Expert Opinion

On a daily basis, people collaborate through the sharing of ideas and concepts in both formal and informal meetings. Collaborative tools-from simple brainstorming and voting to complex project management software-are frequently used to aid collaboration processes. The use of information technology (IT) to form networks has brought about a quantum leap  in  knowledge  sharing;  this  has led, in turn, to practical and sophisticated global collaboration. The Human Genome Project is a classic example of “megacollaboration”. The project is one of the largest collaborative scientific investigations ever to have been undertaken, enabling mankind to read the complete genetic blueprint for human beings. Computer technologies have enabled the enormous amount of data generated to be managed and disseminated among more than 100 laboratories in the United States, Canada, the European Union, and Japan, all of which participated in research for the Human Genome Project.[1]

While collaboration is required in most long-term business relationships, the extent of the collaboration can vary greatly. Successful collaboration requires the sharing and maximising of limited resources; importantly, it can also deliver savings and facilitate innovation. However, not all business relationships need to be highly collaborative, and organisational leaders should identify those business relationships that would genuinely benefit from more effective collaboration. To determine the extent of collaboration required in a particular relationship, it is useful to look at the number of the points of interdependence between the different parties. These points of interdependence are the key places in the overall business processes where the action of one partner can have a critical impact on the work of others:  at  these  points,  alignment is essential. As a rule the more points of interdependence there are in a relationship, the more collaborative that relationship needs to be. Figure 1, see top of next column, presents a collaboration versus interdependence matrix, which shows varying degrees of interdependence and collaboration within different organisations. [2]

Brainstorming and Creativity

Brainstorming is a technique, usually practiced in a group setting, which aims to rapidly generate a large number of ideas about a given problem or a topic. Brainstorming also serves to stimulate creative thinking and generate enthusiasm. In his book on brainstorming, entitled Applied Imagination, Alex Osborn provides the following four cardinal rules for brainstorming:

  1. Encourage expressiveness, by allowing members to freewheel and put forward every idea that comes to mind, no matter how strange or fanciful.
  2. Make no judgments, to ensure ideas are not squashed.
  3. Strive for quantity and not quality, to remove all of the pressure to perform that stifles creativity.
  4. Build on the ideas of others, by modifying, extending and developing these ideas, while tapping into the power of synergy. [3]

In addition, Paul Paulus, a psychology professor at the University of Texas Arlington in the United States, describes some commonly held fallacies associated with brainstorming and creative thinking:

  1. Creative juices flow where there are no rules – wrong! Paulus discovered that teams with instructions and rules performed significantly better in terms of creativity than those with no rules. Teams working within a framework of rules generated more and better ideas (as judged by independent experts, blind to whose ideas they were evaluating).
  2. Creativity improves by focusing on quality, not quantity – wrong! Paulus also compared groups working under one of four goals, i.e. no goal, a quality goal, a quantity goal, and a quality plus quantity goal. His research revealed that those working with a quantity goal outperformed all other groups. (Groups focusing solely on quality typically self- censor and, therefore, do not articulate new ideas.) In addition, high quality ideas often result from combinations of seemingly impractical ideas.
  3. Creativity is enhanced in face-to-face meetings – wrong! Co-location is not actually conducive to the effectiveness of creative teams. Investigations com- paring the performance of co-located groups with groups working entirely as individuals found that, without exception, the performance of the separated individuals was superior to the performance of the co-located groups. This is one of the reasons that electronic brainstorming has become popular.
  4. Being a team player enhances creativity – wrong! Research has shown that people who are “pro-self” tend to be more creative than people who are “pro-social”. Therefore, managers must seek to put pro-social and communal concerns to one side during a focused brainstorming session; this will enable them to create a “pro-self” setting and thus foster increased creativity. [3]

Collaboration is often required within local government. According to Michael Williams, a city admin- istrator with the City of St. Cloud, Minnesota, when collaborating on dynamic public issues, a different skill set is needed than in a traditional management setting. For collaborative work in the public domain, Williams offers the following guidelines:

  1. Have a common vision and set of goals: this enables participants to work together compatibly and, therefore, reach an agreed end point.
  2. Foster trust: collaborative endeavours underpinnedby trusting relationships are more likely to succeed.
  3. Provide value for everyone: successful collaborations produce results to satisfy the needs of all participants.
  4. Communicate: meetings are a vital component of collaboration; therefore, they should always strive to be inclusive, and create opportunities for all participants to share their issues and ideas.
  5. Conflict: healthy conflict can create a catalyst for discussion; it can also help clarify actions and spur improvements. Usually, participants in a thriving collaborative environment will experience few conflicts; however, should conflict arise, it needs to be managed with courtesy and fairness.
  6. Structure and administrative support: good administrative support that fosters communication and keeps all parties informed is critical for successful collaborations.
  7. Provide leadership: good leadership is required to build consensus, reduce conflict, and assist in clarifying differing expectations. [4]

Business-Orientated Electronic Challenges

In 2005, Robin Spencer became Pfizer’s first full-time innovation process leader, which involved him developing and implementing scalable business processes, and managing more than 200 business-orientated electronic challenges. Spencer discovered that on-line voluntary forums exhibited significantly different characteristics to those displayed by internal business teams.

For internal business teams, shown as a collaborative group in Figure 2 (a), see previous page, there is a central peak of “typical performers” and smaller numbers of both low and high performers. For a voluntary forum, participation rates were dramatically different, with a few people contributing a lot, and a large majority contributing a little, as presented in Figure 2 (b). This pattern was observed widely, and was seen to apply whenever participation was not forced or there was no form of sustained positive feedback to encourage participation. The main factors affecting this pattern appear to be that contributors are distant (in space or influence) from the forum sponsor and that participation is voluntary. This long-tailed pattern also holds for huge public social collaboration systems such as Wikipedia, Digg and Twitter. Interestingly it is also independent of the type of motivation used (for example, cash awards versus recognition, or altruism) and project duration. A widespread familiarity with social media and easy access to Internet technology brings business leaders an additional tool; by sponsoring large electronic forums, there is a distinct possibility of achieving significant thinking applied to their business needs and opportunities.

It should be noted that participation in forums has important implications:

  1. Since participation is voluntary (even when there are monetary rewards), participants require higher levels of information and feedback, which provides them with the assurance their efforts are making a difference.
  2. Since most contributors work alone, all back- ground, goals and outcomes must be clearly com- municated and presented in writing.
  3. Since at least half of the total value comes from a long tail of people contributing just once or twice, reward and recognition systems must support these low-frequency contributors, and not be biased against them. [5]

Yun Antorini, community strategist at the LEGO Group, and Albert Muñiz Jr., associate professor of marketing at De Paul University in Illinois, describe how  the  LEGO  Group’s  introduction  of  a  new product called “Mindstorms” unexpectedly brought the toy manufacturer a number of enthusiastic adult consumers. These  adults  began  to  create  innovations that were of potential value to the organisation; the LEGO Group therefore sought to involve these fans in its development projects. Since then, adult fans have participated in the development of several products, and more than 20 LEGO users have been hired as LEGO designers. LEGO Cuusoo, a crowd-sourcing tool, was introduced at this stage. This enabled users to upload their designs to a webpage: other users could then vote on the designs. Models receiving 10,000 votes or more were reviewed with regard to their potential for commercialisation. If an idea was selected for commercialisation, the LEGO Group took over the development process and the innovator received one per cent of the total net sales. (See the Example Cases section of this Best Practice Report for a description of some of the projects generated using the Cuusoo platform.) In addition to connecting the firm to innovative users, the Cuusoo platform enabled LEGO to deal with specialisation issues. By putting proposed designs to a community vote, the LEGO Group maximized the likelihood that a suggested product would have broad appeal. By asking users who had voted for a given concept to also list the price they would be willing to pay, the company was also able to assess the commercial potential of ideas. [6]

Collaborative Software and Videoconferencing

Collaborative software has been designed to help teams, and other groups of people, to achieve common goals. Collaborative software enables teams to work together—both locally and at a distance—by using tools to aid communication, collaboration and problem solving. Collaborative software includes:

  • electronic communication tools, including e-mail, wiki, web publishing, and revision control software
  • electronic conferencing tools, including Internet forums, online chat, instant messaging, telephony, videoconferencing, electronic whiteboards, application sharing, and electronic meeting systems
  • collaborative management tools, including electronic calendars, project management systems, on-line proofing, workflow systems, knowledge management systems, enterprise book marking (tagging), extranet systems, social software systems, and on-line spreadsheets. [7]

In Government Executive journal in the United States, Elizabeth Newell Jochum writes that collaborative tools such as webcams and file-sharing software are critical components for videoconferencing. Some of the following techniques, which are provided by Web seminar consulting firm 1080 Group, can contribute to improving the effectiveness of videoconferences:

    • Eliminate distractions:
      • close open windows, remove prominent artwork, etc. from the line of the camera
      • avoid disruptions from ringing phones or e-mails “pinging” on speakers
      • poor lighting or a harsh glare will cast shadows or wash out faces
    • Set up your space:
      • so as to be positioned at a comfortable distance from the camera so that facial expressions and hand gestures do not appear exaggerated
      • focus on making deliberate, smooth movements and framing them on screen
      • ask a colleague to identify any distracting behaviours such as tapping or fidgeting
    • Focus on eye contact:
      • eye contact does not need to be constant, but it should be natural and purposeful
      • keep eyes within camera range
      • look toward the screen rather than out of a window
    • Incorporate tools of engagement:
      • plan how to display projected information
      • when leading an in-person meeting, ask for a show of hands or conduct a collaborative exercise, and map out on-line activities to increase productivity
      • share your computer desktop with the audience
      • conduct an on-line poll
      • set up group chats among participants
      • be aware of what participants are able to see during the conference, and make sure to only refer to those things to which they have access
      • prior to meetings, send instructions to ensure participants have full access, and send helpful reminders about what to do during the conference
    • Consider mixed audiences:
      • some participants may be physically present, while others may be on-line or connected by phone
      • carefully plan how each group will see hear and interact
      • speak slowly, clearly and engagingly. [8]

Group discussions can be facilitated using the following seven wide-ranging questions to help define, analyse and propose solutions for organisational problems:

      1. Problem definition – why is this a problem?
      2. Current state – what is happening now?
      3. Goals – what are the targets?
      4. Root cause analysis – let’s understand what’s causing the problem.
      5. Proposed countermeasures – how do we resolve this problem?
      6. Future state – what is the future process to stop this happening?
      7. Action plan – what needs to happen to bring about the future state?

These questions may be progressively asked at different levels of the organisation, with the various insights garnered being collated to give a rich understanding of problems and their potential solutions. [9]

Changing Face of Accountancy

Technology, globalisation and demographics are reshaping the accounting profession, where services have become commoditised and, as a result, profit margins have diminished rapidly. Leon Gettler, working with Charter, the journal of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia, invited key individuals to comment on the changing face of accountancy.

David Smith FCA, director of Smithink 2020 (a business coaching and advisory company), says that accounting firms of the future are going to look very different as they are revamped by technology. Smith believes cloud computing will turn public accountants into the Chief Financial Officers of small to medium-sized businesses. According to Smith, “cloud computing enables accountants to collaborate and to work with their clients in a way that they’ve never been able to do before.” Previously accountants have not had remote client data available to them in real time. However, they now have an opportunity to act as an external CFO, and thereby help clients manage their business on a day-to-day basis.

Sean Devenish CA, a partner at Collins SBA (a wealth specialist company) says accounting firms do not have much choice. There are already bad signs in New Zealand where accounting firms’ profit margins are being eroded through the use of accounting software supplied to clients. Similarly outsourcing providers are ready to enter the market directly where they can offer services at very attractive rates. Accounting firms of the future will need to work closely with clients, add value, and provide advice in ways that cannot be easily commoditised.

Rob Nixon,  CEO of Nixon Advantage, revealed that partner profits at smaller accounting firms have declined by 8 per cent in 2012 as a result of clients outsourcing work to overseas providers. [10]

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