Saturday, 2 June 2012

Collaboration zeitgeist

Collaboration feels like one of those zeitgeist topics.  I have been sense-making on this topic for a few months now.  Here are a few of the things that have been interesting me.

Two comments to start with. 

First, collaboration isn't something that can be converted or reified as if it is something concrete.  It is a complex responsive process in which participants actively engage with each other through conversation.  The conversation can be face-to-face or in print or online; it can therefore be synchronous or a-synchronous.  The conversations are emergent and self-organising and, to be successful, power needs to be shared.  

Second, collaboration has a sense of the 'new black' about it; it's not a new idea because, as humans, we have always collaborated by learning from each other.  However, the web is the engine of change; it is connecting people and amplyfying ideas at massive scale. 

The collaboration pyramid

I like Oscar Berg's collaboration pyramid because of the way it draws attention to the hidden value creating layers in organisations.  Therefore, rather than treating collaboration as something else to be done, perhaps the first step is just to recognise what's already happening.

Nodes and Networks

Harold Jarche blogs regularly on networked working and I'd recommend this piece 'It's all about networks'.  Things that stand out for me are that collaborative working will require a break from traditional organisational thinking; from having a position in a hierarchy to a node in a network.  The collaborative enterprise will require porous communities of people operating in looser hierarchies and stronger networks.  For example, the multinational food company Danone has created a 'Neworking Attitude' programme to shift a culture of localised, hierarchical decision making to one of cross-function/country collaboration.

Collaborating with customers

Extending the nodes and networks idea can also include collaboration with customers. Managers at the toymaker Lego saw that not everything needed to be developed internally and it draws on the interests of its loyal fan base to develop ideas for products.  

Chief Collaboration Officer?

Should there be a formal organisational response to collaboration?  There have been a number of articles and blogs about this over the past few months about the role of a Chief Collaboration Officer.

Can one person or function be responsible for collaboration?  If there is a case for creating such a role it is because organisations are seeing the opportunities that  greater connectedness, enabled by the web,is unleashing and that this then requires attention on a collaboration strategy and investment in relevant systems and tools.  And is this a new role or an extension of say the CEO, CIO or CLO?


  1. Hi John. A good blog post. I like the way your thoughts prompt questions.
    As you know, I've been working with groups and organisations to develop their approaches to collaboration for several years now.
    From the research I did and observations through practice, I would support the view that collaboration is complex. I say this because I believe it to be a social interaction and dependent on behaviours.
    As for it having zeitgeist qualities - I suspect you're right. Biased as I will be, I've been calling it the 'new black' for quite some time!
    But it's not new just as things like Continuous Improvement, Management Development and Leadership were not new. I'm reminded of Medieval Guilds who used it in abundance and wonder if it's at work in the UK's coalition Government.
    All of these things can be considered networks - constructs of connectivity - and as such, just might be used for collaborative effort.
    Aren't networking technologies today's constructs which might be used for collaborative effort, or spying or bullying?
    For me, this returns to the social interaction viewpoint - people choose to collaborate - it's a 'done with' activity not a 'done to'.
    How many people would recognise examples where they work of 'the not invented here syndrome', 'the endless search for information', 'the knowledge hoarders' and the 'suspicion of strangers'?
    I think the term 'collaboration' is being more widely used, but not always in this context - is this the regular baggage of a zeitgeist topic?
    However, believing it to be of immense value, I would suggest a further point to consider. Can the development of collaborative effort not just improve productivity, nor just increase innovative capacity amongst other things, but become the means by which more ethical approaches by organisations can be gained?

  2. Chris, thanks for your collaboration! In part, it's your enthusiam and commitment to this topic that has influenced my own awareness of it.

    I like your emphasis on the social interaction and of people choosing to collaborate. I think this is at the heart of what we are seeing through the astonishing growth in the use of social media. People are connecting with each other across traditional boundaries of time, place, culture, organisaton and so on. And I think you are spot on when you point not only to productivity improvements and innovation capacity but also the ethical benefits of shared power.

    My sense is that the biggest resistance remains inside organisations. Most collaboration exists only at team level where this is based on specific tasks and goals. I don't see much evidence of cross-boundary working. Hierarchies and silos still rule for now. How quickly will this change as external networks bypass traditionally organised functions like L&D?

  3. Thanks John.
    My experience would back up your sense-making. I've come across leaders who are focused on the returns (understandably) but who often suggest -"I can see the benefits, but we're okay".
    It's the age-old buy-in and role modelling at the top and often has the impact of limiting how L&D behave.
    It is sewn into our remarks about the complexity of collaboration as a social interaction. I'm reminded of the Xerox Field Technicians who largely dropped using the companies manuals in favour of informal meetings to exchange know-how - collaboration in its natural state.
    The culture that the Technicians formed is the key. They released the value of collaboration by giving each other an occasion when they could think, be heard or listened to.
    In the last couple of years, I've woven 'enabled thinking' (my term) into my work. Prompted by the work of Nancy Kline, it forms a fundamental feature of developing what can then be day-to-day collaborative behaviours.
    I think you're right about Social Media. I think we've already seen its power to ignite collaboration in spite of over-bearing doctrines in the Arab Spring. Perhaps Leaders and L&D would be wise to think on this.
    A last point that comes to mind is on the subject of ethical behaviour - a growing opinion seems to suggest it's lacking in the way organisations are run. I did a piece of collaborative development with a small IT company which transformed their customer relations and they almost doubled their turnover in 12 months.

  4. Thanks Chris. Can you say more about 'enabled thinking'. Sounds interesting and it could be useful to share.

  5. Very intersting piece in The Economist - 16th June 2012 - on crowdfunding.

    Further evidence of the ways in which collaborative working is breaking established rules which, in this case, also sets up an challenge for regulators keen to protect the 'crowd' from unscrupulous fundraisers.


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