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Tuesday 19 August 2014

Surviving and thriving within the weird space of collaborative working: the four principles to live by

Collaborative working occupies its own weird space. This space is shot through with the energy generated by dynamic interactions and tensions focused upon what is controlled, what is shared, what is given and taken, what is valuable, and what is valuable and needs to be competed for.

At any given moment in time, those seeking to collaborate with others will be considering and acting upon any number of the following questions, which can be grouped under the headings of controlling, sharing, giving, taking, valuing, and competing: 

Questions about control

What do we control and what do we not control?
What do our partners control and what do they not control?
What can we control what can we not control?
What can our partners control and what can they not control?
What should we control and what should we not control?
What should our partners control and what should they not control?

Questions about sharing

What do we share and what do we not share?
What do others share and what do others not share? 
What can we share and what can we not share?
What can others share and what can others not share? 
What should we share and what should we not share?
What should others share and what should others not share?

Questions about giving

What do we give and what do we not give?
What do others give and what do others not give?
What can we give and what can we not give?
What can others give and what can others not give? 
What should we give and what should we not give?
What should others give and what should others not give?

Question about taking

What do we take and what do we not take?
What do others take and what do others not take? 
What can we take and what can we not take?
What can others take and what can others not take? 
What should we take and what should we not take?
What should others take and what should others not take?

Questions about value

What is valuable to us and what is not valuable to us?
What is valuable to others and what is not valuable to others?

What do we perceive as valuable and what do we perceive as not valuable?
What do others perceive as valuable and what do others perceive as not valuable?
What should we value and what should we not value?
What should others value and what should others not value?

Questions about competing

What do we compete for and what do we not compete for?
What do others compete for and what do others not compete for?
What do we need to compete for and what do we not need to compete for?
What do others need to compete for and what do others not need to compete for? 

What can we compete for and what can we not compete for?
What can others compete for and what can others not compete for?  
What do we want to compete for and what do we not want to compete for?
What do others want to compete for and what do others not want to compete for?
What should we compete for and what should we not compete for?
What should others compete for and what should others not compete for?

Given that there is so much to think about and so many questions to consider, it is not surprising that those collaborating with others find it an exhausting and complex business. This exhaustion is aggravated by the fact that the interactions and tensions between the above questions often create unexpected, counter-intuitive and perplexing results. These can be summarised by the following four principles:

  1. The more we keep the more we waste
  2. The more others take the more we gain and the less the cost the more the value  (These two ideas are so closely related that they effectively act as one principle.)
  3. The more we control the less we control
  4. The more we collaborate the more we come into conflict with others    
1. The more we keep the more we waste

Goldcorp Inc., a large Canadian mining corporation, kept all its geological data to itself. This was consistent with the accepted assumptions and practices of the sector, which instinctively tended towards confidentiality and secrecy. Over time, the company became 'data rich', but efficiency and profitability poor. This was because Goldcorp failed to realise the value others external to the organisation could add to the data by analysing, manipulating, developing and presenting it in new, innovative and useful ways. Goldcorp's data was allowed to wither on the virtual vine, its juicy bits of information never harvested and fermented into vintage wisdom and sparkling insights.   

2. The more others take the more we gain and the less the cost the more the value

Then Goldcorp's new Chief Executive decided to act counter to his sector's assumptions and practices. He made the corporation's geological data available on the web, and encouraged as many people as possible to access, take and analyse it by offering a $500,000 award for the best ideas for getting more gold out of the ground for less money. Many, many people took the information and analysed it. A healthy proportion of them provided the corporation with ideas that would help it enhance its processes and profitability. Over 110 gold sites were identified, 50% of them previously unknown to Goldcorp. 80% of these yielded significant reserves. Allowing others to take and analyse previously confidential data probably cut two or three years off Goldcorp's exploration time. It also resulted in the mining of $6 Billion worth of gold. Not a bad return for paying a $500,000 award and allowing open access to the company's geological data.   

