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Do Organizations Need a Chief Collaboration Officer?

Posted by on February 8, 2012

More organizations are starting to deploy new collaborative tools and strategies as a core part of their business evolution to connect and engage employees.  It’s becoming increasingly difficult (especially at large companies) to oversee these initiatives as typically there isn’t a role devoted to collaboration.  Usually collaboration falls on the shoulders of employees (such as the CIO) with an existing full plate of things that need to get done. So is it about time for organizations to create the role of the CCO (Chief Collaboration Officer)?

In 2010 Morten Hansen and Scott Tapp wrote an article for HBR (Harvard Business Review) which suggested that the role of the CCO should fall on another executive (but not the CEO), such as the CIO, CFO, or COO.  Hansen and Tapp state that the CEO doesn’t have enough time to devote to this but I don’t believe that any of these other executives have the time either.

It’s an interesting question to try to answer and I’m hard pressed to say “yes” or “no.”  I think it’s important to explore both sides, which is what I will devote the rest of this post to.

I should start by saying that I have seen collaboration initiatives succeed on many levels.  Some companies have SVP’s of collaboration that oversee small teams, while other companies have small task forces that report to an executive-level leader, and some companies have the CIO lead this initiative.  I’ve seen all of these (and other) models work so I think it’s a bit presumptuous of people to assume that there is a “right” or “best” way to make this work.

I think there is a best approach for each company but it’s not the same best approach for all companies.

I am seeing increased complexities as organizations continue down the road of collaboration.  More and more challenges, questions, and issues continue to arise (and will keep doing so) such as how to pick the right tools, how to roll them out, how to deal with upgrades, what happens with rogue deployments, where do organizations start, and a host of over questions.  For many organizations, it is getting to the point where it becomes overwhelming for employees with existing job functions and other responsibilities to oversee collaboration.  This has the potential to stagnate the initiative and cause tension between employees  within the company.

It could be helpful to have a chief collaboration officer at an organization whose responsibility is to ensure that the proper strategies and tools are being deployed across the organization. However, this role cannot be a “let’s dump it all on the CCO” type of role.  Instead, this person needs to work closely with the rest of the executive team (and even closer with the CIO) to ensure that things are moving in the right direction (like any other executive role should).

I envision that this person, prior to deployment, would be in charge of efforts such as developing use cases, evaluating vendors, developing a strategy and road map, evaluating risks, and building a team (not having the CCO do this on his own).  After deployment this person would focus on integration, training programs, adoption strategies and the like.  The long term responsibility of the CCO would be scaling the program, fostering a collaborative culture, continually evaluating the program and adoption levels, and integrating collaboration within the overall business strategy of the company.  If you ask anyone from a large (or even mid-size) company that has been spending their time on collaboration they will tell you that it’s a full time job with new challenges and tasks just like any other.  Again the CCO needs to be someone that understands collaboration from not just a technology standpoint but from a business and people standpoint.

What about the CIO?

Many advocate the approach of the CIO overseeing collaboration, after all, this person is in charge of the information architecture.  This may work but lets keep in mind that the CIO is already working full-time (probably well over that) with his/her existing responsibilities so simply assigning collaboration to them just because it might be convenient isn’t the best approach.  Also, just because someone is the CIO doesn’t mean that they understand collaboration.  Now again, I have seen some CIOs who run a collaboration team work successfully but I have also seen many companies struggle with this resulting in botched deployments or abandoned platforms.

If organizations want to make collaboration work, then it needs to be done right.

Another approach has been do distribute the roles and responsibilities of a CCO among a team of individuals led by an already existing executive (CIO, CEO, or other).  Challenges in this type of environment are around consensus and timing to make decisions as more people tend to take more time to make things happen.  There are many models that organizations use and I’m sure you can think of several yourself.  However, let’s get back to the point of this post which is, do organizations need a CCO?

The best way to approach this is by looking at the existing environment of your company to decide how to proceed.

When a CCO might be a good idea

  • If collaboration becomes too much of a responsibility to add to an existing team or individual
  • If the organization wishes to move at a more rapid pace
  • There isn’t anyone in their current role that really understands collaboration from a business and technology standpoint
  • The long-term strategy is to have a key team and person that can handle anything around collaboration (everything from training to strategy development)
  • If the organization is having trouble looking at collaboration from a holistic big picture of how it impacts everyone
  • If collaboration is going to be led and supported from the senior executive level
  • If budget exists for such a role
  • If the organization has decided that this is indeed a strategic and permanent investment (as opposed to a short term pilot)

When a CCO might not be a good idea

  • If another executive is able and willing to take on the task to oversee collaboration
  • If a distributed responsibility model has worked in the past for other roles and functions
  • If budgeting for such a role becomes too extravagant
  • If the strategy is to have a task force developed for a short period of time to launch this initiative and then disband
  • If the organization is still having trouble understanding the value of collaboration and is still in the pilot or test phase

Again keep in mind that there is a best approach for your company but it doesn’t mean it’s the best approach for all companies.  Avoid automatically assuming that a CCO is or is not the best solution.  Ultimately the decision comes down to looking at your existing environment and structure.  As you can see from the case studies I noted earlier, every company has its own way of doing things and so will yours.  I certainly see scenarios where a CCO can be beneficial but there are just as many scenarios where having a CCO is not the best idea.  The point of this post isn’t to say what is right or wrong but to get you to think about the answer to this question so that you can make a decision that is best for your company.

