliver.
Often, the focus a collaboration needs to have is obvious and straightforward: mining companies need to share their geological and technical data with others to improve their processes and the yields from their mines; oil companies need to collaborate with each other to develop new processes for getting hard to reach oil out of the ground; health, social and law enforcement agencies need to share their processes with each other in order to better wrap their services around mutual clients (for example, drug users and people with mental health issues). Banks need to align their policies with those of governments to improve the economic and social well-being of citizens. IT companies need to collaborate with each other to create new products that complement their existing platforms.
But this bright, spotlight obviousness of focus can blind a collaboration to other areas that, if not also addressed, will impede progress and the achievement of goals: mining executives will be half-hearted in their sharing of geological and technical data if they and their companies believe in competing for scarce resources rather than collaborating to increase the abundance of resources (similarly for oil company executives and their organisations); doctors, police and social workers will not effectively wrap their services around mutual clients if they and their organisations do not deeply believe they have a social role that reaches out beyond their traditional institutional boundaries. Banking executives will pay no more than lip-service to improving the social well-being of citizens if they and their organisations believe in the creation of monetary wealth at the expense of social wealth. IT executives will miss out on new products that complement their existing offerings if they and their companies believe that technical knowledge about their hardware and software is to be hoarded for commercial advantage rather than shared for the greater good of their sector.
If a collaboration is failing to deliver despite the obviousness and clarity of its focus and goals, the three levels above provide a strong clue as to where the problem may lie; namely, within one, some or all of the collaborating organisations' cultural DNA: their gut values and beliefs about what they are, what they stand for and what they do.
In these circumstances each organisation needs, with the help of its collaborators, to focus upon its deep cultural values and beliefs and its assumptions about its role in the world, and then identify and address those that are creating barriers to the collaborative development of enhanced knowledge, processes, services, products or other outcomes.
Using a tool like Johnson's Cultural Web can provide a non-invasive first step towards achieving this. It works by enabling organisations to identify specific organisational attributes that contribute to their overall cultures and influence how they view themselves and how they operate in the world.
In a collaborative context, the cultural web is best used with partner organisations. Each organisation completes a web for each of its collaborators, capturing its perceptions of its partners' cultures and beliefs and preferred ways of being viewed and doing things. It also completes a web analysis of its own culture. These webs are then compared and analysed to identify specific values, beliefs and assumptions, and preferred ways of viewing and doing things, that could be creating obstacles to progress. Once problem areas have been identified each organisation, with the help of its collaborators, can find ways of addressing them, so removing the obstacles they cause.
Splicing new cultural DNA into the existing cultural genome of an organisation is a more invasive but also more effective way of overcoming cultural blind spots and collaboration averse values and assumptions. It is achieved by injecting people from external collaborating groups and organisations into the body of an organisation and giving them meaningful control over some of its major decision-making organs and processes for getting things done. A good example is a Department of Health/NHS project focused upon introducing digital hearing aids on the NHS, which gave an influential leadership and management role to a national charity for the deaf.
So, there are three levels at which an organisation may need to open up, collaborate and share: 1. its cultural gut values, 2. its day to day activities, 3. the stuff it produces. Often the focus of collaboration is clear and obvious and easily associated with the second and/or third levels, but this can blind collaborators to other areas that may be blocking progress. These are likely to be associated with a lack of sharing and collaboration at the first level. This can be addressed by sharing perceptions of an organisation's culture, analysing them and then identifying and dealing with the areas that are causing problems. It can also be addressed by integrating people from external collaborating organisations into internal decision-making and implementation processes.