Mal Fletcher
Big Data, Big Collaboration, Big Wisdom

3 Ways to Engage the Big Collaboration Revolution

What do NASA, Lego and President Obama have in common?

In their respective areas of leadership, they all demonstrated an early appreciation for the mass collaboration culture inspired by the internet.

Some years ago, NASA started enlisting thousands of helpers it refers to as ‘Click Volunteers’. 

These people, operating mostly from their personal computers at home, are playing a small but important role in building NASA’s information base. They help NASA map the surfaces of planets and the movement of stars through the night skies.

Lego was at first wary of internet users who virally promoted their own peculiar reconfigurations of its Mindstorms robot kits. Gradually, the toy giant came to realise that these enthusiasts were the best evangelists for its products.

It now fully embraces their soft-edge anarchic approach to online sharing and its sales have not looked back.

In his early run for the office of President, then Senator Obama and his team quickly enlisted the support of nascent social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to virally promote their message and values.

They even bought advertising in online games, attracting a huge following among younger voters. Fast-rising Millennials and still young Gen-Xers were happy to claim this fresh-sounding, tech-savvy candidate as one of their own.

Mass communication has, for better or worse, launched the age of mass collaboration. For worse, because it makes possible the type of remote information sharing going on between modern terrorist cells.

For better, because of the enormous opportunities collaboration offers to every individual and enterprise, for engaging in collective problem-solving.

Some of the world’s most exciting innovations are now birthed out of remote collaboration, often between people who have never met or are unlikely to do so.

Businesses are unlocking new product ideas and opportunities for community service, scaled for both local and global significance. Civic leaders are finding new ways to engage the creativity and interest of citizens in solving problems.

Medicos and other scientists are outsourcing their particular problems or questions and finding willing participants in discovery, inside and outside of their disciplines.

This is, in short, the age of the Architecture of Participation. People now aspire to be more than consumers – they want to be activists, even if it begins close to home, at the level of sharing ideas and promoting causes via the internet.

How should leaders as cultural architects respond to this growing taste for consultation?

Create a Culture of Collaboration

Over the next decade or so, as the digital information revolution continues to pick up speed, successful leaders will need to adopt a far more consultative approach, whatever the enterprise.

Collaboration will mean looking for innovation partners well beyond the safety of the corporate front door, or the familiar sector.

Collaborators will be drawn from other companies (even competitors), other sectors and the public at large – including people who are not yet customers.

Examples are already emerging in the world of healthcare. The health sector is experimenting, in some cities, with a more collaborative approach between patients (clients) and doctors (service providers).

In some scenarios, the patient arrives at the clinic (or the video-conference-consultation) armed with raw data collected from wearable biometric devices. He may also bring research materials he’s downloaded about the management of his condition.

The doctor considers and interprets this data using her expertise and experience. Working together, the doctor and patient then map and manage a forward-looking, integrated strategy.

Similar approaches are being launched in education.

Amateur research by individual students is being aligned with the professional knowledge of the academic to produce a learning environment in which programmes are monitored collaboratively.

We can expect to see social media playing a much more primary role in education over the next few years. Lectures will increasingly be delivered via digital video platforms, perhaps with tutorials being offered face-to-face.

Whatever your field, you can begin now to proactively investigate opportunities for greater collaboration with your clients and partners.

The key will be a commitment to going beyond marketing a final product to your clientele.

Instead, you will need to outsource the strategic decision-making process itself, so that consultation occurs at every major step in development.

Collaborative outsourcing with potential clients will need to be central to your decision-making and design.

Embrace Big Data – With Big Wisdom

In the age of the information explosion, the way we do business or lead civic authorities will need to reflect an appreciation of the digital mindset.

Professor Marshall McLuhan was right in the 60s when he insisted that: ‘In the age of television, the medium is become the message.’ 

The tools you use to communicate your message or service say as much about your ideas and products as the brand or the marketing words themselves.

If your tools of communication are outdated, your target audience will, even unconsciously, assume that your ideas are anachronistic.

Technology is the new rock 'n' roll.

In the US, Apple consistently features near the top of the listings for America’s top brand among the Millennial generation (aged 17-34). Today, the launch of a new iPhone (or iWatch) causes more sensation than the release of a new pop or rock album.

Technology has replaced music as the hub around which social change occurs.

Where music artists were once seen by younger generations as the prophets of change, technologists now play the role of social agitators and proclaimers of what might be.

Social media are an important part of this and they need to be used wisely and treated as much more than marketing tools. We must, however, also be aware of the limitations of technology.

Our growing reliance on mobile devices, combined with a huge expansion in the power of super-computers, has given rise to Big Data Predictive Analysis.

For the first time, we are able to crunch the numbers coming in from a multitude of mobile devices, including phones, CCTV cameras, sat-navs, cash machines and much more.

The data can be analysed to identify current patterns and likely future trends in such areas as economics, political ballots and marketing.

Already predictive analysis is being used in the design of driverless cars and new cities to house them. It is proving helpful in developing new approaches to policing and the provision of other social services.

However, making sense of the data, in a way that actually adds value to the human experience and the environment, requires more than spitting out mathematical patterns.

To be of any use, Big Data requires the human touch. In short, Big Data needs Big Wisdom. As leaders, we need to find ways to encourage more – not less – reflection time and ‘dream space’.

People within our organisations need to feel they have permission to day dream now and again.

A University of California study last year revealed that if a worker walks away from an intensely taxing activity and spends half an hour or so on something that involves imagination – listening to music or reading a novel, for example – he can expect a forty percent increase in productivity when he returns to the problem.

Other studies have suggested that day-dreamers make the best problem-solvers. The process of day-dreaming involves parts of the brain that focus on innovation. Practiced day-dreamers imagine future scenarios and solve problems within those settings.

This perhaps explains why so many of history’s greatest inventors were inveterate day-dreamers, from Archimedes to Newton and Einstein.


Passionately Pursue Alliances

The collaborative nature of today’s digital platforms encourages a mindset that is less about pulling up the corporate drawbridge and more about pursuing alliances.

Already, walls between different sectors of technology are becoming more porous. In part, this is because global problems clearly demand convergent solutions.

Technological convergence is seeing medicine, IT and additive manufacturing working toward the day when we can 3D-print entire human organs for transplant purposes.

Meanwhile, convergence has the fields of nano-technology, micro-electronics and medicine looking toward injectable nanobots and biochips. These would make possible the biometric tracking of serious internal disorders.

Nano-technology and IT are cooperating to produce ever tinier micro-processors, as well as spray-on nano-transmitters which can use any surface to create a wifi network.

In the face of this convergent mentality, leaders need to demonstrate an affinity with alliance-building. Alliance theory has long emphasised the need for a common goal and a win-win scenario within any potential partnership.

Now, however, we must add a third strand, which is particularly attractive to the Millennials, the world’s first digital and global natives.

Alliances must now feature an altruistic element.

In business, this needs to go further than CSR; it needs to branch into forms of social enterprise, where service of society is at the very core of decision-making and the raison d’etre.

Profit-making businesses need not only be about making profits. Your business only has value if it adds value to human lives. The bottom line is just the bottom line.

Demonstrating an altruistic element might be as simple as linking with an established social enterprise.

It may involve helping local colleges or schools to train students in entrepreneurship – something few schools address, yet many students aspire to.

The age of collaboration demands a different kind of leadership; one in which leaders of every stripe are committed to creating cultures that are not simply open to sharing, but committed to it in pursuit of the greater good.

Mal Fletcher (@MalFletcher) is the founder and chairman of 2030Plus. He is a respected keynote speaker, social commentator and social futurist, author and broadcaster based in London.

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