Thoughts on Collaboration for a Kennedy School Class

All – I’m coming late to this party, so beg pardon. My thoughts include:

  1. Carbon vs. Silicon. We are “carbon-based” creatures in an increasingly “silicon-based” world. We have “carbon-based” collaboration skills honed from the hunter-gatherer days. That is, “I’ve worked with Moog before, and if he looks me in the eye and says we can get that mastodon and feed the village, I’ll follow him!” I’d argue that carbon-based collaboration is “hard-wired” in homo sapiens, to scramble my metaphor. “Silicon-based” collaboration, where I may have no idea whose suggestions I’m being asked to implement, is a new phenomenon. Why should I trust a Moog synthesizer? (Sorry)
  2. A recent book, How We Decide, makes the point that decision-making is both intellectual and emotional: brain injury victims left with no emotional apparatus simply cannot make decisions. The old argument about “good” intellectual decisions vs. “bad” emotional decisions was a false dichotomy for which we can blame Plato (or not; you decide). If this is true, then the value of augmenting “silicon-based” collaboration tools with “carbon-based” interactions cannot be ignored. Occasional meetings of teleworking work groups, using SKYPE or OOVOO or other such tools should be a part of the organizational toolbox. I’ve often used the quote, “intellectual processes lead to conclusions, while emotional processes lead to decisions.” Collaboration must lead to decisions; our “carbon” side can’t be ignored. Moog lives!
  3. Stafford Beer’s Viable System Model. I can’t help but wish that Stafford Beer were around to tell us how electronic collaboration (and other forms of asynchronous instantaneous mass-free communication) affect organizations. I would treasure his insights almost as much as his company. Since my reflections would be a pale reflection of his (Sorry) I won’t make the attempt. Some face time with his VSM vis-a-vis Facebook will be useful.
  4. The Saucer and the Platter. I’ve used this analogy in discussing “the geometry of the unresponsiveness of large organizations.” Imagine a demitasse saucer covered in marbles. Now imagine the Thanksgiving turkey platter covered in the same size marbles. How many of the marbles are at the perimeter of the saucer and the platter? As a percentage of total marbles in each case? In other words, in a small organization, a MUCH higher percentage of the workers are in contact with the world beyond the organization, and can (perhaps) get their viewpoints heard up the management chain. How does “silicon-based” collaboration change this dynamic? Will the bosses in big organizations ever listen to the views of their front-line folks? There are so few of them, and they’ll be “outvoted” by the folks in the middle tiers.
  5. New Collaboration Tools. Evidently both Beer’s Viable System Model and my Saucer/Platter analogy are challenged by the new collaboration tools used by, among others, Starbucks and Dell. Organizational boundaries are dissolving before our eyes. You may have talked in class about how Dell uses Ideastorm to get ideas from customers on how to redesign laptops, but if not, here’s at least one website. The challenges of organizing WITHIN the organization to take advantage of ideas from WITHOUT the organization lead back to carbon and silicon…
  6. When I was with Al Gore and his National Performance Review, we had a strong focus on government and its “customers.” This led to discussions of how to improve the customer experience at places like DMVs and national parks. While this was undoubtedly useful, it was quite limiting. This was pointed out forcefully by Henry Mintzberg of McGill, in “Managing Government, Governing Management,” a 1996 HARBUS article. Mintzberg distinguishes four roles for people vis-a-vis government: customer, client, subject, and citizen. ANY discussion of “collaboration” that extends beyond government worker to “other” must take into consideration these different roles. One does not ask the state trouper to ‘collaborate’ with the speeding driver. Mintzberg’s website is well worth visiting.
  7. In Reorganize for Resilience, Ranjay Gulati talks about asking your customers the right questions. If you’re selling lettuce and you ask your customers whether they like red or green lettuce, in large or small heads, you’ll never anticipate the market for washed and chopped salad greens. Getting collaborations focused on the opportunities for tomorrow vs the problems of today is, however, beyond the scope of this note!
  8. Since I’m new to the discussion, allow me to introduce myself. And Jerry, sorry to bring the same ol’ pony to the party!

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