‘Smart collaboration’ in professional services firms

by | Apr 10, 2017 | Collaboration, Reviews

Based on a somewhat cursory search through Amazon there seem to be several hundred books currently available on the subject of collaboration. Virtually all of them fall into what I regard as the ‘my personal experience’ category. The author scales up what they have learned from their experience on the basis that it will, at a stroke, solve all the collaboration problems of all organisations. Of course if you believe the collaboration technology vendors all that is required is a specialised IT solution, except that it now seems to be good practice to have more than one of these solutions.

One business sector where collaboration would seem to be essential to organisational performance is the provision of professional services, where the firm is trying to capitalise on the collective expertise of its consultants. However the structure of these firms is such that professional expertise can quickly become a set of silos, driven to a substantial extent by the partnership model adopted by these firms. “Why should I collaborate with Practice B if that reduces the revenues I can claim when calculating my partnership dividend at the end of the year?”.  The answer lies in Smart Collaboration by Heidi Gardner, which has just been published by Harvard Business Review Press. Professor Gardner has been studying collaboration in professional services firms for many years, having experienced it at first hand in McKinsey in 1997-2002. She then moved on to Harvard Business School (publishing a number of very good Working Papers) and is now at the Harvard Law School.

Smart Collaboration (not a title I warm to!) is notable both for its focus on professional services firms (primarily law firms) but also for being very much research-based, as you would expect from a Harvard professor. This will make it very difficult for any law firm knowledge manager or partner to dismiss the book on the basis that the author has no understanding of the practice of law. The chapters include The Business Case for Collaboration, the People Case for Collaboration, Collaboration and the Solo Specialist and Collaboration: Yes, Your Clients Care. The book is based around a substantial number of interviews, many attributed to specific firms. Reading this book I gained a strong sense of the scale and focus of the research. The case studies are not just presented as narratives but are analysed in detail based on the author’s twenty years of experience in this sector. The Notes section has over 130 items and the index is exemplary. I would also note that although Professor Gardner works in academia the book is a very enjoyable read and never seems like a textbook for a course.

The focus on professional services means that this book will have more limited value outside of the sector. In my opinion this is eminently preferable to the generic ‘one approach fits all’ so common in other books on collaboration. If you work in this sector then I recommend acquiring two copies, one to read and action and one to give to your Managing Partner so that they can support your actions. I would expect IT firms with an interest in this sector to provide copies to their entire sales force even if the section on what Professor Gardner calls Collaborative Technology Platforms is covered in just 6 out of the 250 pages. In a people-based business the solutions and success lie in understanding how people work together and demonstrating how the firm can thrive if they work together with a common vision and purpose, and that is what this highly-recommended book is all about.

Martin White