The Future of Collaboration Isn't What It Used To BeCollaboration is not just a word, or tool, or outcome. It is a value system, a mindset that we choose to live and work by. It determines whether we see ourselves as the center of our universe, around which everything revolves, or whether We the People are the universe, an interdependent, networked ecosystem.

I’m intrigued, amused even, by the expression “the future isn’t what it used to be” coined by French poet Paul Valery to describe European pessimism after World War I. Understandably, many found it hard to envision a future as they looked out over the devastation of their past. In 2008, journalist Joel Garreau linked what he considered “a decline in American willingness to think hard about the future” with feeling overwhelmed by the pace of technological change. He quoted Danny Hillis,

I don't think people try to imagine the year 2050 the way we imagined 2001 in 1960. Because they can't imagine it. Because technology is happening so fast, we can't extrapolate."

Collaboration is mitigating the technologically-accelerated transformation of our world by making it seem more familiar, more manageable, like a return to the tent-pegs of our past that we hold dear. If hope is the assured expectation of things not beheld (the aspirational aspect of technology and change), then collaboration is its entourage, the devout disciples that guarantee its arrival, interpretation and acceptance into our culture. Collaboration assures we are no longer in isolation, left to ponder our future by ourselves. Together we build and rebuild, together we make sense of things, together we decide what to take and what to leave behind. Together, we are not overwhelmed, because Collaboration is the Mother of Intervention of our time.

I see three major forces in The Collaborative Intervention: the Future of Work, the Collaborative Economy and Global Solutions Networks. Their tenets transcend geography, generation, gender and any other constructs that divide us. They are about how we co-exist, and co-innovate, on the planet as human beings.

The Future of Work

Stowe Boyd explored the Future of Work in his article, “The Fall of Collaboration, The Rise of Cooperation.” Although I disagree with his claim that we should retire the term collaboration, I do agree with his thesis that we are trying to do today's jobs with yesterday's tools. But while Stowe examines collaboration primarily through the lens of tool architecture “based around outmoded structures of control rather than the shape of our work today,” my interest lies with how these traditional models and mindsets continue to define and diminish (intentionally or not) the social business transformation now in its 10 year.

As a social business practitioner, I believed in the potential of collaborative platforms and social communities to create value in the workplace. I believed that when executives invested in social technologies it meant they understood what they were designed to disrupt. I believed they were part of a visionary shift in leadership, moving from hierarchies to wirearchies, from command and control to distributed decision-making, from C-suite preferentiality to the elevation of the employee as the most valued and valuable enterprise asset. I’m here to tell you that no one at the top is giving up his or her purchase any time soon.

If ever the future of collaboration was unevenly distributed, it’s in the Enterprise 2.0 space. Although many companies have achieved positive outcomes in productivity, sales enablement, employee engagement, corporate communications, even process optimization, through these collaborative technologies, they have not succeeded in ushering in a New Order of Things. We need new mindsets and models of leadership, or "Leanership" (to use Stowe’s term) to achieve the workplace transformation we had envisioned. Not surprisingly, tech and start-up companies like Asana, Xiaomi, Dropbox, Airbnb, and FitBit, are leading the lean, mean, business machine charge. To them, “collaboration” is intrinsic and inalienable, and just like the word “social” in social business, it’s irrelevant, because it’s just the way they do business.

The Collaborative Economy

When Lucy Shea of UK firm Futerra used the term “swishing” in 2000 to describe ad hoc clothes swapping between friends, she may not have envisioned the concept extending to highly organized, world-wide exchanges of goods and services between complete strangers. Today, the Collaborative Economy has reached its “swishing point” and is considered one of the Top 5 Trends to Watch in 2014. Jeremiah Owyang, founder of Crowd Companies, describes the Collaborative Economy as “the next phase of social business.” The Collaborative Economy, predicated on trust between people, sharing rather than owning resources, distributed power and sustainability, allows us to believe the world is rotating again on a familiar and precious axis, even if the technologies powering it (like Bitcoin, 3-D printing, and geo-location) make us slightly nervous.

