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October 24, 2014

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Two meanings of collaboration

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Palo Alto, Calif.

Collaborate:

col-lab-o-rate (kuh-lab-uh-reyt)

verb (used without object), col-lab-o-rat-ed, col-lab-o-rat-ing.

1. to work, one with another; cooperate, as on a literary work: They collaborated on a novel.

2. to cooperate, usually willingly, with an enemy nation, especially with an enemy occupying one’s country: He collaborated with the Nazis during World War II.

It is often said that Britain and the United States are two countries divided by a common language. That is also true of Washington and Silicon Valley. The other day, I was interviewing Alan Cohen, an expert on networks who has been involved in several successful startups. At one point, Cohen began talking about the importance of “collaboration” both within and between firms in Silicon Valley. Then he stopped and said it’s interesting that in Silicon Valley, “collaboration” is defined as something you do with another colleague or company to achieve greatness — something to be praised — as in: “They collaborated on that beautiful piece of software.” But in Congress, “collaboration” means something very different today. It’s the second definition — collaboration is an act of treason — something you do when you cross over and vote with the other party. In Silicon Valley, great “collaborators” are prized; in Washington, they are hanged. Said Cohen, who was vice president at Nicira, a networking startup that recently sold for $1.26 billion: “In Washington, when they say ‘collaborator,’ they mean ‘traitor’; here they mean ‘colleague.’ ”

It’s not the only reason, but it’s a big reason Silicon Valley is thriving more than ever, finding more ways to solve bigger and bigger problems faster, and Washington is only capable of producing eleventh-hour, patched-together, Rube Goldberg compromises, with no due diligence, that produce only suboptimal outcomes to our biggest problems. In Washington today, collaboration happens only to avert crises or to give out pork, not to build anything great. That is why if Congress were a startup, the early-stage investors would have long ago been wiped out and the firm shuttered. Cause of death: an inability of the partners to collaborate. “People in Washington forgot that they are developers: ‘I am on this committee. I have to fix this problem and write some software to do it,’ and that requires collaboration,” Cohen said. “They have forgotten their job and the customer.”

Don’t get me wrong. Silicon Valley is not some knitting circle where everyone happily shares their best ideas. It is the most competitive, dog-eat-dog, I-will-sue-you-if-you-even-think-about-infringing-my-patents innovation hub in the world. In that sense, it is, as politics is and should always be, a clash of ideas. What Silicon Valley is not, though, is only a clash of ideas.

Despite the heated competition, lots of collaboration still happens here for one main reason: to serve the customer the best product or service. One way is through new open-source innovation platforms like GitHub — a kind of “Wikipedia for programmers” — where hobbyists, startups and big firms share ideas in order to enlist more people (either within a firm in restricted ways or from the outside in a wide open manner) to help improve their software or websites.

Another way is through “co-opetition.” There are many examples here of companies trying to kill each other in one market but working together in another — to better serve customers. Microsoft Windows runs on Apple Macs because customers wanted it. When Apple Maps failed, Apple asked its users to download Google Maps. Finally, within firms, it is understood that to thrive in today’s market, solve the biggest problems and serve customers, you need to assemble the best minds from anywhere in the world.

“When you obsess about the customer, you end up defeating your competition as a byproduct,” said K.R. Sridhar, the founder of Bloom Energy, a fuel-cell company. “When you are just obsessed about the competition, you end up killing yourself” as a byproduct — “because you are not focused on the customer.”

The far-right lurch of the GOP’s base has made this problem worse. When President Barack Obama built his health care plan on Mitt Romney’s operating system in Massachusetts, Romney was so focused on coddling his base to beat Obama — rather than trying to improve Obama’s iteration of Romney’s own design to best serve all the customers — that Romney disowned his own software. What company would do that?

“Sure, competition here is sharp-elbowed,” said Reid Hoffman, a co-founder of LinkedIn. “But no one can succeed by themselves. Apple today is totally focused on how it can better work with its (applications) developer community.” It cannot thrive without them.

“The only way you can achieve something magnificent is by working with other people,” Hoffman said. “There is lots of co-opetition.” LinkedIn competes with headhunters and is used by headhunters.

With collaboration, one plus one can often turn out to be four, said Jeff Weiner, the CEO of LinkedIn, adding: “I will always work with you — if I know we’ll get to four. You can’t build great products alone. And if everyone understood that you can’t build great government alone, our country would be in a different place.”

Thomas Friedman is a columnist for The New York Times.

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