October 30, 2011 at 7:16pm
The world has changed. The problems that could be solved by Edison, Lister & Einstein have all been solved. Today's world needs collaboration of the best, not competition among the best. Unfortunately the game isn't set up that way!
Today's commerce is driven by corporates looking to outperform each other. When that is the superordinate goal, there is very little chance of anyone coming together to collaborate. Every pharma company is pouring billions into research to find the cocktail that will cure AIDS, they are all competing with each other for the brightest talent. That approach unfortunately is no longer yielding the results that it should. In the past, innovation and success was based on the desire to bring a positive change to manking. When Bell invented the telephone, making money was the last thing on his mind. Edison, The Wright Brothers and Joseph Lister were driven to achieve excellence and to change the lives of million, not by the need to shore up a sagging share price.
You just have to take a walk in a retail store to see how shallow 'innovation' has become today. There are hundreds of shampoos with me-too claims like '4X longer' or '2X stronger' etc. That's what you get when you are looking to manage the next 90 days. This however is the result of cut throat competiton for pretty much everything that you can ever buy from a retail store.
It is critical that we solve this problem because we all live in an increasingly connected world that's beginning to see the ill-effects of unabashed capitalism and the relentless pursuit of supernormal profits. There isn't much time for the best to come together and start to focus innovation and research on the real issues rather than pouring billions into research on the next tooth whitening molecule.
The solution lies in our past. Whenever there has been an emergency, teams have come together and produced magic. When our existence and future hangs in the balance, competition vanishes and collaboration assumes centerstage. Countries that have never seen eye to eye have collaborated in the face of a common enemy.
Indeed, the greatest example of collaboration to democratize the availability of information and knowledge has to be Wikipedia. Today, a 10 year old can research the subject of global warming at the click of a button and arrive at a well considered view. 10 years ago, this would be unthinkable. One might have had to spend a sizeable amount on an encyclopedia or consider buying Microsoft's Encarta.
This language of collaboration needs to be spoken more widely and on more important matters. Consider research in the pharmaceutical industry. Wouldn't it make more financial, business and human sense to have all the major companies collaborate to invent a cure for AIDS or cancer rather than have them take each other on in a race to the patent office so that they can make billions in profit over the next few decades.
Unprecedented collaboration, and not in the collusive price fixing sense, it the need of the hour. Food companies muct collaborate to democratize food processing technology so that every starving child in Africa can get a square meal. Food fortification research must be democratized so that no child ever dies of malnutritiion again.
Consider all the major pharma companies sending their foremost researchers to a modern day equivalent of Lockheed Martin's Advanced Development Program, more famously known as Skunk Works, with a mandate to develop of cure for AIDS or Cancer in a year. That would significantly increase the chances of finding a cure.
All companies would then own the cure and should rightly be able to price it at a more affordable rate then they would have been able to had they needed to fund the entire research budget independently. Equally important, is the speed with which the drug would have been available across the entire world if all of them were to combine the power of their distribution in order to maximize the number of lives their drugs might save.
There is a significant change in attitude required on the part of corporations and the shareholders invested in them. The value of a corporation has to shift for pure financial measures to a more holistic consideration of what it brings to humanity. Shareholders have to show faith in making investment decisions that aren't based solely on the short term. A temporary hit in profit margins should be lauded by the stock market if it makes an innovation more widely available and more easily accessible.
To kick-start collaboration of a level that is hitherto unthought of would require a captain of industry to put humanity before profits and take a stand. It could also begin with the coming together of three or four large companies to tackle a problem that each have been unable to solve for a protracted spell of time.
This isn't altogether unrealistic given that large companies work together on certain trade and legislative forums to ensure that the industry isn't taxed unduly etc. The recognition that greater good is served by a more wide ranging collaboration is what will make all the difference.
As a starting point a couple of organizations could agree to trade their top performing executives in a particular field so that both organizations could raise the floor. Imagine the benefits if the best of Toyota's manufacturing were to be shared with the GE, and GE's leadership development processed were to be shared with more MNCs.
The members of the Future of Work Consortium