New Rules for Mass Collaboration

Rod Collins is the former Chief Operating Executive of Blue Cross Blue Shield Federal Employee Program, the largest private health insurance account in the United States, a $20billion business.Today Rod works with organizations that want to transform their management model from traditional directive command-and-control to a more collaborative approach. I spoke to him this week. Here is what he has to say:

We are experiencing the most dramatic shift in the nature of business and work since the industrial revolution. The traditional management model is based on the premise that large organizations are about bringing together large numbers of people in central locations and then organizing their work. In the last 15 years with the rise of the Internet and electronic technology we are seeing the rise of mass collaboration and globalization. The premise that large numbers of people are gathered in one place is no longer true.

The challenge now is how to organize large numbers of people who are not centralized or operating in the context of one enterprise. More and more managers are facing situations where they are responsible for the work of people who do not report to them and may not even be in their organizations. So, management models based on central planning and hierarchical organization are no longer working.

Mass collaboration is making decentralization efficient. We have the examples of the Wikipedia and the operating program, Linux. 20 years ago nobody would have thought that those two products, which are not centrally planned and where nobody is organizing the work, could ever be done. This may be the model for how organizations work.

Collective learning needs to replace central planning as the foundation of strategy, and self-organization of knowledge workers needs to replace the hierarchical organization of workers. This requires new management models.In my work today I am a management-team coach and a facilitator. These two roles are fundamental enablers to make this shift successfully. In order to make this change, we have to change the fundamental protocols and processes of how we work on a day-to-day basis. Two things have to happen.

One, meetings have to change. Organizations typically engage in one style of meeting format: the committee style meeting. It is based on the premise that a good debate will lead to a good solution. All too often it leads to least-common-denominator solutions and in fast-changing times we need the best solutions. Organizations need other options for how to get together. We often need a meeting in which dialogue rather than debate is the foundation. This requires that executives learn to become skilled facilitators to ensure conversation happens at a different level.

Organizations need to tap into their collective learning. When organizations do this, they can move far faster than through traditional debate-style meetings. The most untapped resource in America today is the collective knowledge of its workers. It’s all fully paid for. What organizations lack are processes to tap into it. A hierarchical organization is a tremendous obstacle.

The second change organizations have to make is the switch from traditional management to learn-and-collaborate management. This is a radical change in the role of the leader. Leaders are more important than ever, but they are no longer bosses.The idea that we can entrust a tremendous amount of authority to give orders to workers and then construct compliance procedures to ensure those orders are carried out is becoming dysfunctional because no one individual can process what is happening out there in this fast changing market.

Organizations are going to learn that if they don't have quick access to their collective knowledge, they are not going to be able to keep up with the market, the competition. This is another reason that we cannot rely on the smarts of the bosses. The smartest organizations are not those with the smartest people, but those with the quickest access to their collective knowledge. Bosses no longer have to be concerned about looking smart or being the most intelligent in the room. Leaders will quickly realize their role is to quickly get access to the know-how of their highly knowledgeable workers.

Rod can be reached at rodcollins@yahoo.com

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  • Ross Wirth

    Rod Collins brings up core issues being encountered in the new era. Yet, I believe there is an even more basic issue that will need new support mechanisms, essentially around the issue of evolving shared vision and aligned personal missions. There are increasing examples of emergent activity for projects spanning multiple organizations. However, there is usually a single point of strategic focus and self-organization occurs at the tactical level. Larger scale projects will require increased dialogue spanning longer time horizons and/or multiple-period projects where advance foundation-building is required. I don’t see much discussion focused on this larger issue that will have to be addressed at some point to be truly strategic in this evolving era facing us.