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The disruptive power of collaboration

March 11, 2014

Sharing changes everything, says NYU professor and author Clay Shirky in a featured interview this month in a McKinsey series on the disruptive power of collaboration. From the printing press to today’s social media tools, innovation in the ways people communicate has transformed not only how we live and work, but also how businesses are run and the economics of what we create, buy, and share. This six minute video sums up his perspective on the ranges of collaboration that these innovations make possible, on how the abundance of information breaks models of profit that are based on scarcity, and on how success comes from failure when you think of failure as just a course correction.

I’m intrigued by his idea of the ranges of collaboration, because I think the power of collaboration is often seen through a more limited lens of sharing or teaming. For example, in a work context, people think of collaboration as participating in an online meeting or accomplishing something through teamwork. In a social context, collaboration is viewed as sharing photos or status updates, or arranging tennis dates through a Doodle poll. All valid ways to think about collaboration, but limited in explaining the power of collaboration.

Shirky refers to the collaboration penumbra, a word mostly used to describe partial illumination in an eclipse, but here meaning the important aspect barely visible (kudos to him for using a very descriptive if a bit obscure SAT word in a sentence).

“So the thing I always watch out for, when any source of disruption comes along, when anything that’s going to upset the old order comes along, is I look for what the collaborative penumbra is.

For instance, around MakerBot, which I was on the board of back when it was an independent company, most of the company, for the obvious reason, was focused on the possibilities of 3-D printing and the output of 3-D printers. But the thing I was most interested in was Thingiverse, which is the website where people were sharing and talking about their objects.”

He goes on to describe the phenomena of people uploading objects, ideas, improvements, and solutions without any one person responsible for the end product. We see this in many loosely organized collaborative projects – Wikipedia, open source, etc. No one needs to be able to do everything, and the permissions needed to contribute can vary widely. The idea of collaboration across ranges, from tight collaborative groups all the way to the very loosely collaborative, is where things get powerful. It has me thinking about how to incorporate ranges of collaboration in solving problems and leading teams, whether the context is business or community service.

From → Collaboration

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