30. Collaboration Zeitgeist
[col·lab·o·ra·tion] is a word we seem to hear quite a lot lately. This gallicism finds its roots in the latin collaboratus, “work with.” Ironically, it entered the English language at about the same time Darwin came up with his theory of evolution (the expression “survival of the fittest” was actually coined by his contemporary, philosopher Herbert Spencer).
Although the industrial era unleashed upon our civilization a great era of competition, where the person “most fit” for any job would harvest the lion’s share and leave the others fighting for the crumbs, it’s pretty clear that the idea of collaboration has probably been around for… well… ever! By definition, collaboration is “the action of working with someone to produce or create something” (Oxford American). We can easily understand how collaboration allowed early humans to evolve, not physically but socially, from harmless prey to fierce predators, capable of going for the big game. Together.
[to·geth·er] is etymologically even more interesting. It can be traced back, without much variation, even in its many branches, to the language spoken by early Europeans – before sanskrit, greek and latin –, to a word that meant “to gather.” Hunting and gathering were clearly collective endeavours, of which sedentarization and the turn towards agriculture are only a logical continuation.
Flash forward to our rapidly developing social media era – where individuals connect, share, discuss, learn and exchange, without much need for intermediation; in which, we “hunt and gather” the latest viral video, bitcoins, and make sense of the world. Two hundred years after the industrial revolution, it’s becoming clearer and clearer that we will not be able to out-compete each other to collective (and inclusive) greatness. Some, like Jeremy Rifkin, speak of a “third” industrial revolution. One where “laterality” transforms the way the interact. Collaboration, the wishy washy underdog of capitalism, seems to be under the spotlight again.
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The changing landscapes of work
So, if collaboration was the backbone of the organization of work in early human tribes, how does its comeback to the avant-scène impact contemporary management? In its 2008 The New Collaboration white paper, IBM boldly announced that “from forward-thinking business leaders to younger workers who have grown up in the Web-based world, working collaboratively is now business as usual.”
Over the last five years, several concrete applications of these new ways of working have been showcased, notably thanks to the spread of inspirational, TED-style videos. 37signals founder Jason Fried’s bestseller, REWORK, elegantly embodies this transformation of how new leaders conceive work.
Cisco’s Chief Futurist David Evans is interested by how the Internet of Everything (the constant, dynamic interconnection of people, devices, data, etc.) is meant to further impact the rapid transformation of our work routines – if routines are to remain at all. He glances at when and where we work together, and how we get our ideas in The Workplace of the Future: Connected, Collaborative, Creative.
Maybe Monique Svazlian in a Huffington Post blog post, The Future of Work: the Art of Collaborative Leadership, summed it best: “The future of work as we know it is shifting from an outdated directive approach toward collaborative frameworks that inspire us to engage in new and different ways with our work and with each other.”
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It is said that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. For five years, participants in the Summer School on Management of Creativity in an Innovation Society all got a glimpse of how the new economy is reshaping work and the myriad ways to manage it. And this year, a handful of them, namely Aline, Geneviève and Lisa sure had their share of the collaborative pudding!
We must say, we have experienced, lived [and breathed] collaboration intensively for two whole weeks. As part of the Summer School, we believe to have been in a position where we can now share our thoughts on what collaboration means in the new “working” context.
It all started when we decided to put together a Collaborative note-taking platform for #yulbcn2013 for this year’s Summer School participants. It was basically a publicly accessible Google document notebook, where the wider public (school alumni, Mosaic partners, etc.) could look in while participants were invited to contribute their own notes – about a dozen did, on a sporadic basis. The idea was based on the Open Brain initiative that f. & co had created and curated for C2-MTL.
We were down on our keyboards, writing, taking notes, completing each other’s sentences, anticipating each other’s next words in order to prepare our next (text) move. While one of us would write down a speaker’s talk almost verbatim, others could correct typos, add subtitles, organize in bullet points or complement with outside links.
What did we create, you may ask? How can taking notes be an act of “creation”? Well, in the end, we were able to put together a collective memoir, a journal integrating the content of all conferences and notes from the speakers in both Montreal and Barcelona. The result is over 180 pages thick. Yes, that’s right, almost a book! A fully-documented report, benefiting all, to which anyone – those who attended and those who couldn’t – can go back to retrieve key thoughts, quotes, insights, etc. As a matter of fact, the document was already used as reference as participants were writing blog posts and reviews during the Summer School.
More than a testimony of what happened during those intense two weeks, we created a legacy of knowledge, capturing not only words, but a spirit, a state of mind, which can be referred to for the months and years to come whenever a participants needs some background to inform a project, a report or an important decision.
Above and beyond the outcome, which is in and of itself pretty impressive (more was captured than anyone could ever have on his own), what was interesting was the process behind this collaborative notebook.
As mentioned, this social workflow enabled us to simultaneously take notes, edit, complement each other’s notes and thoughts. It was productive and efficient, of course, but most importantly, we were never worried about missing out on key info when we had to go to the washroom, daydreamed for a moment or, the tragedy, when our battery died. We were focused, paying attention, but never worried. We were even able to stop, think and reflect, while the notes kept “writing themselves.” This was true for everyone of us. We truly got each other’s back.
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Back to Basics
There are three basic ingredients for the success of such an initiative.
Trust. Trust that the others will work well, as good as you would. Trust that no one will take away, own or dispossess what you wrote down, not any more than you would erase their own. Trust that, as you turn off the computer for the night, the document will still be around the next day, exactly as you left it, or if not, richer still. Trust that everyone will be as good a custodian of the collective work as you are.
Openness, to the whole idea. Letting others curl up into your own mind, which inevitably, as you co-create something, becomes a second instinct. Ever spent a few weeks traveling with a fellow companion, a loved one, a parent, and started completing each other's sentences? Collaboration requires that you strive to attain what Csikszentmihalyi calls a state of flow, a moment when you become one with your work, with the group, and forget to think about all the parameters that make them possible.
Respect. Because not everyone writes as fast, or notices the same words, the same things. While some may want to contribute more visually and more synthetically, others will type as fast as one speaks, creating a verbatim of the world as it unravels before their eyes. Collaboration doesn't require homogeneity. On the contrary, it strives on the celebration of heterogeneity, on the coming together, as one mind, of the various talents necessary for the task at hand.
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The wisdom of the many
Naturally, the more people are involved and the more accessible the activity becomes, the more the quality of the material is at risk of falling. This is what internet guru and New York University Clay Shirk, explains in his 2008 book Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Giving the example of the printing press, Shirky explains how the first goal of the invention was to provide cheap access to the Bible. However, fast enough technological capacity and growing demand created a whole new market for novels. Since the printing press was no longer the sole preserve of a selected few, authors and their various literary types flooded the public space: cheap romantic novels, dull travelogues and, sometimes, grand classics were made available to the masses.
As Shirky points out, abundance may lead to a drop in average quality, but diversity expands the range of the possible and can lead to more exceptional work. Transposed to collaboration, in our case collective note-taking, it is fundamental that each and everyone respects and remains open to others’ participation in order to let the best of each individual come through. In the end, it is the whole that comes out victorious.
The ways of collaboration are mysterious, but in many ways, it is through a series of writings like this one - "30. Collaboration Zeitgeist" is the 30th and last contribution of the series - that we can hope to achieve a better understanding. A text that's greater than the sum of its parts and, framing the frame, one that was written by five of the minds that bring collaboration, in all its forms, to your steps. And though this series is over, keep reading. We're not quite done changing the world yet.
This text is part of a series written in the context of the Fifth edition of the Montreal-Barcelona Summer School on Management of Creativity, organized by Mosaic HEC Montréal and Universitat Barcelona, July 9 to 24, 2013.
Illustration by Studio 923a. Read all posts in the series at blog.fandco.ca/yulbcn.