In a networked society, collaboration is increasingly the driving force behind things.

Collaboration has been one of the most popular words during the last decade when talking about management and organization studies. The use of the term reflects a change of society from industrial production to an information economy populated by mobile knowledge workers. Work has become project-based and people are moving between jobs more than ever.

At the same time, outside the business world, new kinds of movements based on co-operation and shared goals have emerged. Just to mention a few: the open source movement, the Occupy movement and the Arab Spring uprisings.

We currently live in a golden age of spontaneous networks which emerge around specific issues. These fluid networks are often based on the innovative use of digital tools and social media, and their operation is very agile. Collaboration networks appear whenever there is a demand for them, only to dissolute just as quickly – when the target has been reached or collectively found impossible to reach.

Essential for these communities is the fact that they excel in uniting people’s unique knowledge and skills to promote a joint cause. Most people involved are driven by the possibility to contribute to a common goal, rather than personal gains.

Disciplined flexibility

Companies have strived to embed the benefits arising from this kind of new way to organize doing things. Agile work organizations combining the expertise of diverse knowledge workers behind a share goal have been called collaborative enterprise.

Collaborative enterprises activate different kinds of people, always scale according to the situation and work highly efficiently and with great flexibility. Such projects provide people with the necessary resources and support, and inspire them to give their own contribution to the success of the project.

What, then, prevents this kind of highly flexible collaborative model for becoming impossible to control? The answer lies in creating detailed descriptions of the work processes.

Collaborative enterprise does not work like a completely uncontrolled group of people – on the contrary, the work is flexible yet very well coordinated. In fact, because processes are have been so meticulously described, flexibility can become possible in the first place, as is said in Charles Heckscher’s book The Collaborative Enterprise. When people in the organization change, newcomers will receive a guide detailing exactly how the processes work. This increases the workload in some situations, but in the long-term it will make things much easier for everyone.

Leaders as facilitators of collaboration

What is the role of leadership in the world based on collaboration? Unsurprisingly, lots of digital ink has been used on writing about this issue.

In an organization based on strong collaboration the leadership has four major functions: (a) to bring people, ideas and resources together, (b) recruit different kinds of gifted talent into the organization, (c) model the collaboration at the top, and (d) prevent debates grinding the organization to a halt.

The first function requires that leaders constantly listen to people at all levels of the organization and realize how joining different people, ideas and resources could lead to organization forward. In the same time leadership needs to introduce new diverse talent to the organization, so that it grows and develops.

In order to prevent silos and power struggles at the upper management, leadership needs to make sure collaboration also works at this level. Last but not least, the leadership needs to ensure that there is much-needed and healthy internal discussion in the organization, but it does not turn into negative spiral that causes the whole organization to stagnate. Decisions need to be made at the right time.

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