The Art and Science of Security Team Collaboration

Image credit: iStockphoto/.shock

In the first article of this series, we admitted that collaboration between internal teams is often difficult, and the first step towards finding a solution is understanding that the problem exists. And we decided that diplomacy was a good approach.

We assume that our communication skills are sharp because we all speak English. But language is culture-based communication and not an exact science.

When we try to communicate between different teams, we encounter language-based problems. Bridging these language barriers is one of our early goals. Before examining how to overcome language issues at the workplace, let's look to conventional language learning for an example.

Parsing the interlanguage

When we learn a second language, we take new information from that language and slot it into the language we already know. The result is what linguists call an interlanguage.

Wikipedia defines an interlanguage as: “an idiolect that has been developed by a learner of a second language (or L2) which preserves some features of their first language (or L1), and can also overgeneralize some L2 writing and speaking rules.” That sounds complicated, but it means that we take the new information and put it in a framework (our first language) that we understand.

Focus on the similarities, not the differences

This interlanguage is unique to the learner — no one creates the same interlanguage. And it's a good analogy for the language issues we face as we strive diplomatically to get our teams to communicate effectively.

Common ground

As interlanguages vary between individuals, a good exercise at the beginning of any collaborative venture is to find common ground. One way to do this is to ask participants to create lists of essential terms.

Many “team-building” exercises do this, but when trying to ally different teams with different goals, it's good practice to distance the collaboration from the sort of verbiage team-building often seeks to emphasize.

Encourage brainstorming

Resist the urge to promote terms focusing on teamwork, etc. Rather, focus on getting your different teams to list their priorities — with the goal of collaboration.

Essential terms

Remember that interlanguages vary. No two people will have the same set of words.

In terms of priority, an accountant, for example, might list “spreadsheet” and “profit/loss” as critical terms, while a programmer might list “algorithm” and “API.” But you don't know what specific terms are used by your different teams until you ask them.

There's no magic formula for creating these lists—all companies are different. You might start by asking a group to list their most important daily terms, then their most critical monthly terms. Keep sessions light and fun, and encourage brainstorming and free talk.

This beginning exercise succeeds for two reasons:

1) Everyone likes to talk about their work.

2) It breaks the ice and gets people talking among themselves.

What we're doing is defining our terms. The accountants might answer questions about their spreadsheets while the programmers explain why algorithms are essential. This gets different teams talking to each other and shows how each group uses its terms to define its priorities.

Early strategies

Bringing teams together for collaboration begins with nervousness. First, remember that many skilled workers are not talkative by nature. They may also be intimidated by more extroverted individuals in other teams.

An early strategy emphasizes collaboration innovation — the synergy that often results from divergent viewpoints coming together. Your teams may speak different languages at the outset, but let them brainstorm once you get them talking to each other.

Many strategies encourage participants to think creatively. Sometimes the best early strategies are simple, non-threatening exercises: for example, asking your team to plan a lunch or other informal event for the other team. The goal is to get your people talking and encourage them to offer non-traditional ideas.

Encourage the shy

Remember that many people are shy in group settings. Some people are introverted and may think they have no useful information for the group. But often, these employees have the most to deliver and should be given every opportunity to contribute.

Make it a priority to encourage all employees to speak openly and directly with you and their peers. Your goal is to create an environment that values constructive feedback and open communication.

This isn't always easy but keep your eyes on the prize. An open environment can help your team avoid misunderstandings and deal with issues as they arise, rather than letting them become larger problems.

Emphasize the importance of respecting other people's opinions and being professional. As your teams have their priorities, you may need to referee a disagreement or two. If the teams feel they are in a relaxed environment and their opinions are respected, these flareups will be easier to manage.

Diplomats and teachers

Remember that every language student creates their interlanguage as part of the learning process. But these ad hoc languages aren't so different from each other. Let's focus on the similarities, not the differences.

We are diplomats in our goal of collaboration. But we are teachers who want to see our students succeed.

This article is the second in a series on effective collaboration techniques for cybersecurity.

Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IOT, payment gateways, robotics and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/.shock