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Published: August 27, 2009

 
 

The Promise (and Perils) of Open Collaboration

Open collaboration relies on social networking systems and the rapid flow of intellectual property among the company’s people and its outside partners. These systems also have to enable quick decisions about which new ideas to embrace and which to discard. That mandates integrating the company’s open collaboration efforts into every aspect of the business.

At P&G, open collaboration is reflected in everything from the budget-setting process to quarterly management reviews to the way product development is done. The company’s best-known effort, of course, is Connect + Develop, which has dramatically expanded the number of innovations. As P&G’s Connect + Develop support organizations search for new ideas — some generated by a network of retired scientists, others by a team of 70 technology entrepreneurs who roam the globe looking for new ideas or pockets of excellence — they are driven by clearly identified consumer needs and operational goals. For example, multifunctional Connect + Develop teams are embedded with specific business franchise areas such as oral hygiene (Crest and Oral-B) to better understand the needs of the units and to tailor external search activities to those needs.

6. Prepare your organization for the new skill sets. One of the greatest challenges for the quality movement was the fact that it demanded a range of new technical and social skills — from statistical process control to collaborative problem solving — that employees at all levels had to learn.

Because effectiveness equals influence in open source, IBM says it has to pay closer attention to employee development and communication skills. Participation in virtual communities is a communications-intensive business, and the most successful participants are those who know how to navigate the unique culture of each community and articulate their views — usually in writing.

Engineers who want to become involved have to build their credibility gradually, by answering newsgroup questions or cleaning up software bugs. They also have to develop a thick skin to handle immediate feedback. Without layers of customer support and sales shielding developers, “the bugs and support questions come right into you,” says Ian Skerrett, director of marketing for the Eclipse Foundation, the governance organization for the eponymous open source community founded by IBM. “You have to have writing skills and the patience to collaborate.”

That is why IBM has established a set of best practices for new engineers joining an open source project. First, employees are required to “lurk” in a community for 30 or 60 days “to observe, to learn how it works” before they can participate, says Daniel Frye, vice president of open systems development. “Every open source community is different, and you have to adapt to the style and level of interaction.”

Procter & Gamble is also honing its employees’ communications skills. The company has developed more than 40 guides on a range of topics, including work processes, negotiating, and alliance management. Training also includes role-playing and videotaping different scenarios that might crop up with a partner, and then critiquing the participants.  

7. Align evaluations and rewards. The most controversial tenet of Deming’s philosophy was his belief in intrinsic motivation as a key driver of individual performance and his conviction that differentiated pay and bonuses can hurt companies because these shorter-term incentives undermine long-term goals and teamwork.

Open collaboration communities are meritocracies that offer feedback and rewards entirely outside the boundaries of the company, raising new questions about the effectiveness of pay incentives and traditional employee evaluations. Software engineers, for example, get many benefits from their open source contributions, but few are directly related to pay. “It’s an extremely wide aperture,” says IBM’s Smith. “People develop opinions about you based on your body of work. That’s very liberating in terms of [gaining] control over your own career.”

 
 
 
 
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