Embrace the Concept of "We"

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One of the earliest lessons children learn is the value of teamwork. By the time we reach adulthood, however, lessons about working with others are often overshadowed by the need to be competitive and hoard information. In his new book, Collaborate! The Art of We, Dan Sanker, founder and CEO of CaseStack, a supply chain solutions provider, offers advice on how to overcome organizational obstacles and create value through collaborations among employees and other companies. Associate Editor Judith Aquino spoke with Sanker about the ways companies can best serve their customers through collaboration.

CRM: How do you define collaboration?

Dan Sanker: I provide a more formal definition in the book, but it's when people share their deeper strategies and take risks together. They then share in the rewards, and if it doesn't work out, they end up sharing that too.

If everyone's willing to take some sort of risk and say, "This is what I want to get out of the collaboration," then you can do some great stuff.…At many companies, the tendency is to make each employee a well-rounded person, and it's more productive to have angular people. They're people who are really good at some things, but not everything, and when you put them together, they make an amazing team.

CRM: The concept of collaboration isn't a new idea; why should readers pick up your book?

Sanker: The most unique aspect is that it is a practical guide written from the perspective of a practicing CEO who has built a business around collaborative business principles. Like the concepts of innovation or entrepreneurship or even leadership in general, I'm not sure I actually believe that learning about it (e.g., reading the philosophy of) is enough. Good collaboration requires practice.

CRM: What are some ways companies can collaborate with each other in the interest of their customers?

Sanker: Cross-training, sharing facilities, coworking, internal transfers, transfers between external companies, and allowing customers/partners/suppliers to temporarily share an office onsite are just some of the possible ways. There's also seed-funding, skunk works [see note], training, budget carve-outs for untested projects, encouraging nonprofit participation, taking big elephant-in-the-room issues and inciting awkward impromptu discussions to encourage brainstorming, policy waivers/exceptions, etc. [Editor's note: Skunk works is the term for a group within an organization that is given a high degree of autonomy, and is unhampered by bureaucracy, and is tasked with working on advanced or secret projects.]

You also need an open environment. It's critical to allow people to express their ideas. Not every company is in the position to carve out time and essentially money for employees to experiment with their ideas, but you can encourage people to have conversations about things that aren't specifically about a topic that they're working on.

CRM: Can you give me some examples of successful collaborations?

Sanker: Ford and Zipcar make an unlikely pair, yet they worked out a deal where Ford supplied its vehicles to Zipcar locations on 250 college and university campuses. The alliance with Ford raised Zipcar's presence in the student market and let Ford reach a younger demographic that might not have tried Ford's products otherwise.

BMW and Toyota agreed to collaborate on a better lithium-ion battery, and there's also "Skype in the classroom" [a free online community that encourages teachers to collaborate on classroom projects that involve Skype and to share ideas on teaching methods].

CRM: Are companies and people more willing to collaborate, or is it still accomplished mainly through mergers and acquisitions?

Sanker: It used to be that for companies to work together, you had to own all the parts. Now companies are using technology to collaborate with each other through close integrations [while remaining independent]. The technology is changing, and as a result of that, the culture is changing. It started in our personal lives and is moving into our nine-to-five work lives. Our culture is becoming a culture of open-source technology, and that's slowly happening at work.

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