Social media and Web 2.0 technologies have changed the way we collaborate and come together for collective action. Additionally, they are enabling us to achieve feats of unprecedented size and scale. They are helping us search for cures to cancer, they have allowed us to create a comprehensive world encyclopedia, and they have even toppled entire governments. Key to understanding and harnessing collaboration and collective action, however, is that these efforts should be goal-driven, not tool-driven, and that they all need not look the same. Understanding these two points can allow us to transform organizational cultures, goals, and actions.
The World Singing in Perfect Harmony
In 1971, the Coca-Cola Company introduced its iconic “Hilltop” commercial, with the now famous lines: “I’d like to Teach the World to Sing in Perfect Harmony, I’d Like to Buy the World to Coke, and keep it company.” Bill Backer, one of the originators of the commercial, was on a flight to London, when the plane was diverted to Ireland due to inclement weather. The upset and angry passengers were forced to spend the night in the airport. The next day, however, they were bonding and laughing together while drinking Coke. This situation stuck Backer and he recalled:
“In that moment [I] saw a bottle of Coke in a whole new light… [I] began to see the familiar words, ‘Let’s have a Coke,’ as more than an invitation to pause for refreshment. They were actually a subtle way of saying, ‘Let’s keep each other company for a little while.’ And [I] knew they were being said all over the world as [I] sat there in Ireland. So that was the basic idea: to see Coke not as it was originally designed to be — a liquid refresher — but as a tiny bit of commonality between all peoples, a universally liked formula that would help to keep them company for a few minutes.” (The Story Behind Coca-Cola’s Famous ‘Hilltop’ Ad)
The basic message of the advertisement was that through collective action, in this case drinking Coke, extraordinary things could happen, coming together across difference.
The World Singing in Perfect Harmony, This Time, Literally
Fast-forward 40 years and Eric Whitacre is quite literally having the world sing together in perfect harmony. Developing what he called a “Virtual Choir,” Whitacre had Internet users from around the world submit videos of themselves all singing the same song. Taking these videos, overlaying them, and modifying them, Whitacre produced the “Virtual Choir.” Currently in its third iteration, the Choir includes the voices of 3746 individuals from 73 countries. For Virtual Choir 4, Whitacre is taking the crowdsourcing concept one step further. Not only will the fourth Choir be crowdsourced for it’s voices, but it is also being crowdfunded through individual monetary donations.
The basic concept underlying this project is that through collective action, in this case individuals submitting videos of themselves singing the same song, an extraordinary thing can happen, from many voices emerges one singular choir.
Be Goal Driven, Not Tool Driven
Both of these examples call upon collaboration and collective action to achieve something greater than the sum of their parts, but both go about it in different ways. In the case of Coke, the message is that by us all doing the same action at the same time, in the same location, we can create something great (in this case, the admittedly optimistic goal of peace and understanding). In the case of the Virtual Choir, however, while individuals still participated in a collective action, they did so by contributing videos that they recorded individually and at different times and in different places. In both cases, a similar result is achieved, but in one case it requires the effort of individuals acting all at once in one location, while in the other, it is cumulative action over time and across space.
When looking at harnessing the power of the people in our organizations, the concepts of time and space (either physical or virtual) become very important. Although many traditional collaborative projects required that we be in the same place at the same time, new technologies have enabled us to span these boundaries. Just because we can do it, however, doesn’t mean we should. Knowing which method to employ at which time is critical to successfully harnessing collaboration and collective action. An organizational retreat may be more successful at developing teamwork and camaraderie, while videoconferencing and collaborating on a shared document might be more successful at brining more voices to the table.
One of the biggest fallacies leaders and organizations fall prey to is focusing on a trendy new tool or technology and asking “What can we do with this?” instead of starting with the goal in mind and then determining the method or tool that would best help one accomplish that goal. Sometimes new tools can cause us to approach old problems differently, and unexpected things may happen, but ultimately an organization’s goals must be clear. Once determining one’s goal, one should then evaluate what tool or method for collaboration and collective action would be most likely to be successful in achieving it. Although technology can be a powerful means for enabling and enacting this collaboration and collective action, it is not the sole way to achieve this. Successful collaborations and collective actions use all tools and methods available to them and utilize time and space in intelligent ways.