Saturday, June 20, 2009

Think collaboration!

IN Post-Capitalist Society, Peter Drucker wrote: “Every few hundred years, there occurs a sharp transformation ... Within a few short decades, society rearranges itself – its worldview, its values, its social and political structure, its arts, its key institutions. Fifty years later, there is a new world ...”

In many ways, we are in the midst of this new world being shaped. In a discussion recently, a Malaysian CEO mentioned how difficult it was to beat online competitors.

“It’s almost impossible to win. We try to kill our competition but they seem to be mushrooming everywhere!” the CEO said.

What this CEO failed to realise was that the way to win in this new world is significantly different.

Instead of killing and fighting competitors, the new world requires a new set of skills for leaders.

In the past, winning in business, politics and almost anything meant defeating your competition.

When the Europeans came to the Americas, they usually defeated all the native Red Indian tribes by killing its leader and then watching the tribe crumble.

The same was true in business – MAS vs AirAsia, Pepsi vs Coke – each outwitting the other. But the new world calls for a different set of engagement rules to win.

In 2005, MGM, BMG and other entertainment companies sued Grokster, a small company providing peer-to-peer (P2P) services, allowing users to share music and software files over the Internet.

Before that, they sued and bankrupted Napster, a similar P2P provider.

After defeating Grokster, they sued and defeated Kazaa, eMule and other P2P companies. They even started suing individuals who downloaded music illegally.

To their dismay, even though they kept winning these legal battles, more P2P companies were set up all over the world. Then emerged a winner – Apple. Instead of trying to “kill” P2P applications, Apple adopted the P2P model but legalised it.

Apple struck a deal with the recording labels to allow users to download files at marginal fees via iTunes. Apple reinvented the conventional model and built a collaborative model.

Back to the Red Indian example – only one Indian tribe remained undefeated for 200 years, the Apaches.

How did the Apaches survive undefeated against the Spanish and other mighty armies?

Through a collaborative leadership model. Apache leaders, called Nant’ans, kept changing. Geronimo, a famous Nant’an, never commanded an army but was rather a spiritual leader. Whenever a Nant’an died, a new one emerged, not by appointment but by a collaborative process.

People followed a Nant’an because they wanted to and not because they had to. This collaborative leadership model enabled the Apaches to survive.

In recent times, we have seen this collaborative leadership model being deployed even by terrorist organisations like Al-Qaeda. How could Osama bin Laden, a man operating out of a cave become so powerful? Because Osama never took a traditional leadership role.

Many CEOs today lead by command and control mode. The collaborative leadership model is about engaging everyone in the leadership process.

But it’s not just with leadership. Businesses are collaborating with customers on new products and innovation. YouTube and Twitter enable collaborative marketing, and new newspapers are being launched through collaborative journalism.

The Huffington Post has grown to be a major online newspaper by leveraging the power of collaborative journalism.

It has huge reach and unlike the New York Times, which has 1,332 newsroom employees, Huffington Post only employs a total staff of 50. It has more than 1,800 “volunteers” who write daily for free from all over world.

Some collaborative businesses are run entirely by the general public and not a CEO. Since Wikipedia was launched online as “the free encyclopedia that anyone can edit,” it has become the largest depository of information surpassing all other encyclopedias.

Articles in Wikipedia are written collaboratively by unpaid volunteers throughout the world, edited and policed to ensure no one falsely adds or destroys information.

Wikipedia is a 100% collaborative business where its founders are not its leaders, but the collective community of editors, writers, and police volunteers.

Mozilla, another collaborative company, competes against Microsoft, Apple and Google at the same time as it collaborates with them.

Mozilla’s Firefox has no employee while Microsoft hires top engineers, yet Firefox gets updated daily by volunteers.

In fact, in 2004, Mozilla’s users banded together and raised US$250,000 to help advertise the release of Firefox 1.0 in the New York Times.

Collaboration is not just limited to information technology or technology companies. Southwest Airlines and AirAsia have both successfully engaged their customers to collaborate with them to lower their costs through downloading and printing their own airline tickets. Toyota employs collaborative teams to build their cars from scratch.

The idea of sharing ideas and innovation between competitors is against every business rule book.

Research and development is traditionally protected fiercely and so, the idea of providing propriety information for others to learn off seems crazy.

Rob McEwen, chairman and CEO of Goldcorp in Canada, completely changed the gold mining world when he triggered a gold rush by issuing a challenge to the world by opening all his propriety mining data.

Then he asked the world to help him study the data and find out where the next 6 million ounces of gold were. And he offered a prize of US$575,000, in his Goldcorp Challenge.

McEwen knew that the contest entailed big risks as it exposed the company and its propriety information. But he knew the risks of continuing to do things the old way was worst.

He knew he would attract the attention of world-class talent to the problem of finding more gold and speed up exploration.

His risk paid off when Australian Nick Archibald, who had never visited Canada, used 3-D software to identify key areas to mine.

Not only did the contest yield copious quantities of gold, it catapulted the under-performing US$100mil Goldcorp into a US$9bil juggernaut.

Leaders that embrace this collaborative model understand that success is not built on “killing the competition” or a “win-lose” model but by collaboratively engaging the world to help you succeed. The collective wisdom of the “world” always produces better innovative output.

Unilever through sources the best ideas and intellectual property from all over the world and then partners with the idea generator to build a business around the idea.

So how can I apply this to my organisation? If you have a problem and need a plan – your best bet is often to throw together a group of talented individuals and let their collective creative energy go to work.

Collaboration works through a combination of passion and purpose, so get people who deeply care about the issue and have a vested interest in solving it.

Collaboration is not new. Early history suggests that tribal systems of collaboration and cooperation, based on trust and kinship, were the norm. This predates the power and competition-based hierarchies of today.

The effectiveness of collaborative movements, like the leaderless Alcoholic Anonymous, touching millions through shared ideology, highlights that the future depends on your collaborative capability.

The Internet has created a collaborative infrastructure and interface for the 21st century. People can participate in the economy like never before. This change presents far-reaching opportunities to collaborate for every company and for every person.

The skills of leadership in the future will be about sharing everything with everyone and trusting people to support and grow with you. So stop being obsessed with “killing” your competition ... Think collaboration!

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