Transforming the Way We Work

Collaboration: The Quest for the 21st Century Workplace

“The best way to predict the future is to create it.” Peter Drucker

American business is undergoing its most profound transformation since the Industrial Revolution. But what are we transforming into? Chaos and instability infect many of our organizations as this process leaves us wondering what the future may hold. We know we must realign the fundamental essence of how we lead and manage the business organization, but to what?

Hierarchy, the cultural principle by which we have led and managed business for at least the past century, no longer seems practical or relevant. The basic covenant we have had with our organizations is broken. Jobs are being eliminated or totally redesigned. Employees are expected to behave in new and different ways, but often do not have the skills to do so. The rungs on the career ladder are no longer well-defined, with many wondering whether the concept of a career ladder exists anymore. In the meantime, the cultural framework in which business operates continues to evolve. Where is it heading? What is the new cultural foundation that will guide us into the 21st Century?

Everyone is familiar with the litany of external marketplace factors causing this chaos—global competition, technology, demographic, and political changes. These have resulted in the elimination of millions of jobs, drastic restructuring, and new business relationships. What we are much less clear about is what is going on with our people inside our companies and how we must now work together to face the new realities. How are our employees handling this chaos? How can we regain their loyalty, confidence, energy, and productivity? And assuming we get that energy back, how will we sustain their commitment as our companies continue to face unrelenting change

There is No Silver Bullet

We are either in denial about the impact of all this change, do not know what to do, or are trying to figure out how to get back in control. Unfortunately, the response so far has been more of the same, a potpourri of programs designed to change the structure of our workplaces, but not their essence–their culture. Downsizing, re-engineering, and restructuring programs have succeeded in altering the employment base and cost structure of our companies, but do not offer us a new cultural framework. One round of structural change often leads to another with a focus almost exclusively on the cost side of the ledger. In fact, these structural changes often produce precisely the opposite result than intended by increasing instability, fear, reduced productivity. Other programs focusing on organizational effectiveness, empowerment, total quality, or self-directed work teams have been a powerful new tool for change in some companies. In most instances, however, the underlying values by which these organizations are led have not changed, resulting in enormous internal conflict. Management is seen as not walking the talk, thereby undercutting the value and impact of these process-focused programs.

There is no Silver Bullet that will solve the complex of organizational issues we face. Without fundamental cultural change and the adoption of a new approach to leading and managing, American businesses will continue to experience significant difficulties in sustaining competitive advantage 

The 21st Century Workplace

We have always looked to the future with a fairly high degree of hope and anticipation that things will get better. This may not be the case now. We know that the 21st Century workplace will be totally different from what it is now. We know we need a new cultural framework to guide us in the design and creation of that workplace. It must do more with less and adapt quickly to or anticipate change. It must be non-bureaucratic and passionately focused on the customer. The workforce must be aligned with and own the strategic direction of the business, have trust-based work relationships, and be able to build value with each other and their customers. Leadership in the new workplace must be seen as a function, not a job. It is not based on power and authority, but on principles, new people skills and the ability to engage people in coming to consensus around critical decisions and solutions to problems. The resulting trust and productivity provide the enterprise a clear competitive advantage.

The Missing Ingredient: The Workplace Culture

We have been trained expertly to focus on organizational structure, systems, and programs, while most of us would admit that fully 70% plus of all our problems in business are people-related or culturally-based. By not focusing on the workplace culture as the source for transforming the business, we have missed the proverbial forest for the trees. That culture reflects the values and beliefs which drive our actions and behaviors and influence our relationships. As an output, culture shows up in powerful ways as results, commitment, quality, loyalty, and pride. Moreover, it creates the standards, work style, and expectations by which our companies are defined. Our job is to engage that culture so that those values emerge and flourish.       The organization as a whole must create a shared cultural framework that will be powerful enough to replace hierarchy. It must not be a program or technique or a sophisticated way to manipulate the future. To the contrary, it must be based on fundamental principles, enhance the stability of our relationships, help us define the new covenant, and enable us to use common sense in making our business decisions.

What, then, is this new cultural framework? What can this new workplace look like? How can we go about creating and sustaining it? Will the view be worth the climb?

Collaboration: A 21st Century Cultural Framework

In my action research and work with hundreds of companies over the past 25 years, seven core values continue to surface as the fundamental basis for effective work relationships: respect for people, honor and integrity, ownership and alignment, consensus, full responsibility and accountability, trust-based relationships, and recognition and growth. These core values represent a cultural framework for the 21st Century organization–a framework I will call Collaboration.

As a leadership principle, I have seen collaboration work in a wide range of tough business and organizational situations, from strategic alliances and mergers that were breaking up, to internal mergers between departments; from companies in high technology industries to those in the service sector; from senior executives to front line managers. This principle provides the basis for significant and permanent change for people as well as organizations. Collaboration provides the cornerstone for the creation and enhancement of the 21st Century workplace.


  • American Management Association Spring Member Selection
  • Newbridge Executive Book Club Dual Main Selection
  • Finalist for Book of the Year by the Society for Human Resource Management
  • translated into Spanish by the Spanish Management Association

For more information, contact: Dr. Edward Marshall