The Algebra of Collaboration

Most organizations have a vertical orientation, which creates a division of labor between functional areas where daily operations are carried out by people who have been trained in a specific type of business activity (e.g., Product Manufacturing, Marketing, Sales, Finance, Customer Service).  However, according to the most basic enterprise arithmetic, the sum of all vertical functions is one horizontal organization.  For example, in an organization with five vertical functions, 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 (and not 5).

Other times, it seems like division is the only mathematics the enterprise understands, creating perceived organizational divides based on geography (e.g., the Boston office versus the London office), or hierarchy (e.g., management versus front-line workers), or the Great Rift known as the Business versus IT.

However, enterprise-wide initiatives, such as data quality and data governance, require a cross-functional alignment reaching horizontally across the organization’s vertical functions, fostering a culture of collaboration combining a collective ownership with a shared responsibility and an individual accountability, requiring a branch of mathematics I call the Algebra of Collaboration.

For starters, as James Kakalios explained in his super book The Physics of Superheroes, “there is a trick to algebra: If one has an equation describing a true statement, such as 1 = 1, then one can add, subtract, multiply, or divide (excepting division by zero) the equation by any number we wish, and as long as we do it to both the left and right sides of the equation, the correctness of the equation is unchanged.  So if we add 2 to both sides of 1 = 1, we obtain 1 + 2 = 1 + 2 or 3 = 3, which is still a true statement.”

So, in the Algebra of Collaboration, we first establish one of the organization’s base equations, its true statements, for example, using the higher order collaborative equation that attempts to close the Great Rift otherwise known as the IT-Business Chasm:

Business = IT

Then we keep this base equation balanced by performing the same operation on both the left and right sides, for example:

Business + Data Quality + Data Governance = IT + Data Quality + Data Governance

The point is that everyone, regardless of their primary role or vertical function, must accept a shared responsibility for preventing data quality lapses and for responding appropriately to mitigate the associated business risks when issues occur.

Now, of course, as I blogged about in The Stakeholder’s Dilemma, this equation does not always remain perfectly balanced at all times.  The realities of the fiscal calendar effect, conflicting interests, and changing business priorities, will mean that the amount of resources (money, time, people) added to the equation by a particular stakeholder, vertical function, or group will vary.

But it’s important to remember the true statement that the base equation represents.  The trick of algebra is just one of the tricks of the collaboration trade.  Organizations that are successful with data quality and data governance view collaboration not just as a guiding principle, but also as a call to action in their daily practices.

Is your organization practicing the Algebra of Collaboration?


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