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John Sheridan

John is CEO of Digital Business insights!

Digital collaboration - how to do "more with less"

The potential and opportunity presented by the tools of the digital revolution grow every day.

Because, the currents of change and disruption – more connection, more collaboration and more integration – create an ever-expanding number of people able to contribute, engage and participate.

We have never had this before. Ever. This is brand new.

And as people become familiar with the tools, the focus shifts from “How do I use this” to “What can I use it for?”

People become ready, willing and able.

And that is exciting. Because the limitations for action are only in the imagination and the extent to which other participants can be engaged.

Every participant in this interconnected world has a part to play. What starts as a very personal journey “me, my family, my friends, my business” expands and extends to “my business networks, my region” and “our common interests”, as comfort and awareness levels rise.

And then “my” becomes “our”.

That is another new thing. We might have felt this in the past, but the technologies of connection, communication and collaboration reinforce this feeling.

And amplify it.

And in a joined up world what used to be top down, becomes top down, side in and bottom up…all at the same time. There can now be valuable contribution from every direction. And of course, valueless contributions as well. It’s a largely agnostic platform.

In the not so distant past, we waited to be informed, to be told what to do, what was happening, where to go = top down.

The top down structures of media, publishing, government, academia, medicine are all still in place. But our relationship with them has shifted.

Newspapers allowed feedback through “letter to the editor” pages, and comments were selected and edited to suit. Commentary has now shifted into the hands of anyone and everyone. And along with it comes empowerment.

We can now talk back and we do. But more than talk back, we can now “do” things. Action comes from empowerment.

So the bleating of “I can’t make a difference” has diminished as people recognise the true “power of one”, amplified by the technology of connectivity and collaboration, through multiple connections and networks.

Systems integrators are familiar with this and connect things up every day, helping their customers open up to a whole new realm of possibilities.

But they can only go as far and as fast as their customers allow them.

The speed of change is dictated not by the vendors or by CIOs, but by the ability of CEOs – individuals – to understand the possibilities and pursue them. And most CEOs are still busy with other things.

They are busy with My business. My council. My organisation. My state. My government. Which is perfectly understandable of course. That’s where we get paid to focus.

But we need to make time to focus beyond and outside of our individual workplaces and consider where networking and collaboration might further enhance what we are doing.

To reach out and start discussions with the councils next door, with the businesses in our networks, with anybody making interesting noises.

“What could we do together?” “We have this common problem, how could we help each other?”

There are healthy signs that people are now thinking beyond the historical and familiar, and stepping into the new territory of collaboration.

The tools are available. But what will inspire us to use them more regularly and imaginatively?

Financial restriction is a powerful motivator. We have less money to spend in our businesses and regions. There is less money for health, education, social services and development. Doing “more with less” has become the new mantra.

Is that such a bad thing? Or does it just force us to be more creative and collaborative.

Under budgetary constraints sharing and collaboration can become a viable option. They might become the only option.

Almost by accident, Facebook and Linkedin have shown a glimpse of what might be. Even World of Warcraft and other online multi-user games demonstrate the ability of individuals that don’t know each other, from anywhere on the planet to work together to successfully complete a task.

Though adoption and use of social media tools is widespread, leveraging the value of collaboration has hardly begun.

Driven by Google, the customer relationship has changed. Forever. Most think the customer relationship is the simple bit, and that the technology is hard. But it is the other way around.

For adoption isn’t compulsory. And people will pick up tools and use them how they decide, and when they decide.

Most people have little time for digesting new information properly. And in this new complex, connected digital environment all is not what it seems.

It is possible to quickly grasp the how, and most young people are digital natives growing up with devices, comfortable with the technology they pick up and use.

What they often miss is what lies under the bonnet, the power inside the engine, who built the engine and why. Nobody should accept everything at face value. Follow the money. Follow the power and control.

In an interconnected world all interests come to play – the top down, side in and the bottom up.

There is always a trade off for engagement. The trade may be acceptable. It may not. But recognise it is there. You will pay something, whether it is money, data, time, attention, privacy or information.

The older members of our society who witnessed the birth of digital not so long ago have been around the block. They have seen recessions and depressions, wars and revolutions. They understand many of the “power plays” personally and every revolution is about power.

