Jul 252007

Collaboration is Hard, Part I

Collaboration is Hard, Part I

Every year when we do 360 reviews, a whole bunch of people at all levels in the organization have “collaboration” identified as a development item.  I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic lately and will do a two-part post on this.  So, first things first…what is collaboration and why is it so important?

Let’s start with the definition of collaboration from our friends at Wikipedia:

Collaboration is a process defined by the recursive interaction of knowledge and mutual learning between two or more people who are working together, in an intellectual endeavor, toward a common goal which is typically creative in nature. Collaboration does not necessarily require leadership and can even bring better results through decentralization and egalitarianism.

What does that mean in a business setting?  It means partnering with a colleague (either inside or outside of the company) on a project, and through the partnering, sharing knowledge that produces a better outcome than either party could produce on his or her own.  Interestingly, the last sentence of the definition implies that collaboration can happen across levels in an organization but is generally more effective when the parties who are collaborating are on somewhat equal footing.

Why is collaboration important?  There are probably a zillion reasons.  Let me take a stab at what I think are three important ones:

  1. It’s not about hard assets any more. In a knowledge economy/company, sharing information and learnings is critical.  And that’s what’s at the heart of the collaborative process.  Each person in the organization does a different job; even those who are in the same role have different experiences with their role and different interactions both internally and externally as a result.  A collaborative process that by definition involves learning drives the organization forward and to a better place.  An example…if you have a deep working knowledge of your product, and your counterpart in marketing has a deep working knowledge of public relations, collaborating on a PR strategy to launch the product’s latest feature means that you will learn more about public relations and your colleague will learn more about your product.  In the end, you both get smarter, and the collective intellect of your organization grows — so your company gains incremental advantage over the competition as a result.
  2. No man is an island. Most functions and business units are in some way interdependent.  Think back to the example of product and PR above.  Both parties learn through collaboration and make things better for the future.  Here’s the rub, though — the collaboration in that example is the only way to produce the right outcome.  So the prior point illustrates offense, but this one illustrates defense.  Failure to collaborate in this simple case would lead to a misguided PR launch strategy for the new product feature.  Either product would dictate the release strategy and text — missing some important subtleties about what reporters will/won’t pick up or without thinking through how different constituencies will react to the messaging — or PR would dictate the release strategy and timing — missing important but subtle points of competitive differentiation in the product features or botching a market-specific window for the announcement.
  3. Leverage is king. If the first point illustrates offense (collaboration moves the organization forward) and the second one illustrates defense (failure to collaborate suboptimizes the quality of results), this one illustrates productivity (perhaps a subset of offense).  Collaboration gives leverage, which in turn gives productivity.   Let’s not pick on our poor product and PR people this time, though.  Let’s think about one of the most difficult things to do, which is to hire good people.  As I wrote a few years ago in The Hiring Challenge, the three things to do when hiring (which are all hard) are defining the job properly, finding the time to do it right, and remembering that the process doesn’t stop on the person’s first day on the job.  So where does collaboration come in?  Once your company is big enough to have a good HR person or team, the collaborative approach to having them help you with recruiting is the best option.  Sure, you can “throw it over the wall” to HR — give them a job title and location and comp range and see what happens.  And you will get some candidates, some of which might be ok.  Or you can forget about HR and try to do it yourself and not have time to get it right.  Or you can collaborate, bring HR into the discussion about the need for the position, the skills required, and the fit with your organization, even write a job description with HR and discuss which companies or types of companies you want to see on candidates’ resumes — and voila!  HR can go off and do 10x the work at 10x the quality.  For a little more up-front effort than the “throw it over the wall” approach, you leveraged yourself tremendously through what can be a very time consuming process.

Although my examples are by nature from my own industry for the past 12+ years, it’s hard to think of too many organizations or industries where collaboration isn’t critical to success.  Even in companies like investment banks or strategy consulting firms, which traditionally are very hierarchical, command-and-control organizations filled with brilliant individual contributors, the most successful companies (think Goldman Sachs, McKinsey) are the ones that seem to foster more collaboration than others in the development of their people and the development of shared intellectual capital that helps drive the organization forward and ahead of its competition.

