Sunday, January 04, 2009

I Just Want to Say One Word to You: Collaboration.

With apologies to The Graduate . . .
Mr. Chambers: I just want to say one word to you – just one word.
Me: Yes sir.
Mr. Chambers: Are you listening?
Me: Yes I am.
Mr. Chambers: Collaboration.
Me: How do you mean?
Mr. Chambers: There’s a great future in collaboration. Blog about it. Will you blog about it?
Me: Yes I will.
Mr. Chambers: Shh! Enough said. That’s a deal.
The December/January issue of Fast Company has an interesting article on Cisco and its CEO John Chambers. Here are some lengthy excerpts (emphasis added by me).
He has been taking Cisco through a massive, radical, often bumpy reorganization. The goal is to spread the company’s leadership and decision making far wider than any big company has attempted before, to working groups that currently involve 500 executives. This move, Chambers says, reflects a new philosophy about how business can best work in a networked world. “In 2001, we were like most high-tech companies, with one or two primary products that were really important to us,” he explains. “All decisions came to the top 10 people in the company, and we drove things back down from there.” Today, a network of councils and boards empowered to launch new businesses, plus an evolving set of Web 2.0 gizmos – not to mention a new financial incentive system – encourage executives to work together like never before. Pull back the tent flaps and Cisco citizens are blogging, vlogging, and vitualizing, using social-networking tools that they’ve made themselves and that, in many cases, far exceed the capabilities of the commercially available wikis, YouTubes, and Facebooks created by the kids up the road in Palo Alto.

The bumpy part – and the eye-opener – is that the leaders of business units formerly competing for power and resources now share responsibility for one another’s success. What used to be “me” is now “we.”
Cisco is moving from “me” to “we.” What about your district? Your school? Your classroom?
An avowed Republican (and a cochair of John McCain’s presidential campaign), Chambers politely ignored my observation that Cisco’s new regimen feels a bit like a socialist revolution. But Chambers did kick off the analyst conference with a slide that read, COLLABORATION: “CO-LABOR”; WORKING TOWARD A COMMON GOAL. In language and spirit, Chamber’s transformation is a mashup of radical isms and collectivist catchphrases. Of course, with analysts suggesting that the “collaboration marketplace” could be a $34 billion opportunity, it’s radicalism of a reassuringly capitalist bent.
Cisco is emphasizing working toward a common goal and developing the collaboration marketplace. In your last staff meeting did you discuss a collaboration learning-place, or did you discuss moving borderline students up to the next cut score?
Trust and openness are words you hear a lot in the endlessly optimistic world of Web 2.0, but at Cisco, it seems to be more than a PowerPoint mantra, even to my jaundiced eye. As Mitchell and I settle down to our conversation in an open space not 25 feet from Chamber’s office, I can hear the CEO chatting on the phone with customers. Mitchell, who is charged with encouraging the company’s rank and file to adopt new technology, is undistracted. “We want a culture where it is unacceptable not to share what you know,” he says.
Cisco wants its employees to share. And share some more. It’s unacceptable not to. How much opportunity do you give your staff to share? Your students? Is it an expectation that they share? Or are they punished if they share?
So he promotes all kinds of social networking at Cisco: You can write a blog, upload a video, and tag your myriad strengths in the Facebook-style internal directory. “Everybody is an author now,” he laughs. Blog posts are voted up based on their helpfulness. There are blogs about blogging and classes about holding classes – all gauged to make it easy for less-engaged employees to get with the program.
Cisco provides resources and training opportunities so that less-engaged employees can “get with the program.” What is your school – or district – providing?
So that Facebook-style directory at Cisco serves not just as a way to make lunch plans or find a second baseman for a softball game. It is a real-world, real-time sorting apparatus, designed to help anyone inside the company easily find the answer to a question, a product demo, or precisely the right warm body to speak to a waiting customer or present at a conference – in any language, anywhere around the globe.
Sounds a lot like what GE is doing, as I blogged about previously. So GE and Cisco are embracing social networking, is your school? Are you?
Most of the videos are short product reports, sales ideas, and engineering updates, all created deskside and published directly to the network with the click of a mouse. No filter, no lawyers. It is a petri dish for ideas and exchange.
Cisco is open, no filters, no lawyers, in order to foster the creation and exchange of ideas. Compare that to your school. How open is your school? Your classroom?
Collaboration this way helps a world community solve big problems,” says vice president Jim Grubb, Chamber’s longtime product-demo sidekick. “If we can accelerate the productivity of scientists who are working on the next solar technology because we’re hooking them together, we’re doing a great thing for the world.”
Cisco believes that seamlessly connecting people to others fosters innovation, problem solving, and productivity. What have you done to foster seamless connectivity for your teachers? Your students?
Executives are now compensated on how well the collective businesses perform, not their own individual product units. (Playing well with others is also an increasingly important part of rank-and-file employees’ performance reviews.) . . . Without buy-in or even permission from Chambers, they brought in 15 people with relevant skills – turning down an invitation to collaborate is not an option – and built a product called StadiumVision . . . A multimillion-dollar business came together in less than 120 days.
Cisco believes in empowering their employees and measuring their performance at least partially based on their collaborative abilities, and refusing to collaborate is not an option. What portion of your assessment program evaluates collaborative abilities?

