4. Build the 24-hour knowledge factory. I borrow this quaint phrase from the title of a 2004 research paper by two MIT scholars, Amar Gupta and Satwik Seshasai, who observed that managers at businesses with workers in both the United States and India once believed that the misalignment of time zones was a barrier to collaboration. Today, the reverse is clear, as Gupta and Seshasai were among the first to see: link enough time zones together, and you have an organization that never sleeps, conferring a natural advantage in product development cycles or service delivery times.
When global collaboration works, whether within a firm or across firms, the results can be impressive. Conversify, for example, is a social-media marketing agency with principals based in Alaska, Denver, Boston, and the U.K. Even for a small organization, this geographical distribution makes it easy to monitor and manage social media around the clock. It also creates a virtuous time warp: one manager remarks, “When we have something due on Monday, I feel like I have two Mondays in which to do it.” In global enterprises such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Cisco, Wipro, Tata, and HCL, this kind of round-the-clock, round-the-globe approach has become commonplace: project teams linked across three or four time zones hand off work continuously and move it forward in a kind of perpetual motion. This is what scholars Morten Hansen and Nitin Nohria defined nearly a decade ago as a source of “collaborative advantage.”
5. Mandate structure within the social cacophony. Businesses should not be lulled into thinking that social media’s conversational metaphors eliminate the needs for structure, discipline, and protocols. On the contrary, strict guidelines and defined terms of engagement become even more critical. The application programming interface (API), closed or open, is a good metaphor. Want to collaborate with Google, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, RIM, or Yelp? Want to get an app into one of their app stores? API and Embed Codes specify structures and pathways available for collaboration.
The open-source Web management framework Drupal is another example of how a structure can be set up to enable collaboration in online social environments. (Dries Buytaert, a computer scientist from the Netherlands, created Drupal in 2001 and intended to call it “dorp,” meaning “village” in Dutch; when he mistyped the word while searching for a domain name, he wound up with Drupal and thought it sounded better.) Unlike Linux, an open-source operating system that didn’t become popular until corporate third parties like Red Hat provided enterprise support, Drupal grew through collaboration among Web users and developers. Its strength lies in its simplicity: while it offers a sophisticated API for developers, no programming skills are required to create and administer a basic website. As a result, by 2010 Drupal was running 7.2 million sites on the Web, including www.whitehouse.gov and www.data.gov.uk. Its modular design, “plug-and-play” extensibility, and free downloads accelerated its popularity. A community supports it, volunteer developers enhance it, and the “collective” uses a heuristics-based approach to improve it. (Drupal has now extended activities into a commercial entity, Acquia, to provide services for building websites.) A similar story of social collaboration has resulted in the popularity of Ruby on Rails.
6. Tap the wisdom of your crowd, and any crowd. Think of crowdsourcing as mass-market collaboration. Either talent or inventory can be sourced on demand.
Crowdspring, an online ad agency, gives users the ability to spec out design tasks (say, a brand treatment, a logo, or a creative ad execution), post structured RFPs online, and await “bids” on the work. A simple request of this kind can generate dozens of design submissions within 24 to 48 hours. Only the winning submission (if the user selects one) gets paid. That’s talent on demand.
Meanwhile, Threadless, started in 2000, is by now the paradigmatic example of crowdsourcing on the Web. It’s an e-commerce retailer that sells T-shirts designed by a community of users, who submit 300 designs to the site a day; the site’s fans vote for the ones they like best, and winning designs earn their creators $2,000 each. The goal is to post seven new shirt designs a week-and sell those designs for three to eight weeks. In 2009, the site generated over $30 million in revenue.
The contrast between these two sites, however, illustrates an important lesson. Collaboration enabled by networked technologies works best in knowledge-intensive and information-based tasks. While Threadless manages an entire business process from design to manufacturing to distribution, Crowdspring does not. Once a “client” has settled on a creative execution, there’s still the task of making it real—printing materials, creating video or online advertising, placing media. In that sense, crowdsourcing underscores a key question for any task completed by technology-based collaboration: how much of the desired outcome or solution does collaboration actually deliver?