I recently attended the first Resilient Summit: Exploring the Rise, Impact and Opportunity of the Collaborative Economy in Kansas City, Mo. co-hosted by Jeremiah Owyang and Ben Smith, principal, Social: IRL. It was held in Union Station, home to Kansas City’s Science Center and Maker Studio. It had the intimacy of a retreat for early adopters and the intensity of a movement about to blow the doors off.

Here are some of the takeaways that most inspired or surprised me:

  • Brands collaborating with start-ups: Large brands are realizing they‘d better adapt or be disintermediated. Marriott Hotels now certifies Airbnb homes as Marriott extensions. In 2013, Airbnb had 300,000 listings, compared to Marriott’s 535,000 rooms worldwide.
  • Physical world collaborating with digital: On Valentine's Day, Uber teamed up with ProFlowers to offer 15 percent off orders made with the ProFlowers iPhone app using the code UBER. The campaign had its own hashtag #LittleThings so customers could share their experiences on Twitter.
  • Libraries collaborating with Makers: Nashville’s Public Library redefined its mission as a learning center by becoming a hub for local makers. According to USA Today, “Makers pump $29 billion into the economy each year. “ It’s no wonder the White House announced it is hosting a Maker Faire later this year.
  • Startups collaborating with community: In Boston, organizations like The Grommet have quietly reimagined a new collaborative marketplace since 2008. This March, The Grommet hosts its Second Annual Product Pitch Contest, where winners earn a product launch and crowd-funding campaign. The event includes a hackathon, where local students crowdsource a solution to a real community need.

The Global Solutions Networks

Since the historic Bretton Woods gathering after World War II, We the People have expected institutions like the United Nations, IMF, G8 and World Trade Organization, to assume responsibility for fixing the world’s greatest problems. But as the world’s ills grow more unwieldy, and reasonable solutions seem inconceivably out of reach, it’s obvious this nation-state model has not delivered on the promises we made for it.

We can debate how we ever thought that governments, defined by economic competitiveness and political unilateralism would be the vanguard of a global consciousness, but that’s the future we saw out of our past at the time. Now, due to the participatory power of the internet, combined with the international scale and scope of businesses, “We no longer need government officials to convene for the rest of us to align our goals and efforts,” according to Don Tapscott in the March 2014 issue of the Harvard Business Review.

Don Tapscott, author of Macrowikinomics, introduced a new model of collaboration called "global solutions networks" at the 2103 SXSW Interactive festival. Global solution networks are independent groups that coalesce “around a global problem or task they all perceive as important but that none can handle on its own.” They are guided by the need to communicate, cooperate, coordinate and collaborate around sustainable, socially just and inclusive problem-solving. Their purpose is “to make faster, stronger progress“ in response to real global challenges -- like poverty, climate change, water scarcity, infectious disease and human rights -- not to protect prevailing political or market forces.

Tapscott’s research has identified 10 types of global solutions networks, one of the most notable being on Climate Change. Unlike state-based institutions that have “failed to align on a plan for even a 6 percent reduction in carbon emissions,” the Climate Reality Project boasts 20 million members that are already taking action.

Technology, networks and an honest commitment to doing good are leveraging new patterns of connection into an enormous potential for improving our world. Individuals, consumer-owned brands, peer-to-peer communities, open cities, corporations and governments are equal participants in affecting change. We can, and should, share this responsibility.

But it is the inventive collaborations between these groups that are creating a new global fascia -- a structure of connective tissue that like our biological mesh, binds some structures together, while permitting others to slide smoothly over each other -- that are getting the job done. In contrast to the sentiments of Joey Garreau and Danny Hillis, the real power of collaboration lies not in the realization that we can imagine our future, but in the understanding that as we look out over our past, our vision for a sustainable future is a shared vision.

Title image by pcruciatti /

Editor's Note: This is the final in our month-long examination of the future of collaboration