Friday, December 13, 2013

The Challenges to Global Collaboration

There has been a lot of discussion lately on the web about how we're beginning to achieve the decades old goal of consistent global collaboration for innovation and problem-solving.  The celebration may be a bit premature, not unlike prior victory dances we engaged in related to:

  • Cancer Research
  • Flying Cars or Electric Cars for that matter
  • Space travel
  • AIDs Cures
  • Big Data changing the world
  • Artificial Intelligence and so on...
We have had a bad habit lately of confusing the initiation of a trend or innovation with its mature realization. The technical foundation for global collaboration has been developed and deployed over nearly four decades. That's how long it has taken to define the network communications paradigm and deploy the necessary bandwidth, information resources and devices to make such a lofty goal possible. But then again, perhaps we need to step back and ask ourselves what Global Collaboration really is and identify the remaining barriers that may otherwise hold it back.

Global Collaboration represents the exploitation of both technological assets and cultural predispositions to share knowledge and jointly resolve common challenges. Now, this model isn't entirely new is it? Academia has been doing this for centuries - sort of. Within higher education there is (and always has been) a tacit expectation for various types of cross-institutional mind-share. However that expectation was always restricted by the following factors:
  1. Competition for ownership of ideas.
  2. Limits in the ability to communicate (technology).
  3. Limits in access to the right information (technology and cultural boundaries or secrecy - and this factor is of course related to factor 1).  
  4. A limited working model in how to organize "virtual communities." In the old days, these communities were characterized as scientific societies and much of what they accomplished was based on direct point to point correspondence, journals and meetings. We are still working with all of those metaphors today even though we have witnessed the birth of real-time communities powered by the combination of social media and mobile devices. 
  5. Orthodoxy. This may sound odd, but in fact it is orthodoxy that puts the institution into "institutionalism." In other words, it represents the ultimate barrier to acceptance of or even discussion of unorthodox or disruptive concepts. 

As much as we'd like to think that modern society is open-minded and innovative - and that we're hurtling from one innovation to another at breakneck speed - that's just not the case. The telephone was invented in 1880's, radio communication was invented before 1920, television around 1930 and computers in the 1940's, miniature transistors in the 1950's  - yet the journey from those various inventions to a mobile device that combines them took more than 60 years. The story of the electric car is much worse - it was invented at roughly the same time as the internal combustion approach was worked out - yet one was promoted and the other neglected. We don't typically move nearly as fast as we think we do and we often make poor choices along the way.

What does this have to do with Global Collaboration? Well, the premise goes that if dozens or hundreds or even thousands of minds were directed at a problem then the solutions to that problem would happen faster and be vetted better. It would no longer be Edison versus Telsa, but countless inventors competing and collaborating on a level playing field - or at least that's idea. The closest thing to this model that we have now is Open Source software.

But does the Open Source software model represent the type of Global Collaboration that futurists have been predicting for the past half century?  The answer is yes and no.

Yes, it represents a prototype of highly specialized working collaboration (on a global scale) - no it doesn't seem to represent the prototype for making truly revolutionary breakthroughs. So, why isn't the "Open Source" model redefining innovation and progress in software or science? Here are some possible explanations:

  1. The (majority of) projects are too narrowly defined to make real breakthroughs.
  2. The context (software development) is too limited. 
  3. Coding is focused on skill in execution - and problem solving at a tactical scale. It doesn't usually require any quantum leaps in conceptual understanding or practical application.
If you think I'm being harsh about the Open Source movement as a force for global innovation - then ask yourselves how much of the core technology that is powering our current infrastructure came out of it:
  • Well, they gave us MySQL - and SQL came from previous working groups - but it was also very similar to existing products.
  • What about Java, Linux, Apache etc. All good stuff, but not truly disruptive - the seeds for all of that had been developed elsewhere. 
  • Big Data, Cloud tech - again the same above.  

Lot's of good stuff is coming out of the Open Source movement - it's just not that revolutionary and much of what has been revolutionary has come out of the older style collaborative ecosystems like Academia and DoD (or combinations thereof).

So, now with all of that as preface; here is a list of some of the challenges that I think is holding back global collaboration (at least the way it has been envisioned):

  1. Competition can be both beneficial and destructive. We need to find a better way to manage it and ensure open playing fields for smaller players. In other words, how can we provide tangible rewards for contribution that doesn't end up excluding the majority of participants? 
  2. Secrecy -  One of the lasting holdovers of the Cold War is a subculture of secrecy that seems to be present in almost every major nation on the planet. This represents perhaps the single biggest obstacle to the eventual global cooperation that futurists tend to describe. Solving problems together requires a level of trust that simply doesn't exist yet. Hopefully it will someday.
  3. Orthodoxy - How many times have brilliant ideas been dismissed because the community in which they were introduced rejected them? More times than can be counted no doubt. The biggest barrier to most innovation is and always has been a lack of imagination. When careers depend of defending existing paradigms; newer paradigms will take longer to birth or die in the cradle.
  4. A framework or methodology for global problem solving. There's perhaps thousands of these or similar approaches floating around (from academia to open source software for example) but a truly effective one remains elusive. 

My next post will explore what "a truly effective methodology for global problem solving" might look like.

Copyright 2013, Stephen Lahanas



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