Here at CT Labs, we’re happysad that the word “collaboration” has come fully into the mainstream (even Harvard Business Review is getting in on the fun).

We’re happy the collaboration is becoming a fashionable term — partly because that’s the big “C” in “CT”, but also because we find that it’s a kinder, more humane, and far more functional way to work.

It is upsetting, though, to witness the C-washing of almost everything office-related, following on the heels of this latest buzz. Whiteboards are collaborative. Open cubicle spaces are collaborative. Document management systems are, naturally, collaborative. Oh – and we can’t forget Web 2.0 – it’s collaborative as HELL. Right?

Well, yes.

And no.

The problem is that collaboration doesn’t come from a store. I mean, sure, you can buy all the ‘collaborative’ toys you want. And they might SUPPORT collaborative efforts. But they are not, by and of their nature, collaborative. On their own, they won’t do a thing to make you collaborative.

So, whiteboards? Check! Networked workstations? Check! Open dialogue spaces? Check! SharePoint? Twitter feeds? Facebook groups? Employee blogs? Oh sure, check, check, check. But does the grocery bill add up to collaboration?

It’s like buying the ingredients and then expecting them to rearrange themselves into a cake.

It doesn’t work that way. There are thousands – perhaps millions – of toys that you can buy that will support a collaborative environment. But if you don’t approach one fundamental element correctly, you’ll just have the bar tab and a lot of unhappy memories. I speak of…the people.

Oh right – them. The people.

At the most basic level, there are two ‘kinds’ of people to focus on. First off, you need leadership. You need leadership with tremendous courage. The courage to be curious, the courage to ask, the courage to (hold your breath)…not know the answer before they ask. Leadership that trusts in their people; that believes their employees can collectively, dare I say collaboratively, come up to the optimal answer to the fundamental question. If you don’t have those leaders, you can shop til you drop, but baby, you ain’t getting collaboration. Trust me…you ain’t. Can’t happen.

The leaders don’t have to be the highest ups on your hierarchical food chain; it sure helps if those people are leaders (they are managers, of course, but leaders?), but so long as you create an environment that supports (truly supports) emergent leadership, you can have collaboration even without great courage in your upper management ranks. So long, of course, as those upper managers don’t spend their days delighting in crushing the light and the life out of emergent leaders as they appear.

Second, you need people. Curious people. People who are engaged in life, who are passionate about why they show up in your erstwhile collaborative space. And you need to help these curious people meet each other. It’s amazing the works that small groups can do. If you can enable just two people in your team to work collaboratively on an ongoing basis, I will suggest they will create more net value that the rest of your organization, combined.

Once you have your leaders, and a small-p political environment in which the risks and rewards of collaboration are understood, you have a start. And once you take an honest look at your people, you can guess at who might create profound value from living in a collaborative environment.

THEN – and only then – can you really start shopping for whiteboards.