In Part II, I’ll answer the title question here…why is collaboration hard?  Stay tuned!

Jul 312006

Social Computing: An Amusing Anecdote About Who is Participating

Social Computing:  An Amusing Anecdote About Who is Participating

We learned something about Wikipedia tonight.  Mariquita was reading an article on Castro on CNN.com entitled “Castro Blames Stress on Surgery” about his upcoming intestinal surgery.

[Quick detour — I’m sorry, Castro blames the surgery on stress?  Isn’t it good to be the king?   And he’s handing  the reins of government over to his oh-so-younger brother Raul, at the tender young age of 75?]

Anyway, we were debating over whether Castro took over the government of Cuba in 1957 or 1959, so of course we turned to Wikipedia.  Ok, so Mariquita was right, it was 1959.  But more important, we learned something interesting about Wikipedia and its users.

There were three banners above the entry for Casto that I’ve never seen before in Wikipedia.  They said:

This article documents a current event.  Information may change rapidly as the event progresses.

This article or section is currently being developed or reviewed.  Some statements may be disputed, incorrect, biased or otherwise objectionable.  Please read talk page discussion before making substantial changes.

The neutrality of this article is disputed.  Please see the discussion on the talk page.

That’s interesting of the editors, and it made me rush to read the entry on our fearless leader, George W. Bush.  It only had one entry, a bit different from that of Castro (who, at least in my opinion, history will treat as a far more horrendous character than Dubya):

Because of recent vandalism or other disruption, editing of this article by anonymous or newly registered users is disabled (see semi-protection policy). Such users may discuss changes, request unprotection, or create an account.

Well, there you go.

Jan 102006

New Media Deal, Part II – the We Media Deal

New Media Deal, Part II – the We Media Deal

My original New Medial Deal posting from August, 2004, is my favorite posting of all 220 or so that I’ve done to date. It has the most clicks of any posting I’ve done. People mention it to me all the time. I even used it as the foundation for the preface to our book at Return Path, Sign Me Up!

The general thesis (although the original posting is short and worth reading) is simple. Old Media was one-way communication – they produce it, you consume it, and Old Media had a deal with us: they give us free or cheap content, we tolerate their advertising. Think about your favorite radio station or an episode of The Office on TV. The New Media deal is an Internet derivative of that, that is founded on some degree of two-way communication: they give us free services and more targeted advertising in exchange for some of our personal data — just like the Old Media deal, we are willing make a small sacrifice, in this case, some pieces of our anonymity, in a heartbeat if the value exchange is there. This is true of everything from personalized stock quotes on My Yahoo! to the New York Times on the Web. The New Media Deal doesn’t replace the Old Media Deal, it just adapts it to the new environment.

But what about the new generation of services that have popped up on the web around peer production?  The ones that aren’t one-way communication or two-way communication, but community-oriented communciation.  (Note I am resisting hard calling them Web 2.0, but you know it’s there somewhere.)  Does the New Media Deal still apply, or are we on to something else?  I think the rules are morphing once again, and now there’s a new deal — let’s call it the We Media Deal — that builds on the “data as part of the value exchange” moniker of the New Media Deal. Like its predecessor deals, the We Media Deal doesn’t replace the New Media Deal or the Old Media Deal, it just adapts it for new types of services.

The We Media Deal has two components to it:  (1) the value of the service to you increases in lock-step as you contribute more data to it, and (2) the more transparent the value exchange, the more willing you are to share your data.

Ok – that sounds very academic – what do I mean in plain English? Let’s break it down.

1. The value to you increases in lock-step as you contribute more data.  This is something that probably wasn’t obvious with the original New Media Deal, since it wasn’t clear that if you gave My Yahoo! incrementally more data (one more stock quote, for example), you’d get more relevant ads or services.  It’s a pretty static value exchange.  But think about the new generation of web services around peer production.

