Collaboration: Not Just an Internal Virtue

We usually think of collaboration as a good thing. But we also usually think of it as something we do internally—in order to compete with the external world. This is a viewpoint which has proven harmful in the past.

The future of collaboration is not just internal, but external as well—with various stakeholders, particularly including customers and suppliers.

Old Collaboration: Us Against Them

As the Deputy Dean of Academic Affairs at Harvard Business School puts it, “Today, more than ever, business is a competitive endeavor. At the same time, management is a more collaborative endeavor.”  That’s the old view–collaboration as a management technique, practiced in service to a competitive-based strategy.

Jack Welch’s term “boundarylessness” captured this introverted form of extroversion perfectly:  it was boundarylessness, right up to the corporate boundary. At that point, it became us vs. them.

The Dangers of Limiting Collaboration to Internal Only

Google recently got slammed for its Buzz product introduction, which seemed blind to concerns about privacy.  The problem was not testing: Google routinely runs massive tests on new product introductions–but it does so internally. Had Google tried to collaborate with some non-Google folks, someone might have clued them in about the suspicious world outside the inner walls at Mountainview.

And that’s not a unique example. Toyota is currently paying the price for low levels of external collaboration—despite excellent levels of internal collaboration.

I remember vividly the first class on my first day of my first year at business school. It was a consumer marketing case, about introducing a new product. I and everyone in the class concluded it was a horrible idea; none of us could envision buying the product.

The joke was on us; the product was a huge success. The lesson? Never do market research on yourself.

Collaborating with your teammates is good for speed and efficiency. But external collaboration connects you with the world outside. Big stakes.

New Collaboration Reduces Risk by Going External

Conventional wisdom declares collaboration to be an internal management tactic. The collaborative capitalist view is that collaboration is no longer a tactic, but a strategy for more successfully engaging the outside world on terms other than solely competitive.

2 replies
  1. deborah nixon
    deborah nixon says:

    I agree Charlie. This is why I recommend that clients not only survey employees about their attitude towards the company but their external stakeholders as well.  You can achieve high levels of employee engagement but not see that translate into increased sales.  At times, the organization is so inner focused it forgets its reason to exist is to serve customers.  Organizations feel satisfied when employee engagement numbers are good-they give themselves a pat on the back.  But the best measure is what is the market saying about you.

  2. Raul Colon
    Raul Colon says:

    It is curious how companies keep on making the same mistakes by staying away from external collaboration. Culturally from where I am from they are very resistant to collaborating externally and I see countless times where an opportunity is missed because of lack of external cooperation. 

    Every day I try to demonstrate the benefits of collaborating outside of companies and the established business circles and I have seen a few successful efforts but it is a continuing battle. 

    Great Post!


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