The Need for Collaboration
Written by Dr. Charles C. Snow
Looking at the news today, it seems like collaboration is right up there with chopped liver.
World leaders struggle to determine their stances—and possible actions—in continued uprisings in the Middle East. Back at home, various governors, desperately searching for solutions to their budget crises, have reached an impasse with the unions they want to weaken.
We're witnessing a new age of polarization. It seems collaborating has never been so difficult.
Clearly, though, it goes beyond domestic and foreign affairs. “Collaboration” has been a prominent buzzword in business, management, and technology circles for years—and for good reason. There is an enormous need for large-scale collaboration, with win-win solutions top of mind.
In our 2005 book, Collaborative Entrepreneurship: How Communities of Networked Firms Use Continuous Innovation to Create Economic Wealth, Raymond E. Miles, Grant Miles, and I said that true large-scale collaboration doesn’t have an organizational form that’s specifically suited to that objective. (In the book, we invented one—a fictional organization—that had these characteristics.) Since we know the benefits from large-scale collaboration and would like to pursue them, why doesn’t someone develop an organizational form that will allow that to happen?
Think about the United Nations—with the kinds of problems it works on, there’s no way a hierarchical organization is going to be able to be effective in that type of environment. Who would you turn over responsibility for solutions to? The U.S.? Russia? Iran? Peer-to-peer collaboration is the only way to solve these problems. But to do that, all parties need to see themselves as peers—or at least as members of the same community.
Now think of global warming. It affects all of us; we’re all in the same boat. But we look at global warming much differently than does China. And we’re not going to turn it over to any hierarchical organization for resolution.
Nevertheless, we seem to be making progress, due to a combination of forces. In talks I’ve given recently about strategic collaboration, I mentioned the Linux movement. Granted, the movement started off as a revolt against the corporate giant that is Microsoft—that’s the Goliath that Linus Torvalds, the David, went after. But what he proved is that you can organize a worldwide community where everyone can freely contribute their solutions and won’t exploit fellow members of the community in the pursuit of having a better operating system.
That's probably the most visible example of free, open, large-scale collaboration. But when you try to overlay it with a commercial objective—to try to make money off something, but use collaborative principles—it gets touchy, because things like intellectual property concerns arise, as do concerns about dividing up the financial rewards.
Still, the idea of strategic collaboration is certainly not as widespread today as it needs to be. Linux and the other examples are the forerunners of what, hopefully, will be a more widely practiced philosophy.
There was a science article in The New York Times in 2008 titled, “If You Have a Problem, Ask Everyone.” That’s a very cool notion. We’re seeing the business counterparts to that in open innovation (not just relying on your own resources but those of outside organizations or groups as well), in ideas like the wisdom of crowds, and with C.K. Prahalad’s The Bottom of the Pyramid (which asked how you do business in emerging economies with traditional thinking, and the answer is, you can’t).
Prahalad once gave a talk where he asked the audience if they thought laser surgery would be useful in India. Several people essentially said, “Of course. They have the same problems more affluent countries have.” But then he asked if professionals could charge $2,500 per eye and do any business. The audience said, “No way.” He said that some firms were successful already but that they did it for $150 for both eyes. But you have to develop a business model and design an organization that can actually pull this off. It wouldn’t be the traditional model where a doctor gets certified, opens a practice, and prices his services accordingly. It starts with a realistic price and works backward.
It’s that kind of radical thinking, Prahalad said, where you tap into all ideas, wherever they may be, if you’re ever going to solve that kind of problem. But if you can solve such problems, there are billions of dollars of potential business in emerging economies.
Right now the global economy is full of such ideas and opportunities, but we don’t have a complete understanding of how to pursue them. There is growing recognition that collaboration is the way to go, but it seems like it’s going to take a large, devastating event of some sort for all firms and nations to realize that we’re all in this together.
Charles Snow is the Mellon Foundation Professor of Business Administration in the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University and a member of Workforce Opportunity Services’ Academic Advisory Board.