  • Tracy Thompson-Przylucki

    Hi Jacob. Thought-provoking post. I could envision situations where a CCO might be useful, but I think the concept of collaboration doesn’t fit very readily into a single, c-level position. Collaboration is less a specific task set and more a tool (I’m thinking swiss army knife) that can be employed in many different ways and at many different levels across an organization. A more successful approach might be to think about creating a culture of collaboration. Depending on the size of the organization, this could mean different things, from including it as past of the org’s mission, to developing a formal ‘collaboration plan’ as part of your strategic or operational planning process. Once you have a plan it should become clearer who should be responsible for what, and whether you already have the leaders and tools you need to successfully implement the plan. That said, if you ever come across a job description for a CCO, I’d love to see it!

    • Anonymous

       Hi Tracy,

      I agree. While a CCO is something worth thinking about, the solution really stems from the corporate culture. I think that’s one of the reasons why Jacob’s response isn’t so black and white…because that’s the nature of the problem – Even if you have the ideal CCO odds are you’re going to fail if the corporate culture doesn’t want to adopt a collaborative work environment. It becomes a sisyphean task. I discuss this slightly in a blog post: May be worth checking out. That said, I really liked how Jacob outlines several scenarios where having a CCO could be beneficial. Great post! Should be interesting to see how this idea of a CCO evolves…

      • Hi Troy,

        Thanks for adding the link to your post here, it’ a good read.  It’s hard to go with a black and white approach to things like this because companies are never black and white.  So many things are happening in each enterprise that it just doesn’t make sense to apply the same concepts and strategies to every single company.  Gil Yehuda has always encouraged me to focus on being descriptive and not prescriptive so that’s the approach I like to take 🙂

        Thanks for the comment Roy!

    • Hi Tracy,

      Thanks for the kind words.  True collaboration might not fit well into a single position but still, some companies have done it that way and have seen it work, not an option for everyone but I think that’s why it’s better to look at several scenarios.  While collaboration is part tool I think the bigger and more challenging side is the business/people side.  Picking and deploying a tool is the easy part.  The challenge comes when trying to get employees to use the tool,helping them understand why they should use, sustaining adoption, and making collaboration a part of how the company as a whole operates.  The tool can help facilitate that.  

      The tricky thing for a lot of large companies now is that their employees are already using tools with or without corporate permission.  This means that these companies have to move very quickly and don’t always have the time or ability to start with changing culture and developing solid strategies.  It’s something I am seeing happen more and more often.

      I’ll certainly be on the lookout for a CCO role!

      Thanks for the comment!

  • That’s a good point, your arguments are more than convincing.

  • The question is why then to collaborate Jacob?

    Obviously businesses have different cultures, different goals and are at different
    stages in integrating social media into their business mix to support collaboration. An important part of engagement is that engagement with employees, is a pre-requisite for transforming into a social business engaging with consumers/customers/patrners.

    So I believe the role of a CCO is key when viewed in context to to the business ecosystem – creating “engagement” will increase employee satisfaction which will
    increase customer satisfaction which will increase profits – the Service Profit Chain.

    • Thanks for the comment Michael.  What’s interesting is that employees within organizations do collaborate, this isn’t new.  The issue isn’t should employees collaborate it’s to what extent and effectiveness and how can employees be supported?  

      CCO could be a key role but I haven’t seen this role created within any organizations yet and I still think the approach depends on the type of organization.  

  • Chris Gift

    I would posit that collaboration is such a fundamental virtue that the CEO must be intimately involved, with or without a CCO. Having an direct report handle the details or being the go-to person is necessary, but I would not minimize the responsibility of the CEO. Partly because, as others have already pointed out, collaboration has everything to do with the company culture, as does the CEO. And also because everyone in the organization must realize that collaboration, in whatever form it takes for them, is the bedrock of how they make products or services and get them to market. And the CEO is best positioned to communicate this message.

    • Thanks for the comment Chris.  I agree it’s great to have the ceo involved but I also don’t think it’s always realistic for the ceo to completely own this initiative.  Perhaps being the executive sponsor or evangelizing it is realistic but hard to imagine going too  much further beyond that.  

  •  Great and timely article, most project fail due to lack of collaboration. Collaboration need to be a  goal for every every business. It need to enter the organizations DNA and should start with the CEO. A CCO can act on behalf of the CEO to implement this.

  • Jason Greenawalt

    I had the opportunity to listen to Jacob during Collabosphere 2013. His presentation got me thinking as to why a CIO could be the best candidate to transition into the role of Chief Collaboration Officer. You can read more about it here.