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Standing On The Shoulders Of Giants

“...we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature” 
Metalogicon, John of Salisbury, 1159
A modern interpretation of the western metaphor about the dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants is that each new discovery that is made builds on previous discoveries. In the context of enterprises and collaboration, one can say that each person who creates value builds on the value created by other people. Each individual and team is a dwarf, and the giants whose shoulders they stand upon is the workforce as collective, past and present. The stronger the workforce operates as a collective and the better it keeps any past contributions alive, the taller and stronger are the giants, and the more value an individual and team can create. This certainly holds true not only for the performance of individuals, but also for the performance of teams and collaboration efforts.

The Collaboration Pyramid that I introduced a couple of years ago is a model that is intended to show what areas need to be addressed for an organization that wishes to become more collaborative. The model consists of 8 layers, but another way to use the collaboration pyramid is to divide it into three bigger layers: community building, cooperation, and collaboration.

Let me briefly walk you through the three layers.

Starting from the bottom of the pyramid, we have the community layer. The community is the enterprise seen as a group of individuals that share the same purpose, vision and values. It is about shared attitudes and behaviors within the enterprise, or the culture if you like. It is also about the individual’s ability to be seen, participate and be recognized, all of which are fundamental for developing a sense of belonging, identity, and self-confidence.

After that, we have the cooperation layer. Cooperation is about people enabling each other to do something, for example by providing a person with information or other resources that make the person more able to perform a task. Cooperation can be seen as the opposite of selfishness and competition. People help each other out for some mutual benefit.

At the top of the pyramid, we have the collaboration layer. It is about a team of people that work closely together to achieve a certain goal. It can be a permanent team, like a production unit at an assembly line, or temporary team, like a project team. The team would most likely have a formally appointed leader, someone who is responsible for the planning, coordination, follow-up, and communication within the team as well as the world outside the team.

There is a strong dependency between the each of these layers, and it starts with community building as illustrated in the onion diagram above. For people to cooperate well, they need to belong to the same community. For people to collaborate and perform well as a team, they need the cooperation of other people in their community.

It becomes more obvious that the performance of an individual or team depends on the cooperation by individuals and teams from the community as a whole when it takes place in a dynamic, unpredictable, and complex environment. There isn’t necessarily a much weaker dependency in a more static, predictable and simple environment, but under those circumstances many of the dependencies can be anticipated and managed, something which is done by creating and maintaining structures such as a bureaucratic organization, processes, and systems. Even if something out of the ordinary happens, there is likely a procedure to follow and structures in place to ensure that the procedure is followed in the right way. But when the environment that the organization is more dynamic, unpredictable, and complex, then more and more of the work that needs to be carried out cannot be anticipated. The appropriate structures cannot be defined and set up in advance, and they cannot be as rigid or introduce a lot of transaction costs. The structures have to quickly emerge as needed, and then dissolve just as fast as they emerged.

For enterprise-wide collaboration to happen, the community building and cooperation must stretch beyond any barriers such as organizations, time, and place. Groupthink, organizational silos, and structures cannot be allowed to limit the ability for one or several organizations to collaborate efficiently and effectively as enterprise. If the enterprise as a whole is not one single community, and if people don't cooperate freely within and cross organizations involved in the enterprise, then enterprise collaboration will fail.

I would be happy to hear what you think.

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