What’s the role of collaboration for sales enablement?

Attending a conference, having the possibility to talk to many people in different roles is always exciting, especially attending the second Forrester Sales Enablement Forum, March 19-20 in San Francisco.

Ask ten people how to define sales enablement, you will still get ten different answers. Ask ten people how to define collaboration and collaboration’s role regarding sales enablement, it’s almost the same. But at least eight will define collaboration from a technological perspective only. I had many conversations on the role of collaboration for sales enablement and most of them – even in our community – were like this:

“Well, of course it’s important, but everybody has another definition of collaboration” or

“Collaboration? But we already have implemented the products x,y and z” or

“Isn’t that all about communication and organizational alignment and already covered in different approaches?”

As you can imagine, I don’t agree.

No, collaboration is not only about communication, it’s not only about organizational alignment and it’s not only about technology.

Let’s figure out how collaboration is actually defined and how and where it is an essential prerequisite for the sales enablement discipline and sales enablement performance.

Who is the thought leader number one when it comes to collaboration? Morten Hansen, management professor at University of California, Berkeley and at INSEAD, France. To make a long story short, Morten Hansen says first of all, “the key point is… to start with the end in mind: the goal of collaboration is not collaboration, it’s better results!”

How many so-called collaboration projects do you know that have something like “better collaboration” or “more collaboration” as project goal in their charter? I’m sure, we all know many projects like this, focused on implementing technology for “more” collaboration. But what is “more” collaboration? As Morten Hansen says “you should only collaborate when it’s the best way to improve performance”.
Collaboration within companies (which is our focus here) can be between divisions, geographies, functions and foreign subsidiaries.

First of all, let’s map that view of collaboration to the well established Forrester sales enablement definition to identify the need of collaboration to improve performance across the entire selling system.

Sales enablement is a strategic, ongoing process that equips all client-facing employees with the ability to consistently and systematically have a valuable conversation with the right set of customer stakeholders at each stage of the customer’s problem solving life cycle to optimize the return of investment of the selling system.

Collaboration is not mentioned, explicitly. So, I will try to derive the need for collaboration:

  • “all client-facing employees” are not the sales people alone, different kinds of SME’s from different functions, business units or division are included. In big outsourcing deals, collaboration between buying and selling teams to achieve the customer’s desired outcome is not just nice to have, it’s the essential success factor to win a deal and to achieve the customer’s desired outcome later on.
  • “right set of customer stakeholders”: sales people have to address different stakeholders with different roles across the customer’s agreement network.
  • “at each stage of the customer’s problem solving life cycle”: The customer has a problem solving process which we have to align to our sales process. Both processes cover a variety of different roles from different functions and all these roles need to collaborate efficiently across the vendor’s internal supply chain and across he customer’s complex stakeholder network – to get the best resources for their deals. Also here, the success factor is to have a common goal, e.g. the desired customer outcome and a shared vision of success to achieve this outcome.
  • “to optimize the return of investment of the selling sytem”. Sales might be a function, but selling is a system. Only if we consider all roles and functions across the end2end value communication chain, we are able to reduce the randoms acts of sales support which is relevant to improve the ROI of a selling system. Also here, a common goal is mission critical to be able to drive an approach like that, and collaboration is the enabling power to achieve it.

Second, we also need collaboration to establish the sales enablement discipline itself in our organizations, especially if we have a strategic and holistic ambition. Let’s take a few of the most important sales enablement fields of action (see also Forrester’s SIMPLE framework):

  • Sales model: designing a coverage model – how ever it might look like – requires to achieve a common design point between sales and finance, which is easier said than done, because sales wants always more (growth), finance wants always less (EBIT). What do we need? Collaboration between functions, the critical success factor is to have a common goal.
  • Engagement models: Designing your operating engines, you will need different engagement models for your different sales segments, sales channels, sales units – you name it. All of them will be based on collaboration at least between functions, often also between busines untis and between foreign subsidiaries. Also here, the crtitical success factor is a common goal.
  • Sales content on a certain maturity level is based on a cross-functional content management process that covers content structure, content generation, content publishing and content localization. Collaboration is the essential prerequisite to get such a process successfully implemented. We are talking about collaboration between functions, business units and foreign subsidiaries.
  • Knowledge management is the same challenge. If you want to solve this challenge for the entire organization and not just provide a nice tool for a single function, you won’t be successful without cross-functional collaboration. You will need to define taxonomies covering the entire organization, it’s about collaboration between functions.
  • Metrics: That’s one of the most important sales enablement topics – from a collaboration perspective. Not the functional driven KPI’s are the KPI’s that matter, what matters are the KPI’s along the end2end value communication. What do we need to establish before? Yes, collaboration between functions to be able to measure what really matters. Sounds so easy, but it’s not. Have a look at your financial reports. What are they based on? Functions, business units, right?

That’s why I think, we have to include the role of collaboration in our sales enablement definitions, in our frameworks and concepts, but in a way that we really focus on collaborations’s business value first before we are think about collaboration technology.

Technology has of course great potential to enable collaboration, once we defined what we want to achieve in terms of business results and once the management has designed mechanisms to tear down well known collaboration barriers.
But managing collaboration barriers, that’s another topic for another blog post…

Chime in and share your ideas!


  1. This is a great blog post and an excellent subject! And I like the headline, too. So what is the role of collaboration for sales enablement? I think the short version is:
    No one (not even sales) can be successful being just on their own. When I was at Nokia a few years ago one of the core company values was “Achieving together”. And I may add that this wasn’t just a statement on paper, but a real spirit and part of our everyday work life. I may also add, that this had changed later, which could be one of the many reasons for Nokia’s decline.
    Point is that in many organisations there seems to be harder competition internally between different departments (classic: sales vs. marketing) than towards the real competition outside the company walls. To me the starting point for collaboration is the right mindset / philosophy, backed up by a strategy that clearly reflects this philosophy and finally you’d need mechanisms to make this work.
    Transparency is very important as is responsibility. It should be part of the organisation’s culture that employees and managers are allowed to take calculated risks and that failure is a possible option as long as there are lessons learnt from it. Collaboration implies innovation, and innovation is a key factor for future success.
    Last but not least technology: To me technology is essential, especially when it comes to collaboration and even more so when there are different parts of an organisation involved in the same processes, or a smooth handover is required (again sales and marketing is a good example). And the reason why technology is so important is information management. These days it’s all about data and intelligence. Companies that are able to use data intelligently and in an collaborative manner across the entire organisation will be more successful than others. But that again is another story.

  2. Thanks for sharing additional great insights!
    I completely agree, organizations often invest way too much energy in fighting internal battles. Clear design points (customers, not internal functions) and a precise definition of what has to be achieved with collaboration can be a first step in the right direction.
    A thousand miles journey starts with one step…

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