Business Collaboration: Innovating Together

Steve Hodlin

Collaboration has become a necessity for survival in the global marketplace. While working together cooperatively obviously dates back a long way, business innovation through collaboration has increased exponentially in the past several decades.

During World War I, joint worker-management problem-solving teams, called "works councils," represented a form of collaboration. In the 1940s, so-called Skunk Works emerged as a form of collaboration used in engineering and technical groups within an organization. Technological innovation in the 1960s set up the future of collaboration. Communication improved with Arpanet, the predecessor of the Internet, which mostly connected universities, and the Internet was introduced in 1969.

Collaboration in business can be found both inter- and intra-organization and ranges from the simplicity of a partnership and crowd funding to the complexity of a multinational corporation. Collaboration between team members allows for better communication within the organization and throughout the supply chains.

This was first seen in the form of quality circles when Lockheed began using them in 1974. As a result of the Japanese quality renaissance due to the teachings of Americans Dr. Edwards Deming and Joseph Juran, benchmarking of the turnaround resulted in the deployment of these quality circles.

By 1979, quality circles had become the business "fad" of the period, as most US businesses adopted them. The use of collaboration through quality circles continued into the 1980s as the Quality Revolution took hold. This led to Total Quality Management being adopted. Suggestion boxes and team meetings, as forms of collaboration, became a competitive advantage for organizations in the sharing of information and ideas.

Platforms for Cooperation

The 1980s saw the development of learning communities, which resulted in a shift from education being individual focused to changes in learning and teaching design in which students were encouraged to share their ways of doing mathematics, history, science, with each other. This led to more collaboration in the learning process.

A unique collaborative imitative was initiated in the automotive industry in 1983, as GM and Toyota reopened a failing GM factory as a joint venture in 1984 to manufacture vehicles to be sold under both brands, naming the initiative New United Motor Manufacturing, Inc. (NUMMI). This collaboration represented a major breakthrough, as two competing companies were collaborating and sharing best practices.

In 1985, intrapreneuring leapt onto the scene. Intrapreneuring involved small independent groups of imaginative action takers collaborating to circumvent or even sabotage the formal systems that manage innovation. These collaborative teams formed underground teams and networks to routinely gather company resources or use company time to work on their own missions. This resulted in accelerations in innovation, while those who were trying to innovate through the official processes were still waiting for permission. The intrapreneurs were the integrators who combined the talents of both technologists and marketers in creating new products, processes, and services.

Suggestion systems saw a renaissance in the 1990s. Suggestion systems are an instrument for channeling creativity from individuals and getting more involvement in solving problems from them. Suggestion systems are a formal, administrative process for collecting, judging, and compensating ideas for improvements conceived by the employees.

Technology advances are improving the ability to collaborate. The World Wide Web made its debut in 1995 and this changed the world and the ability to collaborate worldwide with other individuals. Intranets began to take hold shortly thereafter. Now the ability to communicate ideas, share best practices, debate, and dialogue became much easier and faster.

Collaboration became much easier and prevalent. Collaboration is recognized as a way of coordinating different ideas from numerous people to generate a wide variety of knowledge.

[end of Part 1]

Other pieces in this series:

HR & Collaboration: Strategies and Execution (CAHRS, Cornell University ILR School)

Driving Effective Teams to Improve Business Performance

The Power of Co-Creation

Building Buy-In