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Distributed collaboration management

Knowledge, models, tools and processes aimed at optimizing collaboration must be integrated and leveraged across the organization. To achieve this, there are many aspects that must be optimized. This is a scientific view on collaboration and innovation.

Collaboration in this context is also called a Knowledge Network (Mitchell & Goffin, 2010, p. 327). The term knowledge network does not necessarily mean that multiple locations are involved. But in the context of this post it is used like that.
Distributed collaboration is about people from different backgrounds and functions working in several locations. A knowledge audit of the current network identifies skills and capabilities for each site. As a general term, collaboration is understood and defined by Erbe as “working with; willing cooperation” (Al-Hakim & Jin, 2010, p. 222; Doz & Wilson, 2012, p. 204).
Collaboration by influencing people combined with intensive team communication supported by ICT tools are key for success. (2001, p. 95; as cited in Hauschildt & Sören, 2011, p. 322).

To build an optimized international innovation footprint that delivers sustained competitive advantage, Doz (2012) proposes three levels that must be addressed:
Value diamond of distributed innovation (Doz & Wilson, 2012, p. 59)
In "Discovery" sites, new opportunities are found by looking at the world differently. New value-creating knowledge links are built. Discovery activities involve experimenting with new approaches and ideas, new knowledge combinations, and co-experimentation with new partners. This results in products and services that are more likely to be radical innovations. Some sites contribute pieces in the form of "Complementary" knowledge and expertise. An effective and efficient dispersed network does not have big overlaps or gaping holes. "Substitution" sites refer to sites that excel through greatly increased productivity based on their available knowledge and expertise. (Doz & Wilson, 2012, pp. 58-59)

The ability to transfer and integrate knowledge from multiple sources is key to building competitive advantage (Doz & Wilson, 2012, p. 95). However, there are barriers preventing effective and optimized collaboration in terms of communication and receptivity.

Lack of ReceptivityControl and internal competition.
Projector mind-set.
Inadequate Connections

ICT systems for codified knowledge
ICT systems to connect knowledge holders
Network connecting sites and team
Incompatible ICT systems.
Large database repositories.
Isolated experts.
Reinventing the wheel.
Extreme localism with lack of interaction between sites.
Multiple Different ContextsOrganization structure.
Functional languages and world views.
Cultures and norms.
National languages.
Transferring and Integrating Complex KnowledgeCan be difficult to recognize.
Inherently difficult to share as rooted in originating context.
Barriers preventing effective and optimized communication (Doz & Wilson, 2012, p. 94)

Many companies find it difficult to collaborate effectively and share complex knowledge across organizational units. Complex knowledge is rooted in behavior, norms, values, interactions, and systemic relationships. This is very specific to local environments. The same can also be true for explicit, codified knowledge. (Doz & Wilson, 2012, p. 96)

Strong process models, controlled costs and personnel, and a focus on competition work well where innovation is a local affair and the required knowledge is less dispersed and diverse. Once international innovation evolves to integrate dispersed knowledge via collaboration, control and competition become impediments because they cultivate internal competition, a projector mind-set, and not-invented-here-syndrome. When people regard other units in the organization as a threat to their own jobs and rewards, the result is poor collaboration and the building of internal markets. The projector mind-set is understood here as a unidirectional collaboration, with the transfer of knowledge going from the center outwards Not-invented-here syndrome is when knowledge is extensively hoarded and protected, while other ideas, approaches, and solutions are rejected. Again, this is a primarily unidirectional collaboration. (Doz & Wilson, 2012, pp. 103-105)

There may be inadequate connection mechanisms between different parts of the network. This is either a technical issue, or the logical data storage and presentation may be inadequate for finding, reading and understanding information. Localism may result in isolated experts with poor collaboration skills attempting to reinvent the wheel on their own. They are not capable of coping with complex linked knowledge. (Doz & Wilson, 2012, p. 97)

