Lucas Pinz, Senior IP Technology and Architectures Manager PromonLogicalis, examines the lessons businesses can learn from the ‘Virtual Choir’, a stunning illustration of the potential for creativity and innovation inherent in ‘mass collaboration’.
"WE are smarter than ME." This is the title of a very successful book written in 2007 by Barry Libert and Jon Spector. It explores the idea that group is smarter than the individual, arguing that only a group is able to move society in large steps towards major change – that the ability to collaborate effectively has been a dominant agent of that change.
But what can we learn from their ideas in a business context? In our societies, we do not belong solely to one group - we are connected to multiple groups according to our social context and our interests. The same can be said for companies. No business can act alone. All are, by default, connected to multiple groups – and the ability to collaborate across those groups is increasingly vital to the constant change that underpins sustained success in fast moving, competitive markets driven by ever more informed and demanding customers.
The Virtual Choir
In May 2009, the American conductor Eric Whitacre created a stunning example of the power of mass collaboration demonstrating how it can deliver to wonderful results. The Virtual Choir emerged as a simple experiment in social media. Eric recorded himself conducting the poem "Lux Aurumque" (Edward Esch), uploaded the video to YouTube and called for collaborators to upload their own video, after recording themselves singing according to his virtual conduction. The result, a harmonious choir, composed of 185 voices scattered across 12 countries, speaks for itself:
In Eric’s case, the Internet was the tool that allowed the harmonious interaction of dozens of professionals conducted by a creative leader who encouraged a collaborative environment.
There is no doubt that business can follow Eric’s lead. When companies use collaboration tools correctly and the environment is conducive to cooperation, the results can be just as amazing. But, in the modern world, business collaboration must take place in three dimensions: Customers, Partners & Suppliers as well as employees.
So collaboration must be multi-faceted and enabled by a set of collaboration tools that makes sense for each group – and, as in Eric’s case, it requires both freedom for collaborators and focus for its leaders.
Customer-oriented companies pride themselves on their ability to make good use of feedback from their customers in order to develop products and better solutions. But how many of these companies actually have effective cooperation channels with their customers? Certainly, customers have a voice and power, so it is necessary for companies to have an open line of communication through collaborative tools in which the users actually see value.
For years, professors Yun M. Antorini and Albert M. Muñiz, at DePaul University in Chicago, studied Lego’s collaboration with customers. They concluded (in a survey published by MIT - Massachusetts Institute of Technology) that:
- The collaboration between company and client is more efficient when companies offer multiple interaction platforms
- Since companies and users may have different interests, companies need to develop clear organizational guidelines that effectively consider the inputs or feedback given by customers.
You only have to look again at the Virtual Choir to see the potential inherent in a company that creates sound channels and efficient collaboration with its hundreds, thousands or millions of customers. As, Tomas M. Malone, MIT professor, points out in his book "The Future of Work" - different types of collective intelligence incorporate different design patterns. This is the power of innovation through the proper use of mass collaboration tools.
Suppliers and partners
Just as important as the collaboration among employees, clients and companies, however, is collaboration with partners and suppliers – right through the supply chain. A strong collaboration is, for example, mandatory for high-tech companies, or those that have an extensive supply chain, where innovation is a key business driver. Collaboration with partners and suppliers reduces risk exposure, gives greater supply chain visibility, increases synergies and allows performance and quality monitoring.
Beyond the first step
Over the centuries, collaboration has been vital in transforming society and business. The emergence of writing, printed texts, radio / TV and the arrival of the Internet, have all underpinned large and disruptive changes in society and business.
Today we live in times of corporate decentralization, but of complete connectivity. Companies have hundreds of collaboration tools at their disposal - video, tele-presence, portals, IP telephony, ERP and so on. But, simply having access to collaboration tools is only the first step.
As Eric showed us, with his Virtual Choir, it is how those tools are made available, to whom and how their input is gathered, organised, understood and acted upon that really matters.
In short, as the business landscape becomes increasingly challenging, those that survive and prosper will have COLLABORATION in their DNA.