Novartis, the global drug company, made a genomic analysis of Type 2 Diabetes (the fruits of its collaboration with several academic institutions) freely available on the Internet. A great number of scientists and researchers took advantage of this data to further their work. Many of them subsequently contacted Novartis to share their research and associated ideas and insights. This added to Novartis's pool of knowledge and provided it with additional avenues for the research and development of drug products. Also, because many of the scientists and researchers were keen to collaborate with Novartis, this research and development was done that much more quickly than otherwise. 

Again, by giving up exclusive ownership of information and encouraging as many people as possible to take and use it, Novartis increased its knowledge, quickened the process of research and development, increased and enhanced its links with leading researchers, and gained additional options for research that could lead to new and potentially lucrative drug products.

The Novatis approach to collaboration also illustrates the second closely interrelated part of this important principle: 'the less the cost the more the value'. The drug company works very closely with interested governments and complementary businesses and agencies to provide 'at cost' anti-malarial drugs to regions of Africa that urgently need them. This saves lives and helps Novartis gain credibility and soft power from the conscience capital it builds up through its involvement in the project. 

Novartis keeps its 'at cost' figures low by leveraging the economies of scale such a large project makes possible. If, as seems likely, Novartis is able to achieve these low cost figures for not only the anti-malaria project but also other areas of its business, it can use the freed-up capital to fund additional, potentially life saving research and product development.

Ensuring minimum cost to customers (many of whom are also collaborators, for example governments and public health services) enhances overall value for Novartis, certainly in terms of reputation and conscience capital, and probably in terms enhanced business efficiency, capacity and productivity.

Perhaps the most obvious example of 'the less the cost the more the value' is Wikipedia's exploitation of the seemingly infinite amount of free information available on the Internet. Wikipedia has taken this mass of free virtual information and combined it with the knowledge and expertise of a multitude of human volunteers: people who are willing and able, free of charge, to contribute to the categorising, editing and developing of Wikipedia's information. This process of combining human knowledge and expertise with virtual information often leads to knowledge, expertise and information being applied in innovative and/or useful new ways, so adding significantly to their value. A good example is Wikipedia's system of Regional Notice Boards, which enables local and global information, knowledge and expertise to be focused quickly and easily upon regional needs and interests. This regionalisation of knowledge, expertise and information would not have been so easy before the Internet and the collaboration it enables. This is because the pre-Internet costs of making regionalisation happen would have been significantly increased, causing people to question the benefit gained from their efforts.

Wikipedia continues to grow and gain ever more information and volunteers. This makes the already minimal costs continue to reduce as the potential to add value grows exponentially (what Dan Bricklin calls the Cornucopia of the Commons - also known as the Comedy_of_the_Commons).    

3. The more we control the less we control

The Government of Nepal was worried about the conservation of the forests in the foothills of the Himalayas, so it took control of the forests away from local populations and land owners.

Stripped of their responsibility for the forests, the local people became less responsible in their use of forest resources. The forests quickly deteriorated, despite the power and control exerted by the Nepal Government. The Nepal Government eventually realised its error and gave responsibility for the conservation and use of the forests back to the local populations, implementing a system of community forestry. The forests began to flourish again.

By taking control, excluding local people and policing the use of the forests the Nepal Government became less effective in halting their degradation. When it lessened its control and shared responsibility with the local communities, it became more effective in conserving the forests and ensuring they were used sustainably. More control equalled less control, and less control equalled more control.

Back in 1996, an English Metropolitan Council gained control of millions of pounds of European Community regeneration money. (To see the case study click Here and go to Case Study 4, page 59.) However, for various reasons to do with political and personal  differences, the council could not easily gain the cooperation of local partners and other stakeholders that was essential for the money's effective allocation and use. It was only when the council decided to share control of how the money was allocated and used, offering to create a strategy jointly with local partners and other stakeholders, that progress was made.   