Multiple different contexts may hurt the collaborative process, as the structures of an organization and its subsidiaries may prevent knowledge transfer. A matrix organization can help in this regard but there is still room for local variances to reinforce contextual differences. Different cultures and norms may also inhibit understanding. Language differences at different sites present a more obvious barrier to collaboration. Functional languages by specific professions are the key for understanding but they can also be the key for separation. There is a certain danger to building functional enclaves. The problem lies not only between disparate functional activities such as marketing and technology, but also between close fields of activity such as mechanical and electrical engineering. Design problems rooted in functions and departments are one of the leading causes of product failure. (Doz & Wilson, 2012, pp. 100-101)

Knowledge is very often rooted in its original context and it can be difficult to transfer knowledge to others for absorption. Furthermore, such situations are often difficult to recognize. The usual tools such as reports, documents, prototypes, databases, temporary assignments, and site visits do not really solve the problem of effective collaboration. The successful transfer and integration of such knowledge relies upon having managers with multicultural experience and companies understanding that results cannot be achieved overnight. (Doz & Wilson, 2012, pp. 101-102)

Roles of individuals and teams
“Successful innovation, however, requires a special combination of entrepreneurial, managerial, and technological roles.” (Maidique, 1980; as cited in Hauschildt & Sören, 2011, p. 125)

Over the past few decades, a number of roles have been defined for an individual or a team that actively and intensively support the innovation process within an organization. The understanding of the roles varies but the core idea is the same. Rather than the organization or department, it more often a single individual or small group that leads an organization to successful innovation. The most important roles are those of the Promoters originally by Witte, Product Champions by Schon (Witte, 1973; Schon, 1963; as cited in Hauschildt & Sören, 2011, p. 123), and Catalysts by Martin (HBR, 2013, pp. 1-10). Studies from Sicotte and Langley (2000), as well as Weise (2005, p. 142; as cited in Hauschildt & Sören, 2011, p. 319), emphasize that in times of high uncertainty and low equivocality of radical innovations, influencing people and intensive team communication are key to success.

Witte (Rost, Hölzle, & Gemünden, 2007, pp. 340-341) identified barriers to innovation that hindered economic progress. If left unchecked, these barriers handicapped or prevented innovation altogether. Promoters either have specific expert knowledge, (expert promoters), or they are in a powerful position in the organization’s hierarchy (power promoters) (Hauschildt & Sören, 2011, p. 125). Expert promoters’ actively encourage the innovation process by means of specific knowledge to get over the barrier of ignorance. The power promoters similarly but to get over the barriers of rejection and opposition. Both working together as a close team. Hauschildt and Chakrabarti (2011, p. 124; Rost et al., 2007, p. 344) added the process promoter to actively arbitrate between the technical and economic world by means of organizational knowledge to overcome administrative barriers.

Product Champions are generalists who play multiple roles and who know the organization well. Champions are individuals who informally emerge to actively and enthusiastically promote innovations throughout the organizational stages. The champion role corresponds with all the promoters’ roles combined. From that perspective, there is not that great a difference between the two concepts. (Hauschildt & Sören, 2011, p. 124; Rost et al., 2007, pp. 344-345)
To conclude on promoters and product champions, their contributions to overcoming barriers depend on the kind of innovation required. If innovation is based on previous knowledge, and organizations only need to improve an existing design, the specialized promoters are more suitable. If innovation cannot be built on previous knowledge, and organizations must introduce new business models and concepts, then generalized champions are more suitable. (Rost et al., 2007, p. 348)

Catalysts, in contrast, are at the very front-end stimulating ideas (Hauschildt & Sören, 2011, p. 124). The catalysts are normally a small team that helps work groups with creating prototypes, running experiments, and learning from customers. The process includes a “painstorm” to determine the customer’s greatest pain, a “sole-jam” to generate a possible solution, and a “code-jam” to bring a first impression to the customer within weeks. The focus is on experiments in the early innovation phase, rather than the entire innovation process. The approach is rooted in technologies close to software but can be transported to other areas as well (HBR, 2013, pp. 3, 5)

Newman (2010) defined an innovation leadership framework and showed that innovation requires four types of leadership behaviors:
  • Creators provide the source of new, disruptive ideas.
  • Translators connect new ideas to new opportunities.
  • Stabilizers build quality delivery systems for products and services.
  • Navigators anticipate what’s coming and how to manage it. They know when to get in and when to get out.

