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Never Mind Technology: Collaboration Is Changing

We hear a lot today about how Facebook and Twitter and other social networking sites and tools are changing the way young people collaborate. And it's certainly true that Web 2.0, along with mobile devices, presence information and unified communications, are combining to alter just how the next generation locates contacts and reaches out to them as needed.But a bigger, more important shift is also occurring among the so-called Millennials: They are more inclined to collaborate in the first place.

This is a big deal. For as long as I've been covering business and technology, companies have been looking for ways to increase and improve collaboration in the enterprise. Today, the need for better collaboration is driving new ways of communicating; but 10 years ago, it was driving how people approached supply chains and business-partner relationships (when ERP, CRM, SCM and the Internet combined to create short-lived open partner networks); and 10 years before that, it was impacted by personal computers, voicemail and, eventually, e-mail.

Now it's communications' turn, not least because the challenge of simply talking to people has grown as the workplace has become more virtual. Just getting employees to connect can be difficult, never mind getting them to do something useful once they get there.

And there's the rub, right? Just because you get people talking (or chatting, or conferencing) doesn't mean they're going to collaborate in a meaningful way--one that helps the company achieve its goals and improve its bottom line. Communicating and collaborating are two different things, and just because you build a system that supports collaboration doesn't mean they'll come.

That's changing, however, with the digital-native generation. The important thing isn't that they're comfortable using next-gen technology; it's that they use the technology to share information in a way we've never seen before. Regardless of what your management professors have told you, the old adage, "information is power," has never gone away. In most industries, employees are rewarded for their performance and their hard work--so it still makes economic sense for them to hoard information--and the advantage it bestows--as much as possible.

Contrast that with the Millennials, whose power is not based on information, but on the sharing of that information. Using Facebook and Twitter, this generation (and, increasingly, older ones, too) is posting not just personal details about their lives, but helpful information and advice to others who seek it. They are sharing their thoughts and experience for free. They are uploading content and links they find useful. In this world, reputation, not information, is power--and that reputation is built through collaboration.

That's great news for business, because it means we may finally have an answer to the question, "How do I get my employees to work better, together?" Now all we have to do is figure out how to harness this new energy. That will require not just technology, but cultural change, too, including changes to incentive and compensation programs, career tracks, and what it takes to get noticed in the 21st-century enterprise.