Collaboration for innovation: Why technology alone isn’t enough

Technology is always a central topic at Davos, and this week’s annual meeting of the World Economic Forum is no exception. Like last year, the promise and pitfalls of the fourth industrial revolution are a central focus, as part of the overall theme of Responsive and Responsible Leadership. Business and world leaders are still struggling to understand what a wholesale transformation of global industries through groundbreaking advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things, and other technologies like those on PwC’s essential eight shortlist mean for the future of commerce and society.

One of the starkest changes in PwC’s 20th CEO Survey is the big jump in the percentage of CEOs (more than half) who say technology will have a significant impact on the nature of competition in their industry over the next five years.

Another notable takeaway from our survey of 1,379 CEOs around the world: Nearly a quarter of those surveyed singled out innovation as their top priority for the coming year, far outstripping other concerns such as human capital, competitiveness, customer experience, and even technological capabilities.

Focusing on innovation in general as a priority makes sense, rather than placing bets on specific technological breakthroughs. Companies need to keep innovating just to stay abreast of what’s happening in their markets, with their customers, and with their competitors.

So how do you make innovation a priority? And how do you cultivate it in your own organization?

I’ve spent 20 years in Silicon Valley working alongside the tech industry in a variety of capacities. From my experience, effective collaboration is the key ingredient to making innovation happen. And that’s reflected in our survey: Collaboration is already a priority for many CEOs, with 86 percent saying collaboration is a very important skill. That direct link between collaboration and innovation is something also borne out in PwC’s ongoing Innovation Benchmark study, where leaders cite innovative behaviors and culture as integral to success.

Without collaboration and the cross-disciplinary fertilization that it enables, it’s difficult to generate radically new ideas. Without challenges from outside your domain, it’s too easy to get stuck in the same boxes. Without outsiders to test your preconceptions and push you to defend your more outrageous ideas, it’s hard to develop inspiration into true innovation.

Enabling collaboration: What we’ve learned

At PwC, we have invested significant time and resources in finding new ways to facilitate innovation-producing collaboration among our global workforce and our many clients. It’s no coincidence that we are the largest client of Salesforce.com and the largest single user of Google’s Gmail and G Suite. That’s because these technologies, among others, help us work better together.

Collaboration technology has allowed us, like many tech-centric companies, to become a more “virtual” organization. Instead of in-person meetings, for example, remote teams can connect with one another using Google Hangouts. This technology lets people work remotely in a productive way, freeing them up to engage with clients (or tending to their personal lives) while still connecting with others on their team.

The collaborative approach is remarkably effective at building consensus, increasing levels of motivation and participation, pulling teams together, and coaching more junior members. It provides a fertile ground for experimentation, resulting in more innovative results.

In a way, enterprises have just started to use technology to help address the unintended consequences it brought to teamwork a decade ago. Over the past ten years, huge portions of the workforce have gone home, taking advantage of work-from-home and flex-time policies. But it’s taken until recently for technologies to restore the level of collaborative teamwork that colleagues previously enjoyed when everyone was in a single office together, working on papers around a conference table or clustering at whiteboards.

Now social tools are also moving into the enterprise, getting teams even closer. New social discovery tools will make it easier for employees within large organizations to find and connect with others who have relevant expertise or who are working on related projects.

When you add mobile, it gets even more interesting. In the consumer world, it’s widely recognized that society has moved past the desktop age and into a mobile and wearable one. Enterprise work, by contrast, still largely happens at a desk with a keyboard and a mouse. But there’s a huge opportunity to extend collaborative tools to a mobile work environment.

New kinds of collaboration

Collaboration doesn’t have to be limited to internal stakeholders — or even to humans.

In the business environment created by the fourth industrial revolution, the most successful companies will be those that forge strong, collaborative ties with their customers, partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders.

One particular area that can be especially fruitful is collaboration with the startup ecosystem. The executives surveyed in our study understand this potential: In the coming year, 28 percent of global CEOs expect to collaborate with startups or entrepreneurs.

But it’s not just about collaboration among people, either, strange as that may sound. Of the global CEOs we surveyed, 52 percent are exploring the benefits of humans and machines working together, while 39 percent globally are considering AI’s impact on future skill needs.

In short, people are looking at a future where humans and machines work alongside one another, making each other smarter. In this vision, AI and machine learning are not a threat to human employment (though they will certainly cause enormous changes in the employment landscape). Rather, this vision acknowledges the limits of AI as well as its benefits. The future belongs to humans who can learn to complement and capitalize AI, rather than simply run away from it.

Overall, as the world moves into the fourth industrial revolution, it’s clear that companies need to gear up to handle — and to create — massive amounts of innovation. The key to making that work is to embrace collaboration at all levels: internally, externally, and with technology itself.

Collaboration is more than technological tools. It’s more than a cultural willingness to work together to come up with new ideas. You need both. And when you combine them, you unlock tremendous power. Now is the time to start turning that key.