The approach is to unlock the process of innovation and the roles of people involved. In very rare cases, all four attributes exist in the same person or culture. This framework also makes explicit why so many innovators, are in the end, just creators with a bag of ideas who have no way of delivering any change. Innovative organizational cultures pay attention to all four roles, rather than just developing creators.

Maturity model and partners
The maturity of collaboration processes can be determined and grouped by stages. Goffin and Mitchell apply four levels to a number of key processes (Mitchell & Goffin, 2010, pp. 258-259). The strong focus on partners shows that the model is focused on new product innovation (NPI), and it emphasizes the fact that collaboration with partners is a key aspect in an international setup. Partners are typically used to leverage resource shortages of knowledge, relationships, and staff, and they can also boost diffusion via market extension and market research support (Kirchmann, 1994, p. 21; as cited in Hauschildt & Sören, 2011, p. 175).

ProcessesLevel 1Level 2Level 3Level 4
Collaboration strategy(Not) invented hereOccasional ad-hoc partneringSome established partnersRegular review of joint competencies
Structured NPI processNo formal NPI processA process exists, but not well used or appreciatedProcess used and understoodContinuous NPI process improvement
Task partitioningInterfaces not well definedModularity considered intuitivelyFormal configuration planningConscious simultaneous design
Partner selectionLittle structured assessmentBased on word-of-mouth reputationGood review of technical capabilitiesBroad assessment of capabilities
Getting startedWork starts before agreements in place or IP rights ownership clearContract, but without full buy-in, problems with resourcingAgreement in placeAll ground rules agreed, clear role definition, resources agreed
Partnership managementMisunder-standings, changes come as an unpleasant surprise, specifications too loose or too constrainingManaged but not championed, normal project management but no moreCollaboration champions on both sidesFrequent and open communication
Partnership developmentNew skills jealously protectedLittle effort to improve but cost of changing partner considered too greatGrowing trust and confidenceMutual trust, clear sense of win-win, combined effort to develop joint capabilities
Maturity levels for key processes in NPI (Mitchell & Goffin, 2010, p. 258)

Organizations cannot excel at all of these processes at once, but there must be a steady maturing of competence along with experience. Clear contractual relationships are important in managing collaboration, but there are limits to what can be written in contracts. Care must be taken in order to ensure that there is a climate of trust and confidence between the partners. (Mitchell & Goffin, 2010, p. 259)

Al-Hakim, L., & Jin, C. (Eds.). (2010). Innovation in Business and Enterprise - Technologies and Frameworks. Hershey, PA: Business Science Reference.
Doz, Y. L., & Wilson, K. (2012). Managing Global Innovation - Frameworks for Integrating Capabilities around the World. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review Press.
Hauschildt, J., & Sören, S. (2011). Innovationsmanagement (5 ed.). München: Vahlen.
HBR (Ed.). (2013). On Innovation. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review.
Mitchell, R., & Goffin, K. (2010). Innovation Management - Strategy and Implementation using the Pentathlon Framework (Vol. 2). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Newman, V. (2010). The Innovator's Got To Do It - Understanding the Art of Innovation Leadership. Canterbury: Knowledgeworks Books.
Rost, K., Hölzle, K., & Gemünden, H.-G. (2007). Promotors Or Champions? Pros And Cons Of Role Specialisation For Economic Process. Schmalenbach Business Review, (59), 340–363.

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