– The more you use Delicious to bookmark web pages, the more relevant it becomes to you, and the more dependent you become on it as your own “Internet within an Internet.”

– The more you wite a blog or post photos to Flickr, the more engrained the act of blogging becomes in your daily existence — you start looking at the world, ever so slightly, through the lens of “that would make an interesting posting” (trust me).

– The more you use Wikipedia (or wikis in general), the more committed you become to Wikipedia as your first go-to source for information, and the more you get infected with the desire to contribute to it.

The bottom line with the first part of the We Media Deal is that the more you give to the system, the more you want and need out of the system.  A big part of peer production is that most people fundamentally, if quietly, want to belong to any bit of community they can find.  All these new web services of late have transformed the mass Internet from a read platform to a read/write platform, so now everyone can have a say in things.  The same reason eBay is cooler and bigger than the New York Times on the Web will drive this new generation of services, and new spins on old services, forward.

2. Next up — the more transparent the value exchange, the more willing you are to share your data.  Transparecy rules.  When you contribute to the web, you’re exposed, so why is trasparency a help and not a hindrance?  Let’s look at the same 3 examples.

– Delicious let’s you delete your account and all your personal data.  They’re blatant about it during the sign-up process.  The result?  It increases your trust in the network since you can easily exit at any time.

– Blogging and Flickr couldn’t be more transparent.  They’re personal printing presses.  If you’re good at it, you really have to think before you write. It’s you – you’re really hanging out there transparent for all the world to see – therefore you’re even more invested in what you write and derive even more value from the activity.

– Similarly, Wikipedia tracks who changes what, and if you make an error, the community will correct it in an astonishingly short time frame, keeping you honest.

The good news is that, while the We Media Deal is coming of age, our New Media Deal is alive and well and growing stronger as the web evolves as well.  Free services and more targeted advertising in exchange for some of your personal data makes a ton of sense when the right balance of service and data is there.  Transparency and control make the We Media Deal an even stronger stronger bond between company and individual, mostly because the bond is between company and community — the deal gets more solid the more we as individuals invest in it.

Nov 082005

Armistice Day

Armistice Day

Back in May, writing about Decoration Day, I promised an exciting conclusion to the “forgotten past names of minor American holidays” series this week.  I’m on vacation the rest of the week, so I’ll post today about Friday’s holiday, what we now call Veterans Day but what Grandma Hazel still periodically calls Armistice Day.  Once again, Wikipedia to the rescue.

Armistice Day is the anniversary of the official end of World War I, November 11, 1918. It commemorates the armistice signed between the Allies and Germany at Compiègne, France, for the cessation of hostilities on the Western Front, which took effect at eleven o’clock in the morning — the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.”

Following World War II, the name of the holiday was changed (enacted June 1, 1954) to Veterans Day to honor those who served in all American wars. The day has since evolved to primarily be a time of honoring living veterans who have served in the military during wartime or peacetime, partially due to competition (competition?) with Memorial Day, which primarily honors the dead.

Many nations within the British Commonwealth observe a similar occasion on November 11, Remembrance Day.

May 302005

Decoration Day

Decoration Day

Today, Memorial Day, is the day my Grandma Hazel always calls Decoration Day.  That’s obviously a name that pre-dates me, so I thought I’d look it up today and figure out what it originally stood for and when the switch happened.

According to Wikipedia, the holiday originally called Decoration Day was first observed in 1868 to honor fallen Union solidiers of the Civil War.  As you can imagine, southern states didn’t really recognize the holiday until at least 50 years later, and many continue even today to have a separate Confederate Decoration Day (now Confederate Memorial Day or somewhat disturbingly Confederate Heroes Day in Texas) for years.  After World War I, the day came to honor all American soldiers who died in war.

The name Memorial Day was first used in 1882 but didn’t really take hold until after World War II, finally becoming the official federal name for the day in 1967.  The holiday became an official national holiday in 1971.

Excited by this?  Just wait for this fall’s Veteran’s Day, also Remembrance Day or Armistice Day.