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Supernatural, and the Zen of Collaboration

In February 2000, Carlos Santana won an astonishing nine Grammy Awards for his album, “Supernatural.” It was a great day of celebration for me. Carlos Santana is a musical genius and has never wavered from his relentless quest for breakthrough and innovation. His artistry is undeniable.

“Supernatural” was Santana’s 37th album. Thirty-seven (!)—most of them great, some of them merely fabulous. (To put it into perspective, the Beatles only released either 10 or 12 albums, depending on whether you count the two imports.)

The Grammys that Santana won that night, after 32 years in the music industry, were his first ever. What happened? Did Carlos Santana suddenly get that much better? What made the difference between all those great records, and this one?

Here’s what: Another genius, Clive Davis of Arista Records, had the vision to take Santana from merely great to Grammy winner by suggesting that Santana collaborate with some of the rising stars in pop music at the time, Wyclef Jean, Lauryn Hill (both of whom were veterans of the great and sadly missed Fugees), Rob Thomas, and with some graybeards like Eric Clapton....

Collaboration is the living example of the power of synergy. One plus one equals more than two. Clive Davis knew it. Carlos Santana learned it. And businesses are sensing the same influences as they shift from a cost- and efficiency-based model to an innovation and differentiation model. Santana made 37 great albums, but he’s only made one winning album.

“Every customer we talk to is looking for a way to accelerate their innovation,” says Chris Groves, president, CEO and founder of Centric Software. Centric focuses on the manufacturing space, where collaboration among internal teams is equally critical as collaboration across supplier networks. “The basis for competition (in manufacturing) is variety tailored to taste. Companies struggle to differentiate. It’s a response to the fundamental movement among consumers around choice,” Chris says.

And as always, it’s a trade-off. At one extreme is the “new” public, whose expectations of personalized service and one-to-one marketing has reversed the uniform consumer expectation of the ’50s (“I want one just like the Joneses”) with a cult of the different (“I want one like the Joneses, except in Tawny Metallic, with the LL Bean option package and the 4.2 liter engine. Oh, and a CD player.”)

Collaboration is what brings this to life. If the same old German guys kept designing cars, they’d all look like Wolfsburg Edition VWs forever. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just not in tune with the zeitgeist.

“One thing you have to remember,” says Chris, “is that if you own a BMW, 70% of that car was made outside of BMW.” And the variety tailored to taste, that Chris likes to talk about, stems from the collaboration.

But collaboration is easier spoken of than accomplished. Today’s significant manufacturers and service providers are global in size, organizationally layered and functionally separated in so many ways that collaboration is nearly impossible to do in real space and time. That’s where technology comes in:

“Every customer of ours has a war room,” describes Chris. “This is a physical place where designers and marketers and engineers get together and go over plans and designs. Teams in charge of any project of importance, or any project in trouble, work here. There are drawings pinned to the walls, and so forth, and this is the place where meetings and reviews take place.

“More often than not there are teams in far-flung offices who should collaborate together, but it’s difficult to fly them in, etc. SO guess what they do? They literally take down the walls, pack them up and ship them out to other offices for meetings! “We create a virtual place for that room. It’s still very much modeled after the way they already work, it’s just a richer, software equivalent. Where there’s usually a clay model of the car, in our room—we call them Innovation Centers—there are 3-D models.” Chris continues: “The key is that we don’t enforce any new way of doing things. It’s still a war room. You just don’t have to go there.”

The fundamental characteristics of these virtual spaces don’t change much from one implementation to the next, but the mix of tools and support technologies used by the collaborators change often. “You can’t expect groups from different organizations to standardize on a basic CAD program or a design template. You have to let people work the way they already work.” In the “old days” a certain amount of political coercion from the IT department was commonplace. IT mandated what tools everyone would use. But when 70% of the car is made by somebody else, there’s no chance that standardization could survive.

If You Build It, Will They Come?

Just because you CAN create an environment where people can collaborate, it doesn’t mean they will. Peter Auditore, VP of U.S. Marketing at Hummingbird, has logged thousands of air miles talking to customers about one thing: How can we make it easier to collaborate?

In Peter’s worldview, innovation depends on collaboration. And collaboration depends on trust. “You have to create an environment, from management down, of trust. Trust that the individuals will make the right decisions ... most of the time anyway,” he asserts. “When you talk about collaboration and knowledge sharing, you’re into the realm of industrial psychology. That’s why collaboration is so difficult. People misunderstand that it’s not a technology issue,” Peter explains. And that’s why, he says, so many so-called KM initiatives fail. “Unless there’s a strong commitment to trust and a knowledge-sharing culture, it is probably going to fail.”

I always find it sort of spooky how much of the buzz around collaboration and KM preoccupied with touchy-feely issues like “trust” and “empowerment” and “sharing cultures.”

