Collaboration with peers can be a competitive tool – even for Service Leaders who often have few peers in their own companies. They should look outside
In 1997 Gary Kasparov, the reigning chess world champion at the time and one of the best ever players, famously became the first Grand Master to lose a match under tournament conditions to a computer, IBM’s Deep Blue. The match was followed by millions, many appalled by the result, others ecstatic. Regardless, Grand Masters still play a great game, but today it is essentially unthinkable that a human could beat an advanced computer program at chess. But humans are nothing if not creative. Following the Kasparov game, they co-opted computers as allies. Instead of playing against them they started playing with them and developed “Freestyle Chess” which allows any kind of interaction between humans and computers playing together against opponents. And the winners of the first PAL/CSS Freestyle Chess Tournament in 2005 were not the strongest humans assisted by machines or the strongest machines assisted by humans. Instead, two amateurs, Steven Cramton and Zackary Stephen, using three standard PCs, won the competition. They had optimized an entirely new process of collaboration in which either one of the humans or the machines took the lead depending on patterns of positions and play of opponents. According to some analysts, this type of green-field process optimization could be the prototype for future human-machine collaboration. This positive state of affairs lasted until 2017, when AlphaZero, the DeepMind (Google) computer that beat the world champion in the immensely complex game of Go, learned chess in just 4 hours and proceeded to immediately beat the best chess computers. Humans are now considered too slow to make a meaningful contribution to chess played by AIs.
Be that as it may, this is an article about collaboration, not AIs, and the case does show that a well- planned collaborative effort and process can have excellent outcomes. And not just in chess. Many computer games are nowadays designed for collaboration and studies have shown that collaborative efforts by teams produce on average better results in terms of achieving game objectives.
In the business world, a lot has been written about collaboration, most of it involving the type between companies. Businesses collaborate for many reasons, e.g. to enter markets, avoid investments, share R&D costs or reduce risks. Forms of collaboration may be one to one, like the now problematic Renault-Nissan Alliance or many together like the collaboration between auto-manufacturers and software companies to develop self-driving technology. It may also be through associations such as when setting technical standards. Another form of collaboration, however, is between people working together within organizations and such collaboration has become almost totemic for companies as a productivity and performance-enhancing measure over the past 20 years. Lack of collaboration and “silo” mentality are now generally considered strong negatives. And after about 2005 many technology tools were developed specifically to enable collaborative work -mainly centered around generating, sharing and refining information-, think of intranets, microblogs, message boards, knowledge management systems of different types and various internal company platforms down to Slack today.
Academic research bears out the idea that collaboration can be very effective. For example, a study by Stanford University from a few years ago found that collaboration supercharges performance and productivity. As the researchers put it “cues of working together can inspire intrinsic motivation, turning work into play”. More specifically, the researchers found that, when collaborating, people
- persisted 64% longer on a challenging task
- expressed greater interest in and enjoyment of the task
- required less self-regulatory effort to persist on the task
- became more engrossed in and performed better on the task
- when encouraged to link this motivation to their values and self-concept, chose to do more related tasks in an unconnected setting – i.e. the impact persisted even after the collaboration ended.
These results have been validated many times. Tasks undertaken in collaboration with others yield better outcomes and fewer errors. And a recent joint study by Babson College found that companies that promoted collaborative working were 5 times as likely to be high performing.
Collaboration is therefore good but there are also caveats, the most important of which is that it’s necessary to have someone to collaborate with. In companies, people can collaborate within divisions or departments or across departments, for example, engineering and manufacturing; Or manufacturing and marketing. Often collaboration is “horizontal” between people who have similar functions, for example, a group of production managers can come together to improve operating performance across the board; Or product managers come together to improve product rollouts.
However when it comes to Service and Service managers, this type of peer-2-peer collaboration becomes more difficult for two reasons: First, service is quite different than other businesses a company has, often it is a business within a business -particularly in industrial or manufacturing environments- and second, because while a company may have many product business units, it usually has one service unit which cuts across and covers the others. A Service manager in a typical company has few peers. Even in large companies with either regional Service organizations or Service units integrated into different major divisions, collaboration is difficult whether due to distance or set-up.
So, the question is what do Service managers do? How can Service managers benefit from collaboration even if they have few peers. The answer of course is they need to join an external peer-2-peer network that allows and facilitates collaboration. And one might question whether there are such examples and whether they are effective. And the answer to both these questions is yes. And if one wants a very compelling example the best is… Wikipedia. Wikipedia effectively is a rule-based P-2-P facilitated collaborative network with the objective of producing an on-line encyclopedia. The vast majority of editors have never met or even spoken to each other. Yet Wikipedia today has approximately 6 million articles (English only), its quality is almost at a par with Encyclopedia Britannica on numerous topics (according to research published in Nature) and is considered by many today a bulwark against fake news. Collaboration through external networks works!
Nevertheless, collaborative networks are no panacea. They require expert facilitation to counterbalance negative group dynamics and avoid Groupthink. And they require rules and commitment.
So, if you are a Service Leader and think you would benefit from joining a network of peers please do. Because there is another benefit: The value of any P-2-P network increases for all members with every new member that joins. Think of the telephone network. With just one member the value is zero (you can’t call anybody). But it goes up drastically when there are two members and even more when there are three, four, and so on. These are called “network effects” and, in this case at least, they work for you.
If you would like to find out more about the Service Leaders Network, a facilitated P2P network operated by Si2 Partners, please visit the SLN page or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article was first published in Field Service News
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