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Getting Past the Barriers to Collaboration

Collaboration is quickly becoming a contender for buzzword of the year. The term is so widely used when identifying important tools for innovation, but its importance in the business world is still difficult to deny. For successful 21st century global enterprises, collaboration among employees and with external partners and customers is critical.

The 2014 GE Global Innovation Barometer study indicates that nearly two-thirds of companies surveyed report some form of collaboration in their innovation process. That’s an impressive number. But if collaboration is so universally recognized as a good thing, why don’t all companies embrace it?

There are many barriers that anti-collaborationists can point to, but no excuse is defensible in a 21st century company.

  • A lack of tools. A decade of technological advancements now facilitate collaboration, whether that’s with employees, partners, or customers. Enterprise social tools allow for different kinds of communications between and among employees, allowing more people to interact outside of their traditional roles. Innovation management software platforms allow external participants to join the process of developing ideas into new products and services. Technology also catalyzes interaction with consumers to drive innovation, whether that’s through a contest platform with a targeted audience, a private online community aligned to your marketing segments, or a broad-based crowdsourcing campaign.
  • A lack of money. Managing financial resources is a challenge for any business. But the cost of today’s collaborative tools is hardly a financial burden, and should be considered against the potential value that can be unlocked from potential collaborators. Let’s take an enterprise software platform as an example. Will employees waste time using these tools? I’m sure some of them will and others will ignore them completely. But with a little bit of training and the right internal resources like a smart community manager or a dedicated innovation management team, the potential opportunity far outweighs the risk of abuse or lack of use.
  • A lack of humility. Perhaps this would be better characterized as “an abundance of hubris.” The “not-invented-here” (NIH) syndrome is still a rallying call for some senior business leaders, who cling to the notion that ideas, inventions, and innovations must come from within the four walls of the business to have any value. Anyone with NIH syndrome should have his or her torch snuffed and be asked to leave the tribal council area immediately. There’s just no place for this ostrich-like mentality in a21st-century business.
  • A lack of trust. Intellectual property is an important consideration, but not one that should derail collaboration efforts. The 2014 GE Innovation Barometer study indicates that 77 percent of executives surveyed believe the benefits of collaboration outweigh the risks. Today’s businesses need to address the IP challenge, put protections in place, and trust their potential collaborators.
  • A lack of a common language. What does it mean to collaborate? Is the term too fuzzy? Does it have too much of a Kumbaya sentiment for business leaders to embrace? Does it mean the same thing to everyone? A recent Innovation Excellence Research report found that few companies go to the trouble of establishing a common language of innovation, and that challenges communicating about innovation are common and frequent. If leadership has a different view of collaboration than the innovation team or other internal champions, then implementing collaboration with employees, partners, and customers will flounder.

People work at tables inside of the “WeWork” co-operative co-working space in Washington, DC. In a large warehouse-type office in Washington,
software coders work on apps, while angel investors and mentors help budding entrepreneurs figure out strategy for their startups, in what is being dubbed Silicon Valley on the Potomac. Photo: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

There may be more at play here than agreeing on a common definition for a specific term like collaboration. A different term altogether may be required in order to find a new way of working and innovating. At an Innovation Excellence hosted panel discussion earlier this year, Judith Glaser, CEO and founder of Benchmark Communications, made the point that human beings need to change the brain to accept a new way of looking at the world. The context of the discussion at that moment was related to the disruption occurring today in religion, but as you’ll see, Ms. Glaser’s specific comment is apropos to our topic:

The word collaboration, in the dictionary, is ‘cohorting with the enemy,’… The word you use every day… in our brain, to collaborate, is to cohort with the enemy. So you are always questioning whether the person you are interacting with is someone you can trust.

The word co-creation is not. It’s about creating the same picture of reality together. Instead of you and I having different realities and then fighting over whose reality is right, which is what we do most of the time when we defend our point of view, this all of a sudden changes the meaning of how human beings can engage with one another.

(You can access the video here; Ms. Glaser’s comments occur at the 20:29 mark.)

Many of today’s companies are well on the path to reducing or eliminating the barriers to a collaborative approach to innovation. But even companies that have the technology, resources, humility, and trust to implement collaboration may be unable to realize the benefits due to a subtle, yet critical language-based barrier.

Innovation leaders who are cognizant of this challenge should start by addressing the definitional issues associated with establishing a common language of innovation, but recognize that there may be good reason to adopt different terms—like co-creation—altogether, in order to sidestep barriers within the subconscious that are much harder to change.

Doug Williams is chief research officer for Innovation Excellence. You can reach him on Twitter: @DougWilliamsMHD

Getting Past the Barriers to Collaboration was originally published on Ideas Lab

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