For example, just today, Microsoft announced its initiatives for next-gen Web Services. “We call it ‘TrustBridge,’ announced Microsoft’s director of Web Services, apparently with a straight face. He went on to explain that, thanks to this empowering technology, “basically two companies can trust each other ... one company can give access to resources to users in another company in a very simple way.” The same news service even made it a point to note that Sun Microsystems is countering with a competing suite of products they plan to call “Liberty Alliance.”

Trust? Liberty? Empowerment? What’s going on here? If you didn’t know better you’d think it was a Tuesday episode of Oprah with Dr. Phil.

Yet, it’s true. It’s not the first time that KM-connected issues have evoked such personal analogies as “empowerment,” but collaboration, by its nature, begs the outer edges of the envelope. It “significantly transcends technology,” asserts Peter (and I agree) and almost escapes it altogether.

Almost.

“You’ve got to have your house in order first. I’ve spoken to customers who want to ‘do KM.’ So I ask them if they even have decent federated search technology in place, or a content management system. It’s amazing how few of them do. The analysts say that 50% of the world’s businesses do not have even the most basic of document management. I say it’s more like 75%.”

Peter Auditore is most certainly NOT Dr. Phil, and lands back on planet Earth with a thud when the subject of technological readiness comes up. “You can do a Google search on me right now and come up with hundreds of hits, any of which can give you information about who I am, where I work, and so forth. And yet some guy could steal my identity and mess up my credit rating, and the credit reporting companies would never even figure it out. They don’t use the technology that is available to them.”

“The market is strewn with a myriad of products,” he writes. “These enabling technologies include enterprise information portals, knowledge management, information retrieval and search, document/content management, collaborative computing, workflow/business process management and business intelligence.” This is not trivial stuff, and should allow us to be the “smartest” generation of humans to ever walk around on planet Earth. And yet, he points out, our own intelligence organizations couldn’t prevent a known bad guy from obtaining a travel visa, leading to disastrous results last September. It could be, as he adds, that the KM and collaboration space is also “perhaps one of the most confusing and chaotic in the industry.”

What’s the answer? Simple teaching and learning from those who might know a little bit more. Even though innovation is a mercurial thing, hard to pinpoint and difficult to pass on, “there’s no reason the younger people in an organization can’t learn from the graybeards,” Peter says. “There ARE best practices,” he insists. And you need to leverage the knowledge of mentors. “Create a place where young people can come in to ask the stupid questions,” he advises. “That’s how you learn.”

The Zen Part

Right now, I’m listening to an interview on our local “grassroots radio.” The guest in the studio is Bill Payne, keyboardist extraordinaire of Little Feat (the greatest American rock and roll band, don’t even bother to argue with me on this point).

“Creativity is like sneaking up on a glass of water,” he says. I have no idea what that means, but if you stay with it for a while, it reveals a truth: That in many ways, a finished product is always there, waiting to be discovered. The trick is, like Michelangelo argued, to reveal what’s already there.... “I start with a block of marble and take away everything that’s not supposed to be there.”

In every organization is the potential to be great. Some fail to see what’s right in front of them. Some fail to make it safe for members of the team to reach their potential. In a time when “careers” last maybe six years, tops, and the most intense leverage you can apply is inside your head, how do you encourage the environment of trust and the atmosphere of sharing that both Chris and Peter want to foster?

You do several things, as the essayists in this White Paper point out.

1. You make it worth their while. That can be with compensation. Or it can be with recognition. In the automobile design segment that Chris lives in, there are many times that an idea doesn’t make it into a car. Does that make it a bad idea? Does that mean the designer shouldn’t be encouraged to do it again?

2. You make it OK to goof. And if you do it right, they learn to trust you. There can be no trust if the people in your organization are punished if they make a mistake. In mistakes there is discovery and learning. Allow them to happen.

3. You trust them. If one in 10 of the ideas you have in a year works, and makes the company money, you’re pretty happy, right? How come the people in your organization have to be right 100% of the time?

As Peter Drucker reminds us, the participation of knowledge workers in our organizations is basically voluntary. “They leave at 5 p.m., and we pray like hell they come back the next morning,” he says.

Prayer? Sounds like Dr. Phil stuff to me. And maybe there’s something to that after all.


Andy Moore is an editor by profession and temperament, having held senior editorial and publishing positions for more than two decades. As a publication editor, Moore most recently was editor-in-chief and co-publisher of KMWorld (formerly ImagingWorld) Magazine. Moore now acts as a contract editorial consultant and conference designer.As KMWorld's Specialty Publishing Editorial Director, Moore acts as chair for the current series of "Best Practices White Papers," overseeing editorial content, conducting market research and writing the opening essays for each of the white papers in the series. He can be reached at andymoore_moore@verizon.net and welcomes feedback and conversation.

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