A company that strives to be innovative must be collaborative. But not all collaboration is the same. 

Collaboration is an open-ended concept, one that is core to social business. When considering collaboration as a definition, here’s what I use:

Building toward a defined outcome through the interactions and input of multiple people

What about collaboration in the service of innovation? What are the ways collaboration helps employees, and organizations as a whole, advance their ideas and create impactful innovations?

Let’s start by describing three types of collaboration related to innovation:

  1. Peas in a pod
  2. New partners in crime
  3. Challengers

The facets of each type of collaboration vary, and each has its place in fostering and accelerating innovation.

1. Peas in a Pod

Think about the people you turn to everyday in your work. Likely, a ready set of faces come to mind: your collaboration regulars. That’s no surprise, and it’s a common human characteristic. I do it too. It’s natural.

In a 1996 study, Group Composition and Decision Making: How Member Familiarity and Information Distribution Affect Process and Performance (pdf), researchers from Stanford, Northwestern and Columbia found the following:

In groups that form through natural selection, the most common bases of member attraction are similarity, proximity and prior acquaintance. These processes, while maximizing relationship potential, often minimize the potential for learning. The knowledge and perspectives of group members from the same social networks may be more redundant than diversified. Such groups are likely to experience positive affect, smooth interaction and strong commitment.

But they can also lack the diversity on which they were meant to capitalize, undermining their potential problem-solving effectiveness.

Group familiarity has a salutary effect on the interaction dynamics. There can be less hesitancy to speak up and disagree. In the pursuit of innovation, this is a good thing. For innovation, you need some disagreement and questioning of assumptions. If the innovation was obvious, everybody’d already know it.

This is a good thing, and important for driving innovation.

But the researchers uncovered a negative aspect of these types of collaboration. It’s called the Common Knowledge Effect, first articulated in 1993 by Daniel Gigone and Reid Hastie. Gigone and Hastie found that in groups where the majority of members possess the same knowledge, that knowledge becomes the basis of discussion. Minority-held information by individuals is clouded out of the decision-making process. There is a rush to consider the problem solved, or the right idea established. The Stanford, Northwestern and Columbia researchers found exactly this dynamic playing out for many groups in their study.

This is a problem for too-familiar collaboration groups. Valuable information can be missed, never even considered. This is not about challenging others’ analysis and assumptions, but just plain missing critical bits of information.

2. New Partners in Crime

In this form of collaboration, individuals find others outside their circles of familiarity with whom to collaborate. These collaboration cohorts are new to one another. They are “partners in crime” because they want to overturn the current peace and order of the status quo. They bring different knowledge and perspectives, and pool them together toward a common goal.

In the preceding section, remember that the researchers found that typical (peas-in-a-pod) collaboration centers on factors such as proximity and prior acquaintance. Here are the key points of difference for new-partners-in-crime:

  • Teams form virtually, on-the-fly
  • Idea/problem-to-be-solved is basis of team formation
  • Intrinsically motivated participation
  • Anyone can contribute

These factors are vital for above average innovation inside organizations…

  • Collaboration revolves around an idea, not existing relationships: This is important for churning the sources of information brought to collaboration around ideas. New ideas refresh their information sources by attracting different participants.
  • The information and perspective each person brings are less likely to be redundant: In 2003 research on collaborative networks and innovation University of Chicago Professor Ron Burt showed the connection between information diversity and idea quality. Professor Burt conducted a field study of workers at Raytheon, measuring their diversity of connections via social network analysis. He found that those employees with access to a wider, more diverse set of information inputs generated higher ideas.

This is what makes new-partners-in-crime collaboration so valuable. It taps the non-redundant tacit knowledge in people’s heads, and it energizes individuals by tapping areas of passion and hot button issues.

3. Challengers

Remember the definition of collaboration I used at the start of this article:

Building toward a defined outcome through the interactions and input of multiple people

Notice that nowhere in that definition do I mention people working smoothly together. Or contributions only from likeminded individuals toward an agreed-upon idea.

Learning Opportunities

Meet collaboration with the challengers. Who are they? The people who don’t care too much for your idea. The ones who see flaws in it. The ones who will question the entire premise of your idea.

This is the collaboration by disagreement, but valuable nonetheless. Here’s what management consulting firm Oliver Wyman found in a survey of 300 senior executives, The Innovation Imperative:

Almost every interviewee at highly innovative companies agreed that there is not just a need but a responsibility to hear every idea, however contrary to others. They have widely differing views about how creative disagreement can be harnessed as a positive force, but almost none of them describe this process as “conflict management.” One reason is that disagreement is not equated with conflict in the most innovative companies’ cultures. Disagreements are expected, and even valued, as long as all players keep their eyes on the company’s strategic objectives.

Apple, in describing a culture of innovation and creativity, states that “innovation and creativity require freedom, disagreement, and perhaps even a little chaos.”

Not every collaboration has to be a positive reinforcement of one’s idea. Contention is good for several purposes:

  • Remove points where the idea gets it “wrong”
  • Force a simplification to what works
  • Highlight issues that need to be addressed in upcoming efforts to advance the idea
  • Understand the risks of what can go wrong
  • Surface the organizational antibodies, and plan accordingly
  • Identify the best ideas through a form of rivalry

GE incorporates a challenger collaboration culture. In an article in the McKinsey Quarterly, Mark Little, head of GE’s global research group, noted this about the company’s collaboration culture for innovation:

I hadn’t thought much about, or verbalized, rivalry as an element of what we do. But some of my colleagues laughed when I said, “We are sisterhood and brotherhood; we are collaboration; we are teamwork.” My colleagues said, “These are scientists. They know how to compete. They know a lot about rivalry.”

When you read through these various elements of challenger-type of interactions, you see that it does indeed fit the definition of collaboration I put forward. Getting a diversified set of counterarguments for an idea is vital for finding the top idea, and for ensuring that every idea has an opportunity to be selected regardless of source.

Editor's Note: For more on Collaboration and Innovation see: Crowdsourcing and the Next Wave of Collaboration

Where Social Software Helps

I’ve spent a lot of time here describing culture, processes and tapping the collective intelligence. Those are what are important. Social software does not automatically make companies apply collaboration intelligently to innovation.

But try to implement the culture, processes and collective intelligence needed to accelerate innovation across an organization without some sort of platform. We’ve been trying that for years, haven’t we? It’s called email, and files on the portal, LAN and local hard drives.

Here is what social software does for companies that are ready to build out an innovation culture built on the three forms of collaboration described here. It allows small groups to ideate among themselves, and build out plans to address internal rivalries, if that’s what’s needed. But more importantly for innovation, social software enables organizations to cast the innovation net much wider across the workforce, systematically capturing the diverse ideas, knowledge and perspectives by tapping weak and potential ties.

To summarize, collaboration is a non-negotiable element for the next phase of company innovation. Just make sure you know which types make sense for your employees, and for pushing your organization's innovation capabilities higher.

Editor's Note: Also from Hutch: When Should Management Push Enterprise 2.0 Adoption?