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July/August 1999
This article was published in Educom Review, Volume 34 Number 4 1999. The copyright is copyright is shared by the author(s) and EDUCAUSE. See for additional copyright information.
An EDUCAUSE publication


Making a NICER Transition to the Millennium: Five Keys to Successful Collaboration
by David Smallen and Karen Leach

As we approach the year 2000, organizations are undertaking significant contingency planning efforts to prepare for problems caused by the "millennium bug." The profitability of businesses -- in many cases, their survival -- depends on their technological infrastructures. Flawless technological performance is expected, and yet in spite of extensive internal remediation efforts, problems will occur due to the transparent electronic interconnectedness that characterizes our global economy.1 In the final analysis, what will matter is the ability of individuals and work units in our organizations to collaborate effectively in response to inevitable unanticipated problems. In Organizing Genius, Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman state: "It's not clear that life was ever so simple that individuals, acting alone, solved most significant problems. Our tendency to create heroes rarely jibes with the reality that most nontrivial problems require collective solutions.2

Practice makes perfect, and it is essential that a broadly representative group of organizational members be engaged in contingency planning well ahead of the moment when action is required. If collaborations are necessary, what are the basic principles that will make them successful?


The most important precondition for successful collaboration is the existence of a common, strongly felt need. That need can be as simple as survival, but it must be strong, since collaborative work takes time and energy, of the kind that will be sustained not merely by ideas but by desires. In the wild, animals sense that collaboration increases their chances of survival. In the lion kingdom, male lions that work together have, on average, bigger prides of lionesses, more cubs, and better overall chances of survival. Zebras are herd animals because working together confuses their predators. Members of Y2K contingency planning groups must believe that their efforts are critical to the success of the organization.

Working together can increase the quality of our lives and, indeed, our chances of survival as professionals. But collaboration is hard work! We don't like to work together unless there is some real payback for investing the energy required to collaborate. Meeting a need provides this incentive. If there isn't a payoff for everyone, collaboration won't happen. In general, the need to collaborate can simply be the necessity of dealing with uncertainty, or of having someone with whom to share our concerns, or of solving a very real, common problem. Michael Schrage suggests: "People collaborate precisely because they don't know how to -- or can't -- deal with the challenges they face as individuals. Collaboration is a necessary technique to master the unknown."3

In our experience, teams are often formed with only a vague idea that if their members work together, good things will happen. In the absence of a strongly felt common purpose and a real problem to solve, these efforts often fail, degenerating into a collection of individual efforts loosely held together only by unproductive meetings.


What is often not clear is that once the need is present, collaborators must develop a sense of intimacy. Good collaborators are able to speak openly about what they believe, feel, and think. Successful collaborative activity demands a feeling of safety to share information and a commitment to be completely honest about a particular area being discussed. This kind of sharing implies a willingness to be vulnerable -- to trust -- to look stupid sometimes and to be open to challenge. In Organizing Genius, Bennis and Biederman note, "People who are engaged in ground-breaking collaborations have high regard for people who challenge and test their ideas . . . ordinary affability may be no virtue.4

Developing intimacy takes time. Intimacy is earned through deeds: by coming through, being dependable, carrying your weight, and being willing to take risks for others -- to go the extra mile. Executives choosing members of a Y2K planning group should pay careful attention to the previous interactions of the participants. The people leading these planning efforts have to be sensitive to creating an environment in which an honest sharing of information will flourish. We all have experienced situations in which the real issues are never discussed because there is no feeling of safety.


After intimacy is established, effective communication mechanisms are required to keep the collaboration going. In a networked world, we rely heavily on electronic communication (phone, fax, e-mail, the Web). Such forms of communication are convenient, pervasive, and location independent. Electronic communication mechanisms allow "just-in-time" consultation between members. But this isn't enough. To develop the kind of intimacy that ultimately achieves results, team members need regular face-to-face communication. A large portion of communication is nonverbal, and electronic alternatives do not provide an effective substitute for these more subtle cues. This is well known and is part of the reason that interviewers of job applicants place such importance on basic aspects such as eye contact. A well-prepared Y2K contingency team will be comfortable with multiple communication mechanisms, including electronic, supplemented with regular face-to-face communication.


Successful collaborations involve work among equals. There needs to be equality in power and in sharing of credit and authority. Margaret Wheatley writes about self-organizing systems -- ones in which people come together as equals to reach a common goal, largely without the need for hierarchy. The most common example of a self-organizing system is a community whose members work together after a natural disaster such as a flood, hurricane, or ice storm. People organize themselves based on their abilities, without using significant hierarchical structures. In choosing Y2K committee members, executives must avoid the problems caused by inequalities in status. If participating individuals have unequal status in the work environment, then particular attention needs to be paid to creating de facto equality in the collaborative activity.5


Finally, successful collaborations are built on a foundation of respect. Working together intensely won't necessarily lead to friendships, but collaborators must respect each other's talents. Notable collaborations bring together people with complementary skills and very different personalities. In moments of crisis, effective collaborators respect the skills of the experts in their midst and use those skills to maximum advantage. Respect is fundamentally about the ability to build upon strengths and compensate for weaknesses.

As we approach the year 2000, effective collaborations will be the secret that will minimize the global impact of information systems problems. Our collective work can be NICER if we adopt the five keys to success: Need, Intimacy, Communication, Equality, and Respect. We are facing an immediate problem in preparing for the new millennium, but the need for collaborative activities in all aspects of our daily lives will continue indefinitely.


1 See John L. Petersen, Margaret Wheatley, and Myron Kellner-Rogers, "The Year 2000: Social Chaos or Social Transformation?" The Futurist, October 1998.

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2 Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman, Organizing Genius: The Secret of Creative Collaboration (Reading, Mass.: Addison Wesley Publishing, 1997), 198.

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3 Michael Schrage, No More Teams! Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration (New York: Currency Doubleday, 1995), 30.

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4 Bennis and Biederman, Organizing Genius, 203.

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5 Margaret J. Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science: Learning about Organization from an Orderly Universe (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1992).

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David Smallen, Director of Information Technology Services at Hamilton College, and Karen Leach, Chief Information Officer at Colgate University, collaborate on a number of projects. They are currently leading the COSTS project, an international effort to study and benchmark the costs of information technology services at colleges and universities. They may be contacted by e-mail at [email protected] or [email protected].

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