By sharing rather than controlling the strategy, the council was better able to ensure that the money was well used.  

4. The more we collaborate the more we come into conflict

It is not always appreciated that collaboration is a two-edged sword. The more effectively we collaborate with others the more likely we are to come into conflict with those with whom we are not collaborating.

Nations collaborating through alliance systems led to the outbreak of the First World War and contributed to the prolonged conflict of the Second World War. Nations collaborating to create the nuclear bomb led directly to the tensions of the Cold War between the West and the East, tensions that have never really gone away.

Today, collaboration between Ukrainian Separatists and Russia has brought both into conflict with not just Ukraine but also Europe (a collaboration within itself) and the USA (as its title suggests, yet another collaboration within itself, if slightly more merged than Europe). Almost wherever you care to look, the formation of committed, strong and effective collaborations creates and attracts conflict, either from existing collaborative groups, or collaborative groups that are created in response to the perceived threat of a collaboration.

An interesting 'slow-burn' of a conflict (potentially fuelled by collaboration) could be developing at the top of the world. The Arctic Council, responsible for the preservation and managed exploitation of the Arctic territories (a difficult balancing act if ever there was one), consists of Arctic states with the power to make decisions, indigenous Arctic peoples with a right to permanent seats on the Council and, interestingly, a growing number of observer states and organisations with no power to make decisions, but the ability to influence the Council through making investments and providing specialist expertise. Recently, a block of Asian states (China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and India) were admitted as observer states. At the moment, historical mistrust and grievances (especially between China and Japan), differing perceptions and competing and differing interests inhibit their effective collaboration with each other. (Indeed, India may well have a policy of impeding China's influence, especially where access to and control of energy reserves are at stake.) However, if some catalyst were to appear which made collaboration between the Asian states attractive or essential, for example an urgent and pressing need for resources and guaranteed access to them, old grievances and lesser interests could be put aside. The separate Asian state observers could form into a powerful 'Asian Collaborative' that could use the combined leverage of its investments and expertise to gain influence and power within the Council and open up access to the resources it needs. This would inevitably lead to even greater collaboration between the Arctic states and the indigenous peoples to counteract the Asian states growing influence. This would be a clear example of more collaboration leading to more conflict.                        

The business world is not immune from the 'collaboration equals more conflict equation'. If we take the time to look, we can see an example developing between the energy sector and the environmental movement. As fracking's potential to bolster multiple nations' energy supplies becomes ever more clear, the interest in it from national and global energy companies grows. They have brigaded themselves in favour of fracking and are developing a unified industry position or policy towards it (for an example click here). This will inevitably encourage energy and other complementary companies to collaborate ever more closely in finding ways to increase cheap access to natural gas, increase the uses it can be put to, and maximise the profit that can be made from it. Environmentalists have noticed this 'gathering of the energy tribes' and have started to mobilise their own tribes in response, seeking and bringing together diverse organisations and interest groups that can counteract the growing influence of the allied energy companies (for an example click here). Conflict becomes ever more inevitable as the capacity of each side to collaborate increases.                                       

Allowing the four principles to inform and enhance your approach to collaborative working 

Principles 1, 3 and 4 highlight problems and difficulties to be avoided. Principle 2  highlights possible rewards and advantages to be gained. These four principles, like the four points of a compass, can help us navigate the weird world of collaborative working and gain full benefit from what it has to offer, especially when considered alongside the following questions:      

