Problems With Open Collaboration

A recent article in Strategy+Business (a magazine published by booz&co) notes the pitfalls of open collaboration: tapping into the power of emergent, bottom-up social networks to generate innovation.  The companies that have been successful with it are well known:  IBM with its innovation jams, and P&G with its open innovation strategy.  But other companies often struggle to realize the benefits.  The article’s basic premise is that open collaboration is similar to the “quality” movements of the 1980s (remember TQM?)  The article notes:

Today, practitioners of open collaboration are picking up, in some ways, where the quality movement left off. They are working to tap the knowledge and creativity of a broad range of constituents, including employees and suppliers. In the process they are also rethinking their organizational structures and systems. Most important, at the core of both the quality and open collaboration movements (and sometimes it’s unclear where one leaves off and the other begins) are the values of trial-and-error learning, open communication, and systems thinking. Both movements recognized that employees — given the right tools, training, and management environment — are in the best position to do the analysis needed for meaningful improvement and innovation.

So what held back the quality movement?  Hierarchical thinking; truly listening to the ideas of the rank and file; making the long-term commitment to professional development and cultural change.  Of the seven suggestions the article lists for better success, I found three compelling: (1) Build a culture of trust and open communication; (2) Build a flexible innovation infrastructure; (3) Align evaluations and rewards.

6 thoughts on “Problems With Open Collaboration

  1. I think that’s exactly it!

    And I’m sympathetic: open collaboration is hard to do right. It’s not a quick fix and it forces you to challenge some deep-seated assumptions.

  2. I consulted and taught quality practices, including 6 sigma, over the course of many years. I chose to stop for a variety of reasons, one of the biggest being my frustration that many companies ‘talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk’ in terms of what was needed for long term, sustained success which are “given the right tools, training, and management environment — [employees] are in the best position to do the analysis needed for meaningful improvement and innovation.” So I question if the Open Collaboration movement will fall victim to the same thing. My bet is yes…but hopefully a few more companies will make a genuine change in their mental models.

  3. I think that article is a lot of bluster and supposition. It’s someone who is so sure of his point, but has no ability to prove his position other than to appeal to “common sense.”

    Groups don’t necessarily innovate, semantically, but individuals CANNOT innovate without groups. If you lock a genius in a room by himself he may come up with some useful ideas, but he will have no ability to hone them.

  4. I enjoyed that article in Forbes by Dan Woods, because I like a good argument! I have two thoughts in response: One is that his article is the usual “non but” argument that reductionists use to explain complex phenomena: “the group’s creativity is nothing but the individuals in the group.” A second thought is that yes, there is always a need to incorporate both individual explanations and group explanations in accounts of creativity. The scientific community is always working towards the best balance of these tensions and the explanation might be different with each case of innovation.

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