Those were the words uttered by a robot computer in a short, science fiction story by the legendary Isaac Asimov. The storyline is placed in distant 2061, but its relevance is timeless. Regardless of your literary interest, reading Asimov is much more than science fiction. It’s about ideas and contemplation which bear upon life as we know it. The story is called “The Last Question” and is worth a read as Asimov considered it to be one of his best. But I digress. The idea that some questions can’t really be answered is what I think is worth exploring in the context of collaboration and its future.
It is tempting to label collaboration as just another ‘thing’ that is emerging in business, and conclude that it too will pass. That is possible. How likely is it that in 2061 (or even in 10 years’ time) we are going to look back on collaboration in business as an old way of doing things? Everything I see now indicates not likely at all.
We now know that large companies, or enterprises of any type, are going to find that it is hard to emerge and last for as long as what was the case in the last century. In part because ways of organising systems common to the last century will be a less attractive option to the actual agents of production; humans. What is now much more relevant is the ability for smaller entities to connect, explore, plan and execute products of value. In much simpler terms, a combination of technological advances, socio-economic instabilities, cultural trends and competitive drivers will make collaboration a basic necessity. Mastering that will be a core competition mechanism.
The ability to predict opportunities and summon a strategy which includes fast collaboration execution will translate into outcomes with larger rewards. An agency (however small it may be) with a well-honed collaboration strategy and skills will outperform its competition. We now know that people tend to work better (quality of work, creativity, innovation, speed) when they collaborate. Those same advantages can be further amplified when organisations embrace strategy that challenges the norm; and the gap between adoption and full on implementation of such practice is closing. Closing it faster has already become a major area of investment for some.
The gap is largely there because a significant portion of managers (especially in senior roles) have not yet reached a position where they feel comfortable enough in their ability to exert influence on business processes with something as disruptive as collaboration. The hierarchical approach to managing production is still overwhelmingly supported by business school teachings. For instance the term MBA, or ‘Masters of Business Administration’, reveals a few things. An old term reflecting old thinking is one of them.
What will collaboration mean in 2061 then? It will probably not be called collaboration as it is more likely to be a default, assumed way, of operating. Instead we may find, as the discipline matures, that it may lead into specialisations. One thing seems fairly certain, collaboration as a way of thinking and acting is becoming more critical. What could be in 2061? Maybe we could surmise that there is currently ‘not enough data to give meaningful answer’.