Teamwork comes of age

Teamwork has long been part of the organizational landscape. Today its definition has broadened to include not just teams within organizations or companies. The new trend is innovation networks with partners other than suppliers or customers.

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Teamwork has long been part of the organizational landscape. Today its definition has broadened to include not just teams within organizations or companies. The new trend is innovation networks with partners other than suppliers or customers.

There are hundreds of athletesin the world who excel in a single sport, but relatively few who carry the mantle of the Olympic triathlete: capable of swimming 1,500 metres, biking 40 kilometres and running 10 kilometres in less than two hours. Yet, like athletic “all-rounders,” the most successful companies in the 21st century will be those that exploit their talents in multiple areas – both within their own organizations and by collaborating with other firms to seize new markets. And the way they will win that race is through teamwork.

Teamwork, in various forms, has been part of the organizational landscape since the 1960s, but today its definition has broadened to include not just teams within organizations but across organizations that share complementary interests, skills and goals. While collaboration across the supply chain (vertical collaboration) became firmly established in the past decade, the current extension of teamwork is lateral inter-organization collaboration – that is, partnership with firms that may not be suppliers or customers but that offer the opportunity to extend each partner’s innovative abilities to mutual benefit.

Tech market researcher Forrester Research says these “innovation networks” are the most potent force for matching global demand for innovation with worldwide supply. In an era of global competition, when companies face intense pressure to accelerate their rate of innovation and invention in their products, services and business models, no firm can afford to stand alone.

“Innovation networks will let firms fluidly weave internally and externally available invention and innovation services to optimize the profitability of their products, services and business models,” predicts Forrester.

This is already happening, according to Forrester Research: Cisco Systems chooses to own the inventions core to new product designs but turns to third parties to transform the designs into finished goods. In an example of co-innovation with customers, designers in the design and engineering firm IDEO collaborate with customers’ customers to generate new ideas. And pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly expands its R&D productivity by having its 6,000 researchers partner with some 25,000 freelance researchers in 125 countries through a common network to discover original design insights, tips and shortcuts.

While it was once enough for a company to accrue sufficient wealth with its own inventions and with its own people, times are changing, says Raymond E
Miles, professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. In his book Collaborative Entrepreneurship, just published by Stanford University Press, he points out that an underutilized resource in today’s economy is the knowledge available for innovation. Firms need a means of taking the surplus of ideas that are being wasted and finding a home for them – through what he calls “collaborative communities.”


In these communities,companies build and share knowledge together, taking an idea that is not valuable for one company’s market and moving it to another company’s market, yet enabling both companies to benefit from the partnership. For example, a robotics manufacturer might team up with a microchip manufacturer. Project possibilities are stored in a common database with access to all members. When a company spots an idea that is useful, it contacts the firm that birthed the idea to set up a cross-firm project group to develop the idea further and share the benefits.

It does sound somewhat utopian, Miles admits. “This requires a level of trust that is often lacking in the business world,” he says. “But I believe that in the same way you build trust in a family, in a classroom or in a scientific lab to enable the sharing of ideas without fear of exploitation, you can also build trust between companies.”

Companies that are accustomed to being suspicious of the motives of other firms, even those with complementary businesses or skills, and that don’t fully exploit their own internal talent, will have a harder time closing in on this vision.

“In the typical firm, the kind of knowledge that leads to innovation and invention has a hard time getting pulled together and moved up to the top of the organization,” explains Miles. “If it does make it there, it is hard to get it out to the market, and even then, the company may not be able to reap the full benefit of an idea or product in its own market.”


Before a company can build successfulinter-firm collaboration, it has to learn the art of teamwork on its own turf. “If a company doesn’t take steps to build teamwork, it doesn’t happen,” Miles says. “Most of the common behaviour in a firm is counterproductive to teamwork. Firms don’t invest heavily in the dynamics that would enable them to do teamwork. For instance, those accustomed to working in silos fear that sharing an idea with another department or division might give them a competitive advantage in the firm. This is often reinforced by a reward system that pays for individual rather than team performance.”

Teamwork today, whether among companies or within an organization, is getting a boost from technology. A new generation of Internet-based collaboration technologies enables firms to work closely with their partners, no matter how far away they are, to bring new products to market in record time and without breaking the bank. Thanks to the Internet, employees of firms with incompatible computing systems can meet in the middle on Web sites that speak a common language. Data are not simply sent from one PC to another, but people can talk via their computers while looking at shared documents, have e-mail conversations or use electronic whiteboards.


But as Miles points out,technology alone won’t build collaborative corporate communities. “People don’t fail to share ideas because they don’t have a computer or a common database or intranet,” he says. “Companies have had those for years. The fact is, we are usually technically capable before we are socially capable. Nothing can replace the interaction that needs to occur between people.”

Before employees can see themselves as part of a collaborative community, partnership needs to happen on home turf. For instance, says Forrester Research, all employees need to see themselves as inventors. R&D labs and product development teams are not the only innovation sources in a company. Cross-unit executive teams that can draw on firmwide operational capabilities to quickly convert ideas into market-friendly innovations will pave the way for more teamwork inside and outside the organization. And the slogan
“the customer knows best” is also true here: Paying attention to the needs of lead customers can help drive breakthroughs.

Companies don’t need to employ Olympic triathletes to conquer the challenges of the network age, but they can take some lessons from the playing field. A sports team does not comprise individuals who all play the same position and all with equal skill; there’s no reason to think a team within a company or multi-company team should be any different. Each member of a team brings a distinctive set of skills and body of knowledge, and a particular set of responsibilities. The key is unlocking the door to all that potential and letting it find a place to call home.

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