Questions to consider alongside the first principle
  • Are we keeping something to ourselves because it is easy and/or habitual to do so? (As mentioned earlier, the mining corporation Goldcorp initially kept its geological data to itself, in line with the habitual practice of its sector. It was only when this data was shared with others that Goldcorp was able to exploit its full value, improving the efficiency of its mining processes and increasing its profits.)        
  • Are we keeping something to ourselves because we fear we might lose out or be at a disadvantage if we share it with others? How do we know that this will be the outcome? (Probably at the heart of Goldcorp's initial unwillingness to share its data was an assumption or even fear that the corporation would lose something, be this a perceived competitive advantage or simply the ability to keep its financial issues and concerns to itself. The actual outcome was very different; it was an overall gain for the corporation in terms of efficiency and profit.)   
  • Are we keeping something to ourselves simply because we think it gives us status? (Interestingly, Goldcorp's Directors did not wholeheartedly support their Chief Executive's decision to share the corporation's geological data. Could it be that the Directors saw control of and access to data as powerful levers that could help maintain, emphasise and perhaps even justify their status?) 
  • Do we have resources, knowledge and people 'withering on the vine'? If so, who could help us harvest and use them to good effect? (Goldcorp's data was certainly 'withering on the vine' until people with new perspectives and ideas where able to access it and harvest its value.)    

Questions to consider alongside the second principle
  • Are we willing, at the very least initially, to give freely of what we value rather than always insisting upon exchange? (Novartis's sharing of its Type 2 Diabetes data was not conditional upon any kind of exchange. The fact that so many researchers from around the world voluntarily reciprocated with their own information and research shows the wisdom of such an approach.)     
  • Are we doing enough to search out, provide access to and combine freely available information, knowledge, expertise and other resources, and are we doing enough to exploit their value? (As the example of Wikipedia shows, searching out freely available information and knowledge, etc., and exploiting their value is crucial to a collaboration's effectiveness.)    
  • Are we doing all that we can to search out, combine and exploit differing perspectives on freely available information, knowledge, expertise and other resources? (Both Wikipedia and Novartis did not only search out, join up and connect freely available information and knowledge, etc., but also encouraged collaborators to share and combine their differing insights and perspectives concerning it. This type of creative thinking about free or commonplace information and knowledge, etc., is crucial to innovative collaborative working.)    
  • How can we make allowing people to have and do 'something for nothing' enhance our collaboration's effectiveness overall? (Again the Novartis and Wikipedia examples given above show how giving people something for nothing - and the chance to do something for nothing - can benefit all involved in a collaboration, including the givers.) 
  • How can we ensure that the growth of our collaboration results in economies of scale that can be used to cut costs and reduce the charges that have to be made to collaborators who are also customers? (Novartis's success in cutting costs by realising the economies of scale made possible because of the growth of its anti-malaria project, and its willingness to pass these savings on to customers who are also collaborators - governments and other public agencies, etc., - is a good illustration of how this can be done.) 

Questions to consider alongside the third principle 
  • Are we trying to keep control of something we cannot control or cannot control any longer? (The Nepalese Government could not single-handedly control the use of the forests they were seeking to protect; the more they tried to control forest use the less in control of it they became).
  • Are we modelling a responsible and caring approach to common pool resources, so encouraging others to do likewise, rather than merely trying to control them and limit people's access to them? (Local Nepalese people, once given back control of the forests they lived within, started to model responsible  behaviour towards forest use and preservation. This was in marked contrast to what happened when the Nepalese Government sort to control the forests through statute, rather than through encouraging and modelling responsible behaviour towards the forests' use and preservation.)    
  • Are we trying to exclude people from resources when it would be easier and more effective to involve people in their management and safeguarding? (It was certainly easier and more effective for the Nepalese Government to adopt a role supportive of local peoples' control, use, management and preservation of their forests, rather than having to spend valuable time and money on not only tending to the forests but also excluding the local people.)     
  • Are we thinking about and questioning where something might be best owned and managed and who would be best placed to do these things? (When the Nepalese Government took control of the use and preservation of the forests it clearly did not question its assumption that it was the agency best placed to do so. This proved costly in terms of increased forest degradation, which was only slowed and halted when local people took back responsibility for their forests.)    
  • Will our taking control of resources only encourage irresponsible and wasteful behaviour from others?(Ironically, it was local people who were primarily responsible for the increased degradation of the Nepalese forests during the period of direct Government control. Divested of control of the forests they felt and exhibited no responsibility for the forests. By taking total control the Government, albeit unwittingly, encouraged wasteful and irresponsible behaviour from the very people that depended on the forests the most.)          

