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We’re all collaborators now


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Friday, 30 April 2010

We’re all collaborators now

Most people would claim to work collaboratively, but what does that actually mean?

In the age of Web 2.0 technology, just being part of a team, turning up to meetings and doing the same things as a bunch of other people in the same space are just the same old work. True collaboration is something else.

The commercial world started to latch on to the power of social networking, wikis, instant messaging and document management systems several years ago.

A 2007 survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that 50% of executives believed that collaborative working would either give their firm a significant competitive edge or would determine its survival.

Some of the most mature users of collaborative technology are to be found in the industry that created it. Software giant Oracle has opened up its product development to a global network of more than five million developers, only a fraction of which are its employees. The rest are consultants, customers and nerds whose criticisms and suggestions have become part of the development process. The impact of this kind collaboration is profound. Not only does the company benefit from a wider pool of ideas, which it taps into for free, but it enlists customers as co-developers. Participation creates a sense of ownership, engenders loyalty and discourages adversarial behaviour.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that staff turnover may also be lower in organisations that embrace collaborative working, partly for the reasons given above and partly because the technology enables more flexible practices, including home working.

Alternative modes of working save time, money and carbon. The energy company E.ON is a strong advocate of using web based alternatives to travel – of course it’s good PR, but it’s also good sense.

Document management systems can produce striking productivity benefits in research, design and project management.

The real benefit is not just in the ability to share finished work – the web makes this a no-brainer – but being able to share work in progress. The software industry experience teaches that it is possible to capture and refine complex ideas. The NHS, which is also complex, technical and information-driven could benefit from a similar approach. Collaboration is all about optimisation.

In stressing the benefits of collaboration it’s easy to ignore the problems. Collaboration involves big cultural adjustments. It’s no coincidence that these ideas have taken root first in relatively young organisations like software companies. For older, more hierarchical institutions, like the NHS, the ground may be less fertile.

Collaboration is hard to organise. It saves time, but it takes time. One of the great things about a hierarchy is that it’s clear who the leaders are. Social networks can be chaotic but health networks need more organisation. These networks need leaders. It’s antithetical but inevitable.

Collaboration throws up other difficulties of information management, governance and measurement (hard evidence of benefit is hard to find). Not all collaboration will be productive or useful, despite the trendy presumption that it is all good.

There has always been a debate about whether humanity is competitive or collaborative by nature. For people born after 1980 – roughly the advent of the personal computer – there is no debate at all.