Collaboration is becoming an increasingly powerful innovation tool, but it’s important to harness its power for good. Here’s how.
Never before in history has knowledge been able to have so much power.
The primary reason is that the world is more connected than ever before, but it goes further than that. In an increasingly networked world, the ability to reach across disciplines, time and space and to work together is rapidly accelerating. Naturally, the pace of discovery has picked up. With every change in communication pathways over time, collaboration has benefitted. Today is a particularly exciting time because the change includes a significant bridge between the digital and physical worlds.
It’s my belief that in the next five years, collaboration will bring us marked benefits in our built world and the systems we use to measure, improve and preserve it. However, it’s critically important to proceed with caution. Not everything about collaboration can be seen as a benefit. Businesses need to understand the pitfalls also. Before we get into those pitfalls, let’s first take a look at three reasons why collaboration has become such a powerful tool for business:
In the days of Stradivarius, violins were made by passing verbal or hand-written knowledge from one master to one apprentice. Digitization fundamentally changed how we learn to make a product like a violin because of the increased potential of collaboration. Files for both instruction and assembly can now drive machines and analysis software to an infinite degree, thereby promoting rapid development. It evens the playing field so that the best ideas become the top notes in the orchestras of the future.
2. Protection of User-Generated Content
The protection of user-generated content has been the necessary handmaiden in a world in which one person’s ideas can so readily flow around a connected network. Basic human morals or ethics like attribution, liability and reward can now be tracked and described and codified into law. The advent of whole constructs — such as creative commons or GNU licensing — have greatly assisted in this process. This means that collaborators should feel increasingly safe in sharing their thoughts.
3. Changes in Workplace Law and Liability
The last century saw the advent of unionization in response to the tyranny of scientific management. Workers needed to leverage their collective strength to balance the demands of management so that metrics like profit did not override basic standards of decency.
In a world of collaboration, collective bargaining falls short in providing opportunity for individuals formally identified with a union to speak and achieve for themselves outside of their 20th century “job.” Liability has followed a similar change and challenge because, with increased collaboration, shared responsibility for defective or pernicious guidance can now be recognized and liability ascribed. Those who collaborate would be well-advised to know their rights and responsibilities before sharing ideas.
As collaboration becomes an increasingly powerful tool for businesses and their employees, now is the time to understand how to harness this power for good. It can be a tricky thing at times. Here are a couple of illustrations:
1. Sharing Information Versus Sharing Time
In an increasingly collaborative world, there are limits after which we see not only diminishing marginal returns, but also the negative effects of collaboration. To be specific, sharing information and sharing time are particularly different forms of collaboration. Information is an infinite resource, whereas time is finite. In most projects, the people who share their time are often the ones who receive the most requests to share their time in the future. These people are particularly at risk for burning out at work.
On the contrary, those who share information often experience a higher degree of collaborative success. This difference highlights one of the many pitfalls to be found in the growing pursuit of collaboration.
2. Collaboration Versus Protection
Another potential pitfall is how to deal with intellectual property, which encompasses everything from patents to trade secrets, to trade dress and even up to national secrets. Collaboration challenges the reasoning behind all forms of IP. At Local Motors, we believe the best use of IP historically has been to ensure disclosure and credit authorship.
Unfortunately, the business world of late has discovered the difficulties of perfecting IP, which has slowed collaboration and therefore blocked innovation. This pitfall must be examined along the spectrum of types of IP to decide where collaboration might be used to achieve shared situational awareness and rapid iteration on ideas.
Collaboration has created tremendous benefits in the business world, but there are times and places where it needs to be reigned in. Determining how and when to do that will continue to be a challenge for businesses of all types in the coming years. The ones who do it best are sure to be ahead of the competition.
Explore the findings of the GE Global Innovation Barometer here: www.ge.com/reports/innovation-barometer.
(Top GIF: Video courtesy of Local Motors)
All views expressed are those of the author.