Questions to consider alongside the fourth principle 
  • Who will our collaboration threaten? How can we reassure them, work with them or, if necessary, minimise and/or deal with the consequences of conflict with them? (Some of the Arctic states that sit on the Arctic Council felt threatened by the inclusion of five Asian states as observers. It was felt that their presence and increased influence on the council's work, which would be magnified if they began to work as a collaborating 'Asian Block', would weaken the sovereign authority of the Arctic states and begin to marginalise the influence of the indigenous peoples represented on the Council. The Asian states have sort to reassure the Arctic states by emphasising their willingness to abide by existing laws and conventions, making significant financial and specialist contributions in the ways requested by the Arctic Council, and emphasising their interest in environmental research and safeguarding both the Arctic environment and the welfare of the indigenous peoples who live there. Some of the Asian states have also sort to reassure the council by publishing their own Arctic policies, which clearly set out their vision, aims and intentions with regard to the Arctic.      
  • If we become stronger who could become (or perceive that they become) weaker? What are the implications of this over the short, medium and long terms? How could others' weakness (perceived or actual) adversely affect us? (Russia perceives an expanding European Union as threatening its influence and interests on its South West Border. This has contributed significantly to the current conflict between the Ukrainian Government and Russian backed Ukrainian Separatists, and the economic tensions, through tit for tat boycotts, experienced between Russia and the European Union. The political situation is characterised by a slow pace of development and carefully planned, set piece moves from all players. This is because each player is carefully considering and analysing the consequences of each move they make, both for themselves and others. They are keen to avoid a situation where any player feels so weakened or threatened by the other that the conflict ignites and the tensions increase, which would create a situation where all sides are damaged politically, economically or even physically through increased conflict.)       
  • How much do we respect others' valued resources, knowledge and interests and do we do enough to help safeguard them? (The actions described above and taken by the Asian states to reassure the Arctic states of the Arctic Council illustrate a strong attempt to show respect for the interests of others. In this case, however, they may be a little undermined. This is because the reasons for taking the actions ever so slightly emphasise a preoccupation with enhancing national reputation and credibility, rather than taking them because they are intrinsically the right things to do. This is a point that will not go unnoticed by one or two of the Arctic states.)     
  • If our collaboration is beginning to encroach upon areas traditionally dealt with and perceived as owned by others, do we know the traditional tolls that need to be paid and are we willing and able to pay them? What would be the consequences of not knowing or paying them? (Seal hunting and making seal products are an important part of the traditional economy and way of life of a number of Arctic states. Part of the conditions of entry - part of the toll to be paid - for a place on the Arctic Council includes an acceptance of, or at least non-opposition to, these activities. The Asian states (and Italy) were willing to pay this toll and so were granted observer status on the Council. The EC, however, has banned products made from seals. This perceived opposition to a much valued and traditional practice was enough to block the EC's application to become an observer. The EC is currently merely an 'ad hoc' observer, which means that it has to request to be present at each and every meeting. Somewhere during the process of negotiation for entry to the Council the EC must have decided that lifting its ban on seal products was a toll it was not willing to pay, and that the consequences of not being fully present on the Arctic Council were manageable and acceptable. This makes sense when you consider that several of the Arctic states and official observers are also EC members, which means the EC is almost present by proxy anyway.)                         

For more about collaboration go to: Sleeping-with-the-Enemy-Achieving-Collaborative-Success-2nd-Edition and download it for free.

Additional references: (Arctic Council background) (Paul Hartzog Lecture - source material re. competition for and excludability from information and resources) (Goldcorp data sharing) (Type 2 diabetes data sharing) (Anti-malaria collaboration) (Anti-malaria collaboration) (Nepalese forest management and other examples) (Nepalese forest management)

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