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Band Wagonesque

If you want to get any attention or get a project approved these days, there is one sure trick: frame it around collaboration. It may look like a point-of-sale system or a network server, but in reality it is a collaboration tool. After all, who wouldn't want a system that facilitates communicate with guests, suppliers and employees?

Suddenly, the concept is everywhere. You know when IBM and Microsoft hold press conferences within a week of each other focused on collaboration that it has finally reached a point of relevance. Its time for all of us to jump on the collaboration bandwagon, come on along.
In case you're nervous, it's not just me--CEOs are saying it too. Drawing from its survey of 750 CEOs world wide, IBM notes that 76% ranked business partner and customer collaboration as top sources for new ideas, and 51% say their organizations currently collaborate extensively. Not surprisingly, this influence is exaggerated in younger markets, where 73% are collaborating, compared to 47% in mature markets (i.e., hospitality). The message from IBM--it's time for everyone to focus on collaboration.

The same theme lies at the center of Thomas Friedman's narrative in The World Is Flat. The convergence of information technology, the Internet and political changes, Friedman argues, have made for a level playing field. More than anything else, Friedman marvels, these forces have made collaboration infinitely easier and more productive on a scale never before seen. It is this collaboration that has made the world flat.
To be sure, collaboration of the kind Friedman highlights has had a tremendous impact on all of our lives. We all take advantage of the fruits of the open source movement and the rapid spread of broadly accepted standards have made it amazingly easy to share pictures, music, opinions or computer viruses.

Since at its heart collaboration means little more than listening and working with customers and partners, it is hardly a new argument. As Gina Pfeifer notes in "Forever Young" (page 12), since the time of Ray Kroc McDonald's has relied on a three-legged stool of the company, suppliers and franchise partners. Update that a little and add customers to the formula and Kroc would sound like any of IBM's current crop of CEOs.
The fundamental change since Kroc's time is the role of information technology in facilitating collaboration. Whether you are a director of technology or a corporate vice president, it is more important than ever to understand the meaning and impact of collaboration on your company. Why? Because you will be driving the systems that will increasingly speed up the flow of information.
Still, I have to admit, I approach the latest embrace of collaboration technology with caution and a bit of skepticism. We all know how important email is, but who has the time to respond to every request, pitch or offer? Collaboration tools will do no good without the right people to read, interpret and execute the new ideas. How far collaboration tools take us is still as dependent on business processes as in Kroc's day. While the new emphasis on technology is good, beware that this is only the beginning of some more fundamental changes. Maybe you should think twice about that new server...

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