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Collaboration Trumps Innovation For CEOs

CEOs know that disruptive technology can crush their business, and they're betting big on collaboration to save their skins, an IBM survey suggests.

IBM's new CEO survey offers a lot to think about, but one data point jumped out at me: CEOs see technology as the no. 1 external factor that will affect their business the next five years, out of nine choices offered. In 2004, it was no. 6 out of nine.

Cited by 71% of CEOs, technology isn't far in front of people skills (69%) and market factors (68%) as a factor that will affect a company. But technology is the factor moving up the list.

IT pros know the reason--many mobile, analytics, social, and cloud technologies that two or three years ago belonged in PowerPoints and skunk works are now poised for pilots and production. From retail to health care to transportation to finance, CEOs know the companies that get this shift right win, and everyone else loses.

But what's surprising in the IBM survey is what so many CEOs see as the savior: collaboration. I'm seeing this in other data sources as well, including InformationWeek research, and it feels new to me. Innovation used to be the go-to gadget on the CEO utility belt. Recent data shows how often CEOs are reaching for collaboration.

IBM asked which factors CEOs focus on to draw the best out of employees. No. 1 is ethics and values, but no. 2, at 63%, is a "collaborative environment." The company's "ability to innovate" comes in at no. 4 (cited by 51%).

A related data point: Asked for the traits they most value in employees, CEOs name "collaborative" most often (75%), far more often than "creative" (61%).

InformationWeek has seen this priority on collaboration. Two out of five IT execs in our Global CIO survey say they plan a major implementation this year to improve collaboration among employees, making collaboration the top priority among our 14 possible projects. (Getting apps on mobile devices is almost equal in priority, 38% of CIOs cite it, as compared to 39% for collaboration, but at many companies, those are inseparable efforts.)

Employee collaboration is hard work, dependent on culture, goals, and focus even more than technology. But CEOs want even more. There's a marked increase in the collaboration that they expect outside the company walls:

-- 69% of CEOs think they'll partner extensively with outside companies, a leap from 55% four years ago.

-- 57% of CEOs think social media will be one of the top ways their company interacts with customers in three to five years -- up from 16% today. CEOs think the big loser in that move will be traditional media, with just 15% predicting it will remain one of the top ways to interact with customers, compared to 39% today.

As CEOs bet big on collaboration, there's a looming risk. Collaboration isn't a result. Innovation, fuzzy as that notion is, at least suggests an end result, some outcome that you claim to be better and new. Companies have tried to put some bottom-line metrics on innovation, like percent of sales from products less than three years old. Metrics to boost collaboration are even tougher, though, lest they encourage noise for noise's sake. (See Social Collaboration: A Work In Progress) Collaboration efforts can easily become more anchor than fuel.

That leads to the last data point I'll flag from IBM's CEO Survey. On that list about where CEOs focus to get the best out employees, where ethics is #1, collaboration #2, and innovation #4, I didn't mention #3. That's "purpose and mission," cited by 58% of CEOs, five points behind collaboration. It's a pretty good top 3 topics for your CEO and the rest of the executive team. If the executive team gets the ethics and purpose right, and then turns employees loose with the tools and expectation that they collaborate around those two, the chances for innovation are going up.

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