• April 1, 2013
  • By Denis Pombriant, founder and managing principal, Beagle Research Group

The Age of Collaboration

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We've come to a point where it takes a village to get business done. That's neither good nor bad, just the truth. Fortunately, if you think of your company as that village, then social, mobile, cloud, and analytic tools came along at just the right time. Or did they?

About 10 years ago, I started covering social networking and analytics. There were no social media products on the market, save for things like Plaxo and LinkedIn, which simply completed the Kevin Bacon game in software and made making connections in business much easier. And while analytics had been a serious pursuit for decades, you still needed to be a statistician to do useful things there.

Interestingly, Harvard had a great deal to do with the evolution of social networking and the media that followed. You are, no doubt, familiar with the exploits of one Mark Zuckerberg and his friends and enemies at Harvard. But did you know that a completely different generation of researchers got the ball rolling at Harvard before Zuckerberg was even born? I mean here the scholar Harrison White, who worked in the Harvard Department of Social Relations and got some of the mathematical underpinnings down, and Stanley Milgram, who inspired the Kevin Bacon game as a way of explaining it all.

Working independently, White and Milgram each contributed to the idea that it is weak ties that give human societies such resilience. That all happened in the 1960s, and for a long time, not much happened other than an obscure actor (Bacon) becoming accidentally famous. But fast-forward decades, and computing power and networking achieved the critical mass needed to power software designed to serve up the loose bonds on a screen. Now hold that thought.

At the same time, we underwent a revolution in information processing such that the age we live in has become known as the Information Age, on the same level as the Steam Age or, for that matter, the Stone Age. What's somewhat shocking is that our age has lasted only a few decades while the Stone Age lasted much, much longer.

Now come back to the original question. Did social, mobile, analytics, and cloud technology just happen to come along at the right time? Hardly. They've been gestating for years, building up, getting stronger. So what triggered their importance now?

Quite simply, they came in from the cold because we need them. Markets everywhere have gone from open and green to, if not closed, then certainly to having high barriers. We are in a zero-sum era, a time when innovation is down and markets are tight with stasis due to even tighter credit, or clogged with products that are the reminders of earlier success. To sell today means to also dislodge something else, an older version of your own product or someone else's. It is a time of no decision and finicky buyers who demand top quality for a pittance.

How do you succeed in times like this?

Simply put, this is why it takes a village to do business today. The ability to marshal resources and people to exactly meet and hopefully exceed customer whims isn't even enough, because all of this marshaling must be done with zero friction, or else the profit involved in the transaction will evaporate in the effort.

Into this mix we have seen the rapid deployment (and we are not done yet) of the technologies and methods already mentioned. Their appearance is far from accidental; market forces drove them here, and their popularity is not some arcane business fad. The total of these technologies and the ways we use them amounts to collaboration, an exquisite dance of people, ideas, and, yes, technology that makes life in the early years of this century, a zero-sum era, exciting and potentially profitable.

Change involving adoption of these tools and modes of thinking is a stretch, though a small one, but failure to adopt, as well as outright failure of implementation, will prove perilous. No use worrying, though; it's time to get on with the effort.

Denis Pombriant is the founder and managing principal of Beagle Research Group and The Bullpen Group. He is a widely published CRM analyst in the U.S. and Europe, and his research spans all areas of social CRM, cloud, and mobile computing. His latest book, The Subscription Economy, is available on Amazon.

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