Not quite, but you’d better start learning how to “do” collaboration. Competency needs grow out of cultural, economic and organizational demands. And today’s world, more and more, needs the skills of collaboration.
The manufacturing age, which began with Henry Ford in the early 1900’s, focused on manufacturing’s needed competency: managing. Employees weren’t knowledge agents. They pounded widgets and followed orders, and everyone, bosses and ordinary employees, was fairly clueless about leadership. The only related term was “leader.”
A leader was the next rung up the manufacturing ladder from us peasants (I spent my year off from college—summer 1957 to spring 1958—in a Detroit manufacturing plant. And I was one of those peasants. But, since it was Detroit at the height of the manufacturing age, I made a huge pot of money, got my shit together, and went back to college and graduate school. Astute move.) The ascending order of company hierarchy was peasant (or whatever), leader, foreman, supervisor, then white collar executives who drove big Detroit cars. The leader was merely a very low level manager, responsible for five to ten people and their widget production. He usually drove a little Detroit Chevy, Plymouth or Ford. I had a great leader for my manufacturing education. You might find my experience very enlightening, here.) But the leader was totally a very controlling manager. He wasn’t interested in your ideas. He was not what we think of today as a leader.
By the 1970’s there was a fair amount of clarity on managing. When the explosion of technology in the 1980s demanded a different kind of smarts—Drucker’s knowledge worker—leadership was required to manage those people. Unlike my experience in Detroit, organizations began to realize that we humans weren’t merely peasants or robots. So the talk circled around the need for leadership, the definition of leadership, the differences between leading and managing, and questions of whether leaders are born or made. (They’re made!)
But society, economics and business continue their volatile move into the future. And in today's world, the great need for competency is the discipline of collaboration.
Don’t be too quick to say that you know how to collaborate. Few do. It’s a tough skill to navigate. Like leadership, there are no born collaborators. And it’s very easy to go off the rails when you’re attempting to “do” collaboration, wondering what the hell just happened.
The first major shot across the bow on the subject of collaboration is Morton Hansen’s Collaboration: How leaders (there’s that word again) avoid the traps, create unity, and reap big results. It’s exceptionally good for the first pass at a major business subject. (Although not nearly as much fun as the first major shot at leadership by Warren Bennis. But no business writer can match the fun in Bennis and I’ll be very sorry to see his smarts and literary brilliance pass off the scene. God, what a well-rounded, well educated, highly practical, humanistic thinker!)
But back to Hansen. It takes him 14 pages to get around to defining his subject (He needed a better editor). He talks about it as the process by which people from different units work together in cross-unit teams on a common task or provide significant help to each other. Though accurate, his definition is pretty flat, lacking pizzaz. But, as I said above, there ain’t many Bennises.
Where Hansen is especially useful is his in analysis of what is and is not collaboration, when to use it and when not to use it, and what it can do for an organization.
In chapter 2, Hansen lays out his case for collaboration. Though his rationale is simple-minded and obvious, it’s exceptionally important and highly reflective of business needs today. Don’t forget, everything is obvious once you know the answer (see Duncan Watts). Hansen sees better innovation, better sales, and better operations providing a huge rationale for the competency. And he supplies a superb set of examples to explain his rationale. Every organization from P&G and Norwest Bank to British Petroleum.
Hansen needs to make much clearer that because of the knowledge explosion, no single person in business today, no single division or group, has the intelligence to create a product or service ready for the consumer to buy. You’re simply going to have to access a lot of smarts, from more than one place, or else you’ll get beat up badly by the companies that do understand and act upon the knowledge explosion. I wish that was obvious, but sadly, it isn’t. That’s one of the reasons many companies go bankrupt and disappear from the stock market.
Why so tough?
Though I have both extensive education and extensive experience in the field of collaboration it's still tough as nails to pull off. For a number of reasons. We have all these business silos still very much in place and their members aren’t interested in cross-silo collaborating, even when needed. Indeed, collaborators often find themselves in hostile territory attempting to pull off collaboration. Hansen’s comparison of Sony and Apple makes the point exceptionally well.
Another related issue, just as important, is that a huge portion of the business population is congenitally incapable of collaboration. It seems not to be in the genes. It's like strategic thinking. Ninety-five percent of business folk are incrementalists and can't think strategically. The training in collaboration, thus far, is also piss-poor. And long term, when organizations get around to recognizing the absolute necessity for the competency, they may have to terminate some of their folk to fulfill their organizational needs and succeed financially.
Collaboration relationships between business people and their clients is just downright terrifying to many. They have no models for collaboration, no personal experiences of the subject, and frankly, don’t really believe it can be pulled off. But as Apple has proved exceptionally well (in spite of their fascist leader, Jobs), great success in the knowledge economy absolutely requires the competency of collaboration.
It’s plainly obvious that long term, collaborative abilities are going to be more important than leadership. Besides, if you can “do” collaboration, you can "do" leadership. Leadership is merely (that’s right, “merely”) a subset of effective collaboration.
Photo fm Flickr: by starheadboy