But when you join things up you get shared value, and power shifts from the past to the present, the vendor to the customer, from the one to the many, from the sides to the centre and from the top to the grass roots, and the grass roots in Australia are now networked.

And that is a seismic shift, with multiple implications that challenge the status quo. All status quos.

So everybody, old and young alike, now has to make time to understand the bigger picture. Because not everything comes in bite sized chunks.

Some issues are big and important and have to be considered carefully, chewed over and digested properly. And the only way to satisfy “your” hunger is to eat food yourself. No point skimming the menu or getting somebody else to do it for you…you will still be hungry.

Likewise you have to understand what drives the digital revolution yourself to gain useful insights and understanding. It is not good enough to think that somebody else in your organisation gets it. You have to get it. If you are the CEO, it is mandatory.

This revolution is changing the world. Whether it is for better or worse remains to be seen, but it is looking hopeful.

At a time when science through DNA has clearly demonstrated our common genetic heritage and membership of the human race, and the digital revolution drives us ever onwards to connect and collaborate it is hardly surprising that our old divisive, organisational structures are crumbling at the edges.

Australia is certainly not amongst the worst in its response to the deep currents of digital revolution. It is amongst the best. But we can always do better. And that requires vision.

We need to shift from a short term, departmental view of our regions, states and country to a long term, holistic, societal view.

Short termism promotes selfishness. Short termism encourages the impulse to waste, to use and abuse every resource regardless of long-term consequences. Short termism allows 1% of the population to own 99% of the wealth.

Take a long term and bigger picture view and none of this makes sense. We are all connected and always were. The farmers and the factories and the exporters are all part of one chain. The young continually become old on the conveyor belt of life. The city and the bush are connected in an eternal partnership. We need each other to be successful.

But unless we recognise what shared value means we will not get the participation and endorsement necessary to build regional capability and increase Australia’s productivity in a sustainable way.

Telstra Countrywide was a revolutionary initiative when it began, in tune with the digital revolution. In many ways, it was years ahead of its time.

In 2000, Telstra created a countrywide network of General Managers who lived and worked in regional centres across Australia. They understood the regions they lived in. They built relationships with local businesses, non-profits, schools and councils. They helped broker the benefits of the digital revolution for everybody and anybody.

They earned and gained trust. They built long-term business relationships. They created a platform for the regional digital economy. They would have been the natural, regional trust-broker for the NBN, and most of the Regional Development Australia committees and councils across Australia.

But Mr Trujillo questioned the short term “business case”. And Telstra Countrywide, one of the most visionary, intelligent and strategic Telstra endeavours was done, and transformed back into a sales force, not a regional catalyst for positive change.

Telstra Countrywide was a visionary shared value project, a true 21st century division of Telstra that today is a shadow of what it might have been. Ten years ahead of its time.

Timing can be hard to manage, especially for big organisations.

Long-term customer value and shared value are difficult things to understand for most boards and financial controllers who only value the share price and next quarter bottom line. See “What is the ROI of a seed?” (Previous post)

To them the value is only the dollar, not the relationship that produces the dollar. This view reveals the lack of understanding of the digital revolution, the connection between the seed and the crop, the land and the crop, the customer and the dollar.

For without long-term vision and shared value customer relationship, ultimately there is no bottom line.

Because, the bottom line is only about price not value. And competing solely on price is a competition that can’t be won. The local, the agile, the trusted, the reliable and the loyal will win that battle every time.

We are all connected. Personally, and increasingly through multiple digital connections, energised by collaborative and connecting media. Social media.

Win – lose is no longer the equation. Win-win-win is. Shared value is our destiny. Professor Porter from Harvard Business School recognised this years ago. Command and control is undermined by the digital revolution and the genie will not go back into the bottle.

Technology provides us with tools. The tools that allow us to extend our senses out into the world and make things happen.

And connected technologies are automatically going to lead us into new territory where the traditional boundaries, borders, silos and departments are absent or blurred. So we are all going to have to get used to it. And start thinking in a more connected, collaborative and inclusive way. Or it won’t work. And we won’t work.

Because jobs, skills and employment are all impacted by the digital revolution and we collectively need to address that issue today.

In a regional sense that means the connection and inclusion of all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, not just social services, not just social services and government, not just social services and government and councils, not just council to council, but social services, government, councils, associations, businesses, individuals, households, lawyers, accountants, consultants, academia, media, IT services and support, local change agents and the rest. It all needs to be connected with consideration.

