By now, most people are familiar with six degrees of separation, the idea that you are linked to every individual on the planet by a surprisingly small chain of relationships. In an increasingly connected world, it means that information and behaviors can spread quickly via social networks.
You would think this would be especially powerful at work, where a smaller population also shares some sense of identity and values. But the opposite seems to be true. Inside companies, there is typically friction and resistance that limits the number of connections and information flow.
Why? And what can we do about it?
Companies have long recognized this problem, and have exhorted employees to collaborate more and break down silos. But the organization chart naturally creates Us and Them in the company, and all the territorial defensiveness that goes with it. Like Hercule’s Hydra, the oft-lamented silos form and re-form no matter how many attempts are made to reorganize and get rid of them.
“Co-creation" is a fairly recent phenomenon. It purposefully “brings different parties together (for instance, a company and a group of customers), in order to jointly produce a mutually valued outcome.” As part of the quality movement, for example, manufacturers worked closely with suppliers to identify and fix issues.
Originally, the concept of co-creation was limited to formal arrangements between companies and customers, and later on became common between different companies, divisions, and teams. But it can go far beyond that.
Six degrees of co-creation
Today, co-creation is even easier. Instead of the starting point being an agreement between two organizations, co-creation can begin with contributions from anyone, anywhere, and rely on social networks to deliver relevant information to the people who need it or might find it useful.
In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson described this as the basis for most innovations:
“Innovative environments expose a wide and diverse sample of spare parts and encourage a novel way of recombining those parts…If you look at history, innovation doesn’t come from just giving people incentives; it comes from creating environments where their ideas can connect.”
Co-creation, writ large, thus requires an increase in both the supply and demand of knowledge. More people need to make their work visible - what they’re doing, why they’re doing it, what they’re learning - and more people need to be curious enough to search for, use, and build on the work of others. It’s the opposite of the “Not Invented Here” syndrome. Instead, everyone contributes, and innovations emerge from networks that form across traditional boundaries.
Good for your organization. Good for you.
Perhaps it’s easy to see why an organization would want such an environment. It would lead to greater innovation as Johnson describes, to reducing the duplication of effort and errors, and to greater agility and resilience in the face of change. That’s why so many companies are investing in culture change programs, in new social intranets, in events to inspire and encourage employees to work and think differently. Although their progress is slow, they are serious in their attempts to improve how people work together.
But what’s in it for you as an individual? Why on earth would you share your hard-earned knowledge without knowing what you might get in return?
The answer, in short, is that it makes your world bigger. Each contribution you make is like a pebble in a pond, rippling out and bringing you into contact with possibilities you would never know about otherwise. You are only a few degrees away from other people, knowledge, and resources that can help you realize more of your personal potential. But you’ll only realize that potential if you work in a more open, connected way.
Co-creation needn’t be a formal program, or something that requires permission from the boss. It’s a choice, a way of working you can start practicing today. What are you waiting for?
Note: This post is adapted from an article I wrote for a company’s internal employee magazine earlier this year.