Filling Big Shoes

As I witness the trend toward collaboration in e-business, I have to smile.

As I witness the trend toward collaboration in e-business, I have to smile. Society has long held that collaboration garners less-satisfying results than the more popular top-down management style of many businesses. And yet, collaboration is quickly emerging as a fertile ground for e-business.

Years ago, as an executive manager at Hewlett-Packard, where people are offered the freedom to work within a broad set of guidelines, I first began to develop a collaborative management style. As a new manager, I constantly heard the phrase, "You have such big shoes to fill!" My predecessor indeed had big feet, literally and figuratively.

To start off on the right foot and to illustrate my perception of collaboration, I bought a pair of size 15 shoes and had one cut into pieces. At our first department meeting I told each of those gathered to take a piece of the shoe and pin it to their tack boards. This, I explained, was a part of the shoe they must fill. As a manager, I would fill the other.

One person actually asked, "How did you get his shoes?" The others, I believe, understood that this was a step in the direction of being a collaborative community of workers.

A recent report on collaborative commerce by the Gartner Group defined the movement as "the fluid interaction of a community of personnel, business partners and customers that is joined together by Internet, component and integration technologies, resulting in agile but highly integrated virtual multi-company enterprises."

The idea that collaboration is based on community at any level, be it global or local, is key. Unfortunately, single-industry players believe they can credibly sponsor a global marketplace that is intended to provide a level playing field for all.

Being part of a business community necessarily forces next-generation corporate applications to look outward to partnerships with suppliers, customers and integrators, rather than inward upon itself.

The relatively sudden shift in focus from the single enterprise to the rapid proliferation of external-facing applications for collaborative commerce calls for consideration of how vendors approach application development.

In support of the productive power of the division of labor, I give you economist Adam Smith, whose writings I believe exemplify why best-of-breed vendors provide the best solution overall. "The greatest improvement in the productive powers of labor," he wrote more than 200 years ago, "and the greater part of the skill, dexterity and judgment with which it is anywhere directed or applied, seem to have been the effects of the division of labor."

Indeed, who better to develop specialized technologies than those with the greatest skill and dexterity in a specific area?

Best-of-breed vendors understand that to be a player in the global marketplace they must embrace the philosophy of collaboration, all the while offering superior expertise in their respective fields. To tailor their various solutions within the whole of the community ensures not only survival, but also productivity.

Large companies such as HP effectively use collaboration in-house and are very successful as a result. Market leaders are also banking on technical collaboration in the global community as a means of competing in the global marketplace. IBM, for example, has stated in interviews that it relies on collaboration with an ever-widening community of businesses.

Other companies, however, have not seen eye-to-eye with collaboration. They cling to the idea that single solutions can be served up in a top-down management style and remain competitive, despite major trends or the power of the division of labor.

This attitude is similar to that of children during the toddler stage, when they insist on doing everything for themselves. It is a valid demand coming from a youngster who must learn how to master the most basic skills in life, such as tying ones shoes. But for maturing companies at the helm of a collaborative business revolution, it smacks of a losing strategy.