It already is connected anyway, but in a haphazard, historical, siloed, departmental way. We can now use the power of technology to make connection much more effective and productive.

Farmers, the best ones and that is the majority have always understood what the miners don’t. Everything is connected and you can’t steal from the farm what you then expect to sustain you for generations. Farmers add value to the soil. Year in and year out, or there is no farm. There is a message there. We should listen harder to what Australian farmers have to teach us.

We need to add value in all our productive industries – the industries that generate value and higher financial reward. Manufacturing, agriculture, tourism, cleantech, medtech, greentech, biotech, nanotech, creative industries, ICT, education and training, design-led professional services, trades and infrastructure.

We have the skills, the smarts and the willingness to achieve. We are good at team sports. We need to become good at team economic development and at value adding.

Connecting councils into teams. Businesses into teams. Not-for-profits into teams. And connecting those teams into teams.

Because guess what? Many of the most intractable problems in our society can ONLY be solved by collaboration, working across borders, beyond budgets and open to suggestions. Then the impossible task becomes possible.

We must use the power of the technology that we have created to do what we have always dreamed of. All of us collectively. We all dream.

We have to learn from the farmers and productively manage and farm the world we live in, not pillage it. It is about governance and management and stewardship and common sense.

For our part, here in Australia, we can do a lot. We don’t have to always check out what is happening elsewhere first and follow that. We can lead the way and we should. There is still a knee jerk tendency to think someone else, somewhere else knows better than we do but it is not true. We can make our own decisions.

Australia is a remarkable country full of innovation and ideas, with thousands of businesses adding value and sharing value every day.

We need to collect and share and tell their stories more widely. There are lots of them. And human beings learn from example.

In every survey, when we asked organisations how that would like to receive help, information and advice, universally they said three things.

They wanted information to come to them…not to go and look for it.

They wanted the opportunity to experience new technologies “hands on” and they wanted to be able to talk to somebody – discuss issues “face to face” with their peers and advisors.

So human engagement is centrally important and automation has to be customer focused, supportive and targeted.

The solution should start with each individual customer, not the vendor.

It should start with what a business wants, not with what government wants to deliver. It should start with a vision for a knowledge economy not just connecting people up.

The possibilities are practically endless. But it requires a shift in thinking.

We have created a whole society focused on short term, piecemeal, siloed activities, departments and operations. That made sense during the industrial revolution, but today that approach blocks the true potential of the digital revolution.

We all know of example after example where immediate, inspired action in one government department could have prevented later and far greater expenditure across many other departments…but government doesn’t think in a joined up way.

Health. Law. Education. Indigenous Affairs. Employment. Loads of money spent chasing symptoms but no enthusiasm for addressing causes.

Now it might be too big “an ask” at this stage of our digital evolution to try to start there, but we can look at something a lot simpler.

At a regional and sectoral level, let’s just start by joining things up in a collaborative framework and see what happens. Council to council. RDA to RDA. We are doing it with GIS and spatial data, now let’s do it for economic and social development between more departments, more sectors and across more organisations.

What we have seen over the last few years is this.

Every time people start talking to each other with an open mind about common issues and problems, solutions arise. Unexpected solutions. Remarkable solutions. Fascinating ideas. We have seen this in project after project, location after location.

What is missing is the mechanism and the funding to turn the ideas into action, so those ideas often remain ideas.

We have to turn think into do. Discussion forums and groups have to be encouraged into action…into project groups and teams.

We manage this well in business startup “incubators” with individual businesses and organisations. There is no reason at all why we shouldn’t expand this approach to a region or a sector or a country.

We can be the case study for what can be, not what might be.

We just need to document and publish the process. Demonstrate what will be and can be. And share. New products and services will inevitably evolve from the process, new wealth and value.

In becoming more capable and productive, we can demonstrate what could be, might be and should be, and in the process generate shared value, increase productivity and pride, improve fairness and capability across all parts of our society.

It is gardening not architecture. Our future lies in connecting and sharing internally, externally, working together collaboratively and effectively.

Yes. It requires a small leap of faith. And often only a small amount of money. Not for the faint hearted. But for the first time in our history, the technology gives us the means. We just need the collective will to start doing it.

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Tuesday, 26 September 2017