So, if you’re an administrator, what are you doing to foster collaboration among your staff, and especially your teachers? And I’m talking more than just PLC’s, although that’s not a bad start. What are you really doing to fundamentally change the structure of your school(s) from one of isolation (close the door and teach), to one of sharing and collaboration (knock down the walls)? Is it unacceptable to share in your institution?

If you’re a teacher, what are you doing to foster collaboration among your students? And I’m talking more than putting them into groups of four and having the students create a PowerPoint presentation together. What are you really doing to fundamentally change the structure of your classroom from one of isolation (do your own work), to one of collaboration (work with others)? What are you doing to build their skills to succeed in a corporate environment that requires them to collaborate on a global scale?

If you're a student, what are you doing to improve your own collaboration skills - and those of your peers? What are you demanding of your schools, your teachers, your administrators to help prepare you for the collaborative marketplace that is your future?
Mr. Chambers: Are you listening?
You: ?


  1. Cisco should release those damn tools, either as a business in its own right or open source.

  2. This was a fantastic post, Karl. I am predicting right now that a year from now people will still be talking about this post. It is simple yet incredibly thought provoking. By not teaching and encouraging true collaboration we are setting our students up for failure down the road.

    I used to feel very isolated teaching at a very small school in western Nebraska. However, I have grown my PLN to include amazing educators from around the world. I thought that all teachers would jump at the chance to use Web 2.0 tools to not only connect with their colleagues around the world, but allow their students to become connected! I get so much personal satisfaction out of connecting with other teachers that I find it difficult to understand why so many educators seem to be content to stick with the same things they have been doing for years.

    Now that I know the power of being connected (and I am not really all that connected yet!) I could not imagine what it would be like to not have my PLN. I can only imagine all of the terrific projects that my students will be part of over the next few years. What will become of those who don't get to collaborate with students around the world? Will they ever learn to care about anything that happens outside of their own community? Will they ever learn to work with people who are different from them?

  3. @bethstill - Thanks, although I'm not sure I share your confidence in the success of this post. It is the first day/week back for most folks, so probably not a lot of reading going on (I know I'm not reading a lot so far this week.)

    It is interesting how folks that feel the power of a PLN have trouble imagining not having it anymore, and also have trouble understanding why others don't seem interested. I agree that students who have teachers that encourage (force?) them to collaborate, particularly with others outside of their school (and SES), will most likely have a large advantage over those that don't.

  4. Karl,

    Beth's onto something with the importance of this post, and I think it has as much to do with the relevancy you provide by quoting the exact places in the article where your points can be taken.

    I just read the interview at Fast Company, and one element of caution jumped out at me. When they were discussing the problem of Chambers' successor being named and re-forming Cisco in his or her image, I couldn't help but think of how when new leaders come into a building, teachers feel like all of the work they did with the previous leader is for naught. With the amount of change in administration we will see in our schools in the next few years, this is a problem.

    Thanks for the post, and for yet another reminder of how incredible having a PLN can be. You posted this on the 4th, but it didn't become relevant to my work until today, and I found it through a search of my google reader. If it's important to me, and it's out there, the network will find it for me.

  5. @Patrick - Thanks, and I agree on the leadership concern.

    I guess my hope is that once a teacher/team/school is empowered by and experiences the success of collaboration and using the network, then they will refuse to go backward even if they do get a new leader who perhaps doesn't get it.

    Maybe self-empowered and interconnected teachers and learners are the ultimate solution to frequently changing leadership?

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  7. Karl,

    In my district we have common collaboration time for teachers by grade level at the elementary level once every three weeks for a half day, middle schools have collaboration daily by teams for planning, and high schools have collaboration by content areas half days once a month. One of the issues is that there doesn't seem to be a common vision as to how collaboration works, so for some it is a waste of time. For others the time is used wisely but I see very little classroom application of collaboration when it comes to students, other than for a specific project and a group presentation. There is still a strong focus on do your own work, even for those teachers who have successful collaboration time. Collaboration, sharing for some is very difficult, why is that? The shift from teaching in isolation to teaching collaboratively in my opinion would be a welcome change, why isn't it?

    We do need to encourage students to work collaboratively and model that for them. My son graduated from college in May and works for a large accounting firm in Maryland, he is part of a 5 person team, the company is structured in teams, and they work on all their projects together. Fortunately he went to a university whose curriculum is centered on project based learning so he worked in teams throughout his college education, because this was not the case in the high school he graduated from.

  8. Fascinating! I was just mentioning to my students how Cisco have seen the writing on the wall when it comes to their traditional core Routing & Switching products. As these products become commoditized with mounting pressure from the BRIC countries with cheaper alternatives, more of their revenue base for these products will be eroded. Consequently they are investing heavily in the Software services side. In my opinion Chambers is a stellar CEO who has an amazing aptitude to notice the technology shift and make his company adapt. It's awesome to hear they are taking full advantage of collaborative tools in their organization. I can only echo many of the rhetorical statements in the blog post in terms of our organization.

    Just as a side note, a collaborative option I've really enjoyed using to centralize my internet lifestream is Disqus. I've added it to my blog as well as synchronized the comments from FriendFeed into Disqus, so that any comment I make on a Blog supporting Disqus or even in reply to a post in friendfeed, will be aggregated in one space. People's comments can be an equally important part of someone's social networking footprint. For instance it would be great to follow some of your comments to other people's posts in addition to your blog posts. Just thought I'd throw it out there..:)..For blogger it's as simple as adding their provided code snippet into your template.