Harnessing the Power of Cross-Functional Cooperation

The functional model of business organization and compartmentalization began as far back as the 1850s. As businesses expanded, the need for separate sales force, human resources, finance, marketing, legal, and research and development departments grew, according to Harvard Business Review’s “Develop Your Company’s Cross-Functional Capabilities” by business strategy consultants Paul Leinwand, Cesare Mainardi, and editor Art Kleiner.

As the world entered the digital age, however, customers (both business-to-business and consumer) began demanding a level of speed and agility that the aging functional model could no longer deliver. Separate departments within businesses became more like isolated silos, hindering the efforts of other departments rather than pursuing common goals hand in hand.

As students of online executive MBA programs graduate and enter the job market, they can expect to find that cross-functional teams are beginning to permeate corporate culture as a result of this increased need for agility. Contemporary business organizations are adapting to this shift. Delays caused by a lack of inter-departmental communication are no longer acceptable, and the next generation of executives should understand how the new paradigm operates if they want to succeed.

Silos and the DevOps Solution

Cross-functional cooperation was developed in an attempt to keep functional departments from becoming too focused on their own individual goals, neglecting to consider the needs of other teams and the company as a whole. Departments that fail to communicate or harmonize effectively with other departments are known as silos.

“There are a number of ways to indicate whether or not a project is suffering from silos,” DevOps Team Lead Matt Brewster writes in “Cross-Functional Cooperation: Breaking Down Silos and Finding Your DevOps Stride” on Techspective.net. “When you observe a general lack of collaboration, little to no innovation, unnecessary duplicated work, or you’re having a difficult time rallying teams around the same goals—you’re dealing with the silo effect.”

In response to the silo problem and the overall lack of department willingness to pool resources and unite toward common goals, forward-thinking companies are investing time and money into agile infrastructures and DevOps (developer operations) solutions.

An agile company is one that promotes close and constant collaboration between customers, product management, developers, and quality assurance, leading to better products and services, according to tech blogger Ernest Mueller in “What is DevOps” on TheAgileAdmin.com.

Mueller goes on to describe DevOps as the technical side of agile operations, using interconnected computer tools (“code as infrastructure”) to bridge development and operations. The 3 primary practice areas of DevOps—infrastructure automation, continuous delivery, and constant engineering of reliable sites—are all essential for bridging silos and building a truly agile company.

Implementing Effective Cross-Functional Solutions

At first glance, cross-functional solutions may seem obvious and simple, but the difficulty lies in coordinating teams that may be used to harboring conflicting interests and getting all departments on the same page, working toward the same goal. Tech writer Jessie Beck highlights several issues and solutions in her Asana article, “Cross-Functional Collaboration: Why We Struggle with It and What to Do”:

  • Align on goals and share them with everyone: A company’s senior leadership should actively attempt to make goals visible to everyone and encourage all employees to review the goals regularly. Workers in different departments may find that their work could easily bolster another department’s efforts.
  • Share upcoming work within and outside your department: Just as current goals can help to align departments on similar goals, publicizing future goals can help teams better coordinate their efforts and planning.
  • Learn who does what and how to speak their language: Familiarizing oneself with the duties, roles, and jargon of other departments can go a long way toward avoiding misunderstandings and conflicting responsibilities. Managers and executives can require periodic meetings designed to explain the functions of individual departments to the company as a whole.
  • Present a clear proposal, timeline, and estimated time commitment: The more detailed a plan is, the easier it will be for other departments to understand, follow, and coordinate necessary tasks without which projects might slow down or stall completely.
  • Introduce a new tool or habit slowly: Cross-functional cooperation is not something that can be instituted overnight. To build an agile company, new DevOps programs, software tools, and processes need to be brought about gradually so as not to leave employees confused and overwhelmed.

Perhaps the best way to ensure the stable and consistent development of an agile corporate culture is to establish formal, permanent cross-functional teams that exist solely to facilitate coordination and collaboration between otherwise siloed departments.

Another effective method of driving a cross-functional business model forward is to rotate high-potential leaders from department to department, according to management consultant Rodger Howell in an interview with CFO.com writer David McCann for the article “Cross-Functional Collaboration Comes of Age.”

Rotational programs, explains Howell, can result in leaders with more operational knowledge being placed in a leadership position over teams with less operational discipline. These leaders can then get their new teams to start thinking in terms of key performance indicators, time performance, financial value, and development of organization-centric capabilities.

Breaking free of the functional model of doing business in favor of a cross-functional, agile organization requires patience and a gradual evolutionary process. Employees need to become comfortable with the prospect of coordinating with other departments with whom they may have had little experience. The effort, however, can pay off when teams and individual departments within a business begin functioning in harmony with each other.

Washington State University’s EMBA Degree Program

Online Executive MBA students are exposed to key elements of cross-functional coordination and the implementation of agile solutions. They prepare for top-level management and C-suite positions where they can either manage cross-functional programs or institute new policies. 

Washington State University’s Carson College of Business offers an online Executive MBA program that provides students the knowledge, skills, and training to rise to the top of innovative companies as strong, influential business leaders and effective decision makers.

To support future innovation leaders, Washington State University developed an EMBA course list that includes managerial leadership and productivity, organizational design, and management of innovation. Contact Washington State for more information.



Develop Cross-Functional Capabilities – Harvard Business Review

Cross-Functional Cooperation – Techspective.net

What is DevOps – TheAgileAdmin.com

Cross-Functional Collaboration Solutions – Asana.com

Cross-Functional Collaboration – CFO.com