Watch the business bulletins on the news and you hear a lot about collaboration. Vince Cable for example has been talking about how collaboration between the government, the unions and GM ensured hundreds of jobs were saved at Ellesmere Port – the home of the new Vauxhall Astra. The impact of collaboration on the UK car industry is fascinating. This industry has always represented the antithesis of collaboration – the militancy of the unions, inept management and a government that seemed happy to let a great industry disintegrate. Of course we now have a great European collaboration, saving the Euro, Merkel and Allende, where would you put your money?

The point here is firstly that once again business people are talking collaboration and secondly, that real collaboration delivers results. There is a problem though. For a long time in the technology industry the term ‘collaboration’ has actually meant a great excuse to persuade companies to spend £millions on technology and try and force their employees to follow yet another process designed to make them give up the very things that you spend so long telling them are what makes them valuable in the first place – e.g. their knowledge.

In March 1999 an article appeared in the Harvard Business Review entitled ‘What’s your strategy for managing knowledge?’’ (http://hbr.org/1999/03/whats-your-strategy-for-managing-knowledge/ar/1). The article looked at the two different strategies commonly deployed – codification and personalisation.

Codification is essentially the transfer of knowledge to documents and databases. Personalisation is about sharing knowledge between people. Almost the entire consulting industry is built on the concept of codification and there is nothing wrong with it – except it doesn’t work. OK – that’s not entirely fair. If you want to capture, analyse and make information available it works OK but what it completely misses in the human element in the whole process.

Ten years ago I sat and watch endless presentations from the likes of Oracle, IBM and SAP that talked collaboration and sold ERP and Lotus Notes. A few years later the same presentation – but this time it was intranets and portals. Now the same presentations are given by old school Knowledge Managers, seriously do you still have a Head of Knowledge Management, who are still stifling collaboration but using better tools like salesforce.com. The problem in each case is what they are talking about is a platform and a process – a tool to help people collaborate – but not collaboration itself.

Read Mike Altendorf's column on Lotus Notes

Knowledge Management is trying to create a science out of capturing the IP of a company but the problem for knowledge managers is that the connected world in which we now live, that encourages us all to share across multiple platforms, on many devices and in our own way, means that strategies to encourage collaboration cannot be prescriptive.

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Outside the work environment people are collaborating like never before. The internet and more specifically social networks are used by millions of us to share information and facilitate new ideas all the time. The answer to how we get people to collaborate in the interest of the companies they work for would seem to be blindingly obvious. Utilise the networks and environments that they are using already! A couple of years ago I wrote a piece about how companies shouldn’t fear social networks but should find ways to use them to their advantage (http://www.cio.co.uk/article/3236553/social-media--the-it-equivalent-to-free-love/). The article looked at how you could turn employees into advocates. Now, most companies accept that social media is part of the environment they have to operate in and yet they still struggle to really capitalise on it. I would encourage them to take a look at sites like www.recordedfuture.com and www.dcisions.com to see how much information there is out there and what you can do with it. Big companies are using crowd-sourcing techniques to drive product innovation – using information from across the social web both internally and externally.

Fundamentally however it’s all about culture. Business leaders need to create an environment in which collaboration is rewarded. If we go back to my point about how the word ‘collaboration’ has been hijacked we come to a fundamental problem that businesses have in encouraging people to collaborate. Most companies these days are built around knowledge and information. Individual value therefore is usually judged based on the knowledge they have. It stands to reason therefore that if they share this knowledge their value decreases. This is especially true in a sales situation. The first step on the collaborative journey is to get rid of this mentality and its starts at the top.

Collaboration has to be both about having the tools available to capture what is already being said (as opposed to trying to force people to record it) and about understanding and learning from the tools we are already using to create ecosystems of information within the enterprise environment. What it is absolutely not about is knowledge management. After all the knowledge doesn’t need to be managed – it just needs to be shared.

About the author:

As the founder and CEO of one of the UK’s most successful digital consultancies and systems integrator, Mike has a wealth of experience in consulting services, technology and business development. After gaining a degree in Production Engineering & Management at Loughborough University in 1983 Mike worked in business development, sales and solution design for a number of technology companies before founding Conchango plc in 1991. Together with his business partner, Mike grew Conchango into a world class consultancy built on helping companies to exploit the internet for business growth. With revenues in excess of £45 million the company was sold to EMC Corporation in April 2008.

As an entrepreneur and investor, Mike is passionate about the role technology can play in driving business growth. He holds a number of non-executive positions with digitally based software and services start-ups and is an active member of Rewired State, working with them to help promote technology education and investment in the UK.

Mike is also an active business mentor, working with blue chip companies to help them identify how technology can drive innovation and growth within the business. As a strong supporter of CIOs within enterprise and a great believer in their role as innovation agents Mike also mentors leading CIOs from across different industries.