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Collaboration Makes Us Human

At Frost & Sullivan's annual Growth, Leadership and Innovation conference last week, I moderated two sessions on social media, including one on how to use it to improve collaboration within the organization. Several key points came out of the panel discussions--not least the notion that in a few years, we might not have panel discussions on the topic, which will then be taken for granted as, quite simply, the way we do business. ("No one has sessions on whether you should have email," noted one of the speakers.)

But one of the most compelling ideas I heard came from Nathan Rawlins, Senior Director of Product Marketing at Jive Software, who said that the move toward greater collaboration is simply the natural state of human interactions. New technology isn't so much propelling us to be more collaborative; it's allowing us to go back to our collaborative roots, which have been eroding for almost 200 years, since the industrial revolution made it possible for people to move away from their families and communities, and work ever more as individuals than as part of a larger group.

This echoes a theme in a recent article in the New Yorker that got me thinking about collaboration, and the role it plays in our daily lives. In "Sleeping with the Enemy," Elizabeth Kolbert writes about the recent effort to identify Neanderthal DNA. Kolbert references studies that compare the ability of chimps and children to read and understand social cues. The bottom line: Kids can (even those as young as two); chimps can't. The jury is out on Neanderthals, but they have certain genetic markers in common with humans with autism. One theory is that they couldn't read social cues well, either, and so lost out in the Darwinian race.

So maybe companies that embrace social networking to inject collaboration into their own product development and employee interactions--as well as to change the relationship between company and customer--aren't really leading edge at all. Rather, they're going retro, returning us to the anthropological roots that do, in fact, make us uniquely human beings.