What does collaboration really mean?

What does collaboration really mean?

Ilan Frank, VP of Product at Airtable, explores how easy it is to confuse collaboration and conversation when what we really need is something else entirely.

This post is authored by Ilan Frank, VP of Product at Airtable.

The word collaboration has become a catchcry in the modern workplace. We read about it in business publications as the key to unlocking productivity and boosting employee engagement. We hear it from managers encouraging people to work together, and from leaders aligning teams to achieve shared goals. But what do we mean when we say collaboration? And is it really the magic bullet we believe?  

Some leaders confuse collaboration with conversation. Tools that allow you to contribute comments or brainstorm together are sometimes even called 'collaboration tools.' But there is evidence to suggest that the proliferation of these tools—each creating its own channel, format, and style of communication—exacerbates employee fatigue by clogging inboxes and adding to to-do lists. There are so many ways to communicate around work; this superficial alignment quickly distracts from the work itself.  

Beyond connecting people, I believe connecting information pushes teams to forge novel partnerships and accelerate fresh ideas. When you move from status checks and in-flight feedback, to offer transparency into work and planning, it’s possible to achieve greater, previously unthinkable success.

This week, Airtable was named as Leader in Collaborative Work Management by Quadrant Knowledge Solutions, an industry analyst firm. This report acknowledges the challenges that arise from too many ‘collaboration tools,’ and addresses the need to connect work so “teams can rapidly uncover faults or errors that would otherwise go unnoticed.” Being recognized in this way has inspired us to ask how we define collaboration and, more importantly, how our most innovative customers do.

As VP of Product Management at Airtable, I’ve seen information silos lead to massive inefficiencies and low resilience in large organizations. Why do these silos exist? Because leaders are typically forced to choose between moving quickly and moving as one. Ten years ago, centralized SaaS meant all information regarding budget, orders, planning, and performance lived in a single software solution—but team-level experience suffered and decision making slowed.

The introduction of decentralized, customizable SaaS apps freed teams to move more quickly and choose their own ways of working, but it has also caused information to become hidden and stagnant in separate tools for separate use cases. Instead of bridging silos, the proliferation of SaaS apps deepened the chasms between departments.

Now, we’re moving into an age where we must infuse deeper connectivity into our tool sets, and create a level of transparency that allows teams to make decisions that would previously be impossible. This probably sounds ambitious and complex, but imagine if sharing data between departments or teams was as easy as sharing a doc. What would that unlock?

Imagine if sharing data between departments or teams was as easy as sharing a doc. What would that unlock?

An example that comes to mind is the Creative department at West Elm, an Airtable customer. When Korin Thorig, VP of Creative Operations, set out to reimagine West Elm’s customer experience, she first had to fix huge blind spots internally. Before even reaching a customer, every product photograph and its metadata moved across seven different teams, each with their own tools and workflows. When someone wanted to make edits, those changes were not reflected elsewhere.

By connecting those data and workflows in Airtable, Korin gave each team visibility into all relevant information—SKUs, color, dimensions, price, performance. And she transitioned collaboration from status updates and email chains to become part of the work itself—employees now make updates in real time, according to shared data. This level of connection enabled previously disparate teams to move as one, and has led to a 300% increase in production of creative assets.

The problem isn’t tool choice; knowledge workers can’t have an outsized impact if they aren’t given the space and autonomy to choose how they work, and with what tools. But if companies don’t have a solution for integrating and connecting the information within these tools, the result is 100 different business apps creating 100 different silos. When we say collaboration at Airtable, that’s what we’re talking about—integrating and connecting.  

Gartner predicts that “by 2023, organizations that promote data sharing will outperform their peers on most business value metrics”.’* Yet, trust is key—identifying trusted data and locating trusted data sources remain a challenge. Organizations who can achieve this trust are “predicted to participate in 50% more ecosystems and expand revenue potential overall”.'

This ideal future state exists today for our most innovative customers at Airtable. We see large, complex organizations connecting information and business apps so that people who sit on the other side of the org—who aren’t even expecting that information—have visibility into new opportunities that don’t just benefit one team, but the organization as a whole.

Ilan is the Head of Platform at Airtable. In this role, Ilan leads product strategy, direction, and delivery for Airtable's foundation, including integrations, scale, and extensibility to help power Airtable's growth, particularly into the enterprise. Ilan brings over 20 years of experience in building productivity solutions where there are specific requirements within administration, security, compliance, and scale. Prior to Airtable, Ilan was an early leader at Slack, helping the company scale to win the enterprise, including 80% of the Fortune 100.

* Smarter with Gartner, “Data Sharing Is a Business Necessity to Accelerate Digital Business”, May 10, 2021 [https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/data-sharing-is-a-business-necessity-to-accelerate-digital-business]

More for the record