Last week I went to visit CeBIT, the world’s largest exhibition on information technology in Hannover. I wanted to find out what’s new and what the implications for collaboration are. Here are some impressions that stayed with me:

First of all, I was simply overwhelmed by the huge number of companies and subjects dealing with the IT-isation of our world. In the past, CeBIT was a lot about smartphones, tablets and a host of „things“ that could be touched. They are in the minority today. Yes, there is a whole hall for servers and data centres, there is a bit about robotics and the internet of things, with a special area for drones about which I will talk further down; and a hall for accessories, mainly from China.

But the vast majority of exhibitors are in services, developing software and consulting for IT solutions, