Collaboration for Innovation: Making Innovation Happen

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There seem to be two roads to innovation; a high road and a low road, if you like.

The high road is to transform your organization into a learning, nurturing force that uses Systems Thinking to synthesize disparate ideas into what Fritjof Capra calls "emergent forms" – new ways forward that emerge from a primordial sea of barely restrained creativity.

The low road is to follow the example of such Empires as the Mandarin Chinese and Victorian British.

There seem to be two roads to innovation; a high road and a low road, if you like.

The high road is to transform your organization into a learning, nurturing force that uses Systems Thinking to synthesize disparate ideas into what Fritjof Capra calls "emergent forms" – new ways forward that emerge from a primordial sea of barely restrained creativity.

The low road is to follow the example of such Empires as the Mandarin Chinese and Victorian British. These administrative powerhouses each developed an educational system capable of churning out highly trained functionaries who used their all-encompassing rule books to deal with anything that the mob threw at them (and still have time left over for a civilized cup of tea). Innovation by this route is simply following a set of predefined rules until you get the new approach you need.

The two approaches certainly seem different. A Systems Thinker would allow that there are common underlying patterns to most situations (and this is a strength of the approach) but still insist that to get the best from each situation human insight and intuition are the primary forces. A supporter of standardization, on the other hand, might well argue that we will one day use "innovation software" to supply the route forward sought by an organization – plug in the starting conditions and it will apply a standard algorithm to generate an automated answer.

The debate may come down to whether or not the human brain processes information in the same way as a computer.

The entrance exam for the Chinese Civil Service used to consist of being locked in a room on dry rations until you had written down everything you knew – a reasonable test of computer storage, perhaps, but probably not a test we would use nowadays to judge the value of a staff member. Though, on the other hand, we are equally unlikely to assess them by getting them to perform a torch song (unless you happen to be Japanese, that is).

However, whatever path you take to innovation nirvana, one thing is certain. The best new ideas in the world won’t make an iota of difference until you implement them. And that means getting people to work with you. Even if your innovation team consists of the best, brightest and most popular people in an organization, brains and goodwill alone are not enough to turn principles into practice.

So what is involved in "getting people to work with you?" Is it simply a management issue – assigning the right people to roles, providing them with the necessary resources, and reading regular status reports?

Well, yes, of course you need this sort of thing, but it isn't anywhere near enough on its own. For a start, new ways of working cannot just be chucked out into the wild and left to grow – they need to be coaxed along for quite a while. This means putting in place a working environment full of feedback loops – not only between different levels of management, but between workers at each management level, so that all concerned can help each other to understand which actions lead to success and which actions lead to failure. It is necessary not only to judge how effectively a new practice is contributing to corporate strategy implementation, but also how effectively it permits people to make use of the skills, knowledge and abilities they were hired for.

Further, in a working environment in which deep-seated structures may be changing (which is the nature of innovation), there must be a rock of stability on which everyone can cling when the seas of change start swelling out of control. In other words, the management structures must be both simple and standardized – management must be carried out according to a set of straightforward rules that anyone can understand, and (crucially) these rules must apply equally at all levels of the organization. Such rules must also be fully supported by software, so that:

  • People can do their "real" work without worrying too much about the mundance necessities of (for example) messaging or document sharing;

  • Statistics can be gathered quietly in the background – statistics that are actually useful, and reflect the reality of the work carried out.

What sort of picture is being painted here? It is a new way of organizing collaborative work, a way that is more democratic and more empowering. The same rules apply at all levels, people at all levels can make themselves heard, and workers finally gain the chance to work smarter not harder.

The approach is described in full in the literature on Human Interaction Management: , where you will find detailed explanation of the twenty years of research in both industry and academia that led to a new vision for collaborative work. There is also free software emerging (e.g., that supports the approach.

At this point, some readers may be thinking, "Hold on a second. We've got groupware. We’ve got knowledge management. We’ve got workflow - sorry, I meant Business Process Management. We are the collaborative enterprise. I don't need new approaches – and I certainly don't need yet more new software." All these technologies are major players in today’s business world, and the ideas underlying them are highly pervasive, so we need to look at what they offer if we are to assert that more is required.

Interestingly, each of the above-mentioned technologies is often promoted as the solution to human collaboration. But they’re very different. Groupware is about messaging and document sharing. Knowledge management doesn’t usually do messaging, but does document sharing very well - better upload and search facilities than you get in groupware, essentially. Workflow is different again - it allows people to sequence certain types of activity (data entry or document approval, for instance) - while many current incarnations of Business Process Management permit yet more powerful messaging and automation features (application integration and distributed transaction management, for instance). This situation is depicted graphically, in Figure 1: Using Existing Collaboration Tools. But where in this picture is the work, the human work, for which the person depicted is employed?

 Using Existing Collaboration Tools

Figure 1: Using Existing Collaboration Tools

It's not there, is it? Even if all the above tools are combined into a single product, from a single vendor, with a unified interface, neither individually nor as a whole, do they "understand" the real work carried out by each individual person - and thus they cannot support it. It is up to the humans concerned to keep track of what they are up to, to decide how to go about it, to locate the necessary resources, and to report on progress to their management.

So, let's suppose you are the manager of a team in the above mentioned collaborative enterprise, and that you are responsible for (to pick a process out of a hat) marketing a range of products. In order to manage your staff, you need to know what everyone is up to at a given time. How do you find out?

You can't get the information from all this so-called collaborative technology. As shown above, it's just not there. Nowhere in the types of software discussed above is there anything that tells you simply and clearly where everyone is in the processes they are carrying out - the targets they have met, the blockages they have encountered and what they are doing to work around them, the additional resources they require, their predictions for the next time period, and so on.

To find out these kinds of things, odds are you talk to the people concerned - ask them one by one, or within a team meeting, what they have been doing recently, and what they plan to do next. If you're unable to get hold of them in person for this purpose, you send them each an email asking for a status report, arrange a telephone call, or find some other informal means to get the information you need.

In other words, the basic, essential information any manager requires is not available in any of the computer systems provided for his or her use. Furthermore, the manager's staff is struggling through the work itself without the aid of any consistent and effective means to deal with all the issues that arise daily. Employees chop and change between systems as required, supplementing the work they can do via dedicated operational software applications with any tools that come to hand, from a telephone to a word processor.

Given that an ordinary desktop computer, let alone even an entry-level server, is now capable of processing nearly three billion instructions per second, and communicating at a typical speed of 100 million bits per second, this is hardly an impressive testimonial to our ability to use them effectively.

How can we still be using such primitive means of management, and such a mixed-up approach to work, when such powerful tools are available to support collaboration? Let's hand over for a moment to Loic Le Guisquet of Oracle Corporation:

"To save their knowledge workers from drowning in an ocean of emails, faxes and files, many organizations have turned to collaboration tools. They hope to tame the gigantic waves of information engulfing the workplace and sail through the rough seas with the help of these sophisticated tools.

Too often, however, collaboration tools end up being life jackets thrown to keep everyone (just about) floating. The promise of an environment where work can be carried out efficiently and decisions can be made effectively remains on shores far away.

Knowledge workers find themselves constantly shifting between various collaboration environments and business applications, interrupting the flow of their work to connect to separate tools such as calendar, shared workspaces, content repositories, Web conferencing and instant messaging. The end result of using separate collaboration tools - with their proprietary user interfaces and back-end infrastructures - is that collaboration occurs out of context with the associated business process. Users who want to collaborate must leave their primary business application and log into a number of separate collaboration tools. The collaboration becomes inefficient and fragmented, making the tools inhibitors rather than enablers for collaborative work and decision making.

The incorporation of collaboration as an integral part of business processes across customer, supplier, employee and partner constituencies can only be achieved by creating collaborative platforms; 'unified workplaces', with integrated collaboration tools and business applications. A unified workplace delivers the promise of collaborative work by putting the tools into the context of a specific business process. From aircraft design to drug development, from project management to customer service, true collaboration tools have the biggest impact when used as part of a unified workplace."

Loic Le Guisquet, senior vice president EMEA Consulting, Oracle Corporation, quoted in "The Collaborative Enterprise 2004/5," Ark Group special report, p. 20

In other words, collaboration tools, if they are to be genuinely useful, need to understand the human-driven processes within which they are used. Quoting another industry heavyweight, IBM:

Certainly we need better tools to interact with colleagues around the world in ways that engender the same level of trust and collaboration as does face-to-face interaction. Also, better ways to integrate the elements of our public and private lives - calendars, mixed-document storage — would make things easier. But by far the greatest challenges will be in creating the policies and practices that enable employers and workers to effectively virtualize their relationships.

"Global Innovation Outlook 2004", IBM, p.62 1

How are these policies and practices to be embedded in groupware or knowledge management? How, even, can they be embedded in workflow or Business Process Management, when most things that people do all day -document preparation, physical or virtual meetings with others, research, even such abstract but essential activities as thinking and decision making - find no place in the modeling techniques applied to implement such systems?

If you are impressed by the power of collaboration tools such as groupware, wikis, shared whiteboards, and so on, yet long at the same time for the management advantages that come with more regulated workflow/BPM, Human Interaction Management is where to look. The next source of competitive advantage lies in innovation, yes – but first you have to make it happen. And that means organizing your workforce, which in the words of analyst firm Mckinsey requires new techniques and new tools:

"... coming soon is software that could solve some of the most nagging challenges to the systematic organization of the workforce. As personal and handheld computers reach a critical mass in the workplace, workforce-management software will probably become ubiquitous."2

©2006 Keith Harrison-Broninski

Keith Harrison-Broninski is a consultant, researcher and software developer working at the forefront of the IT and business worlds. He is author of the landmark book Human Interactions: The Heart And Soul Of Business Process Management. ( He can be reached at




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