Collaborating through the Computer

When I speak to corporate audiences, one of the most common questions I get is “What can we do to support collaboration among people in different locations?”  The most common tool that distant teams use to collaborate is email, but it has well-known weaknesses.  An increasingly popular team coordination tool is the Wiki; it’s better than email exchanges, but still far from ideal.

Most multinational companies have used Web conferencing (where information is delivered to participants in a training session or a Powerpoint) or video conferencing (where a camera in each location captures an image that is displayed in each other location).  Web conferencing isn’t very collaborative because it tends to be one-way: like a lecture hall, where information is delivered from one to many.  And most companies have had only partial success at supporting collaboration with video conferencing.  Two problems: one, the lack of “presence,” the hard-to-describe subliminal messages that you pick up when you’re right next to someone, and two, it’s not that easy to share documents, or to grab a scrap of paper and sketch an image to help communicate a point.

IBM and Microsoft both have far-flung research teams, and in-house tools to support teams, like Microsoft’s SharePoint.   And there’s a relatively new class of software call Group Decision Support Systems (GDSS), with the market leader, a product called ThinkTank by the company GroupSystems.  ThinkTank is typically used when all of the team members are in the same room; each is given a networked laptop, and the software guides the flow of the meeting to foster maximum creative idea exchange.  My own research, as reported in my book Group Genius, shows that this kind of “electronic brainstorming” is more effective than ordinary brainstorming.

But this still doesn’t really help companies with far-flung teams scattered across the globe.  I don’t think there’s an obvious best solution here; I think there’s a huge potential market, for the company that can figure out how to best support geographically distributed collaboration.  What are your experiences with long-distance collaboration?

New Study Confirms the Importance of Group Genius

A study reported in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal, authored by Rob Cross, Andrew Hargadon, Salvatore Parise, and Robert J. Thomas, confirms the key arguments made in my book Group Genius. Their lead paragraph is straight from the book jacket of Group Genius: the idea that creativity comes from a lone genius is a myth; creativity always emerges from collaborations and networks.

The four researchers studied innovation networks in 20 organizations, and identified three common patterns associated with innovation. First, collaboration throughout the organization is critical. “Breaking down silos” is common wisdom these days; but the new research I report in Group Genius is showing exactly how to build networks across the organization. Second, connections are critical for enabling knowledge sharing, and the more that knowledge flows freely through the network, the more likely innovation is to emerge. Third, innovation emerges from groups that experience what I call “group flow”–when everything jives together and everyone is energized by the group to create at a higher level.

The article provides a list of four articles, published in the MIT Sloan Management Review, from the last five years that elaborate on these important points.

Peter Gloor and Scott Cooper, Spring 2007, “The new principles of a swarm business”

Polly Rizova, Spring 2006, “Are you networked for successful innovation?”

Jeffrey H. Dyer and Nile W. Hatch, Spring 2004, “Using supplier networks to learn faster”

Mohanbir Sawhney, Spring 2002, “Don’t just relate: Collaborate”

Improvisation and everyday life

Last week, I attended an exciting research meeting in Canada: a new $4 million research center to study the lessons of jazz improvisation and apply them to everyday life. The center, at the University of Guelph, was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) through an incredibly competitive review process. Only two grants were given throughout all of Canada, and I am one of 33 international scholars participating in this center . Before you invoke the spirit of Senator Proxmire and his infamous “Golden Fleece” awards, give me a few minutes to convince you that this research grant has incredible potential to change the way we think about community, policy, law, and education.

Take law, for an example. I spoke with three different law professors at the meeting, and it turns out that improvisation raises fairly substantial issues for intellectual property law. Think about it: if you want to get a copyright for a song, you have to prepare a musical score. But you can’t copyright an improvisation. But can’t you copyright a recording of an improvisation? Yes…but then, the concept of the “work” itself has changed. If someone improvises a slight variation, even if it sounds a whole lot like what you did, it’s still a different work and they aren’t violating your copyright. But with a song, any version of the song infringes on your copyright.

It’s about more than music, as well. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) forbids “mods” of computer software, no matter how trivial (you can’t even change the color of the background without infringing). So maybe it could help us, in thinking about the nature of intellectual property in a world of “collective intelligence,” to draw on improvisation, representation, and performance in music.

My involvement with the research grant is in the area of teaching. I have often argued that good teaching has to be improvisational. Not only because good teachers are always responsive to their students, that’s always been true; but because the nature of innovation in our economy today follows an essentially improvisational process (as I show in my book Group Genius). So students need to learn in environments where they have opportunities to participate in improvisational collaboration with others. Studying improvisation has the potential to help us reform schools to align with the future of innovation.

I’m exciting about this grant, and the team of powerhouse researchers coming together, collaboratively, to study these topics. After all, improvisation is the key to innovation, and innovation is the key to the future.

Reinventing Big Blue

This week’s issue of Business Week magazine (September 10) has an important story about IBM in the quarterly insert that they call “Inside Innovation.” The provocative title is “Radical innovation: Lessons from IBM’s innovation factory.” In my book Group Genius, I describe how IBM has opened itself up to benefit from the power of innovation networks. I describe IBM’s “innovation jams,” on-line competitions open to anyone, around the globe, who can contribute to a technical solution. This new article adds to the story with quotations from IBM senior executives who were responsible for this sea change.

The main story is how John Kelly, the head of IBM’s semiconductor division, rescued a failing business unit by sharing its technology, and creating an “open ecosystem” with nine other companies. In 2003, the $5 billion that IBM had invested into its chips business wasn’t working out very well; that business had lost $1 billion for each of the previous two years. Chip R&D and plant construction are incredibly expensive; IBM’s recent rehabilitation of an existing plant in New York cost them $4.4 billion. This is a lot of money to put at risk of making a mistake; and one of the strengths of what I call “collaboration webs” is that they are excellent at spotting errors and weaknesses. Anyone who follows the open source software community knows about Eric S. Raymond’s famous statement, “Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow.” Now, IBM’s chip business is turning a profit.

Other IBM innovation networks include a project with Sony to design the graphics processor used in the PlayStation 3, and a collaboration with Freescale, Samsung, and others to design new manufacturing processes for chips used in consumer electronics devices.

Opening up a company is difficult, particularly if it’s a company that has a long history as an innovation powerhouse. Why do we need to go outside? After all, we’re IBM, we’ve hired the world’s best researchers! And it wasn’t easy at IBM; Business Week quotes several executives describing the push-back. I argue that it takes a strong commitment from senior management. And IBM had that: CEO Samuel J. Palmisano is on record saying “We are the most innovative when we collaborate.”

The key is, as usual, in the details. Coordinating diverse corporate cultures takes sustained effort and attention. Intellectual property issues have to be resolved, very clearly, up front. It’s important to have a set of explicit guidelines for how the day-to-day interactions will take place. And once these networks start to bear fruit, they often require organizational restructuring within each participant company.

This is a risky strategy, and when I first started writing Group Genius it still seemed a bit exotic. But when Big Blue’s collaborations make the cover of Business Week, it doesn’t seem so exotic anymore.