Collaboration, from the Wright Brothers to Robots
Watson and Crick. Braque and Picasso. The Wright Brothers. Wozniak and Jobs … and Jony Ive. Great collaborations all. Transformative. But what really made them work? How did collaborative relationships so ingeniously amplify individual talent and impact? Was there a secret to success?
When I wrote the book Shared Minds: The New Technologies of Collaboration 25 years ago (!), I found technology central to the answers. The book was the first to explicitly examine how tools and technologies shape creative collaboration in science, business, and the arts. I argued new technology would invite and inspire new forms of collaboration. Like communication, collaboration would have to become more networked and more digital.
But what I didn’t know — and couldn’t anticipate — was how overwhelmingly collaboration’s creative past would influence its innovation future. Successful collaborators don’t just work with each other; they work together through a shared space.
Shared space — whether physical, virtual or digital — is where collaborators agree to jointly create, manipulate, iterate, capture and critique the representations of the reality they seek to discover or design. This holds true for collaboration around products, processes, services, songs, or the exploration of scientific principles. Shared space is the essential means, medium, and mechanism that makes collaboration possible. No shared space? No real collaboration.
James Watson and Francis Crick didn’t do a single experiment on their way to discovering the double helix and winning the Nobel Prize. But the shared space of their helical metal models proved indispensable to their collaborative success. Wilbur and Orville Wright pioneered wind tunnel designs and tests as shared space for flight design. Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs, and then Jony Ive, relentlessly prototyped digital devices like obsessive perfectionists.
Character, cognition, and creativity remain undeniably important. But they play out in the collaborative context of shared spaces where the real work gets done. It takes shared space to create shared understandings. That’s the key.
Take, for example, when Tim Berners-Lee had just launched the World Wide Web at CERN — in no small part to help facilitate global collaboration in high-energy physics. It was clear that digital media offered radically different properties than, say, blackboards, whiteboards, and faxes for empowering shared space. Expanding the bandwidths of shared space accelerated opportunities for shared insight.
A quarter century later, the diversity and intensity of digital innovation remains astonishing. But, looking back to look forward, three particular collaborative themes stand out. They’re important because they say more about the human aspects of collaborative relationships than the technological ones. As most digital innovators know, improving technological performance is easy, elevating human performance is what’s hard. Technology remains an indispensable ingredient. But enabling collaborators to get greater value from their shared spaces remains both the most rewarding and frustrating challenge. Here’s what managers need to be thinking about:
Collaborative culture, behaviors, and norms. Knowing what I’ve observed and know now, if I rewrote Shared Minds, I would invest more care and thought into understanding collaborative cultures, not just collaborative relationships. What makes a scientific discipline or artistic community or academic institution or R&D group energized and excited about embracing shared spaces to make collaboration simpler, more accessible, more effective, and more satisfying? How does collaboration become as much a value and a behavioral norm as a core competence and pragmatic means to creative ends?
By emphasizing great collaborations, I inadvertently minimized and marginalized broader cultural contexts. Companies and cultures that celebrate heroes and entrepreneurs and visionaries all too frequently communicate that collaborative relationships are inferior to individual genius. That may not be the intent, but it is surely an outcome. Of course, technology impacts culture, too.
We live in a time where undetected plagiarism is becoming harder even as public attribution and acknowledgement are becoming easier. All human behaviors live in cultural contexts. Living collaboration as a value is intellectually and emotionally different than just practicing it as a skill. This issue deserves top-management attention and respect from every organization that takes collaboration seriously. Being a holding company of shared spaces and collaborative talent is radically different from actually being a collaborative company.
Collaborative scale. My historical examples of collaborative success were almost exclusively duos, trios, and small groups of intensely creative and committed individuals. The shared space dialogue or conversation dominated. I once half-jokingly remarked that perhaps the future of collaborative conversations would be “kilologues” and “megalogues”… and then came Wikipedia!
Networked reality now offers the intimacies of small team shared spaces where a core three or four can iterate and innovate to their collective minds’ content. But it’s equally possible to craft, scale, and mass produce shared spaces that encourage millions — 100s of millions? — of individuals to collaborate. Is a recommendation engine a collaborative shared space? Is a Kickstarter? Should we think of crowdsourcing as a prototype for mass collaboration? Or is crowdsourcing less shared space than mass exploitation? That might depend, of course, on how one chooses to define “shared” and “sharing.” Sharing — and its rules — are about as human a behavior as one can find. Scale has huge impact on how sharing is perceived and realized.
Truly successful collaborations have an inherent quid pro quo — that is, the collaborators all know that their individual contributions are meaningful, essential, and acknowledgeable. That’s as true for Watson and Crick as it is for Jobs and Ive as it is for Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin. But what happens to those quid pro quos as scale skyrockets into the millions or billions is unclear. The Internet does brilliantly at technically scaling individuals, teams, and organizations. But, emotionally and culturally, how exponentially do networked collaborations scale? That question represents a huge entrepreneurial and institutional opportunity for innovators. If you’re Amazon, Twitter, Facebook, Salesforce.com, or LinkedIn, the answer could be worth 10X to your market cap.
Synthetic collaborations. By far the biggest technical change (to me) since Shared Minds publication has been the pervasive rise of machine learning. The ability to extract and abstract meaningful patterns from humongous datasets is transforming how human beings create and recognize economic value. The onrushing internet of things only accelerates — or exacerbates — that trend. The unavoidable implication? Our best, most loyal, most indefatigable, most challenging, and most creative collaborators may be our machines. Centaur chess is the prototype here. There’s no inherent reason why smarter machines won’t be superb — or superior — collaborators in all kinds of shared spaces.
The rise of synthetic collaboration revitalizes the importance of collaborative culture and scalability. Will tomorrow’s organizations encourage, value and/or reward person/machine collaborations the way they do purely human ones? Similarly, will the most effective human collaborators succeed by having intimate collaborations with two or three machines/devices/programs? Or will harvesting the collaborative contributions of millions of machines become the gold standard in new value creation and discovery?
Much the way the best machine learning programs make it relatively easy to “train” machines to become pattern recognition experts and recommendation engines, no great conceptual or technical leaps are required to anticipate machine learning software that can be trained to collaborate with other machines. Again, the internet of things may quickly evolve into an “internet of collaborative things” that learn how to create or discover new opportunities for value creation. Collaboration is a behavioral choice, as well as a cognitive capability. Machines now have both. Should they be imbued with collaborative temperaments, as well?
Before the decade ends, oncologists, radiologists, and other medical specialists will be successfully collaborating with networked machine learning systems that recommend diagnoses and interventions that they would not have thought of on their own. The financiers, lawyers, accountants, and auditors won’t be far behind.
Neither will software developers nor cloud services managers. Arguably one of the most important professional decisions they’ll be making each and every day is whether they’d be more effective collaborating with people, machines or some particular, value-added combination. The best machines — not unlike the better humans — will help innovate shared spaces, not just better collaborate in them. In essence, smartphones will computationally evolve into smarter collaborators. Shared minds need not be human.
That’s why the future of better collaboration is better technology … and the future of better technology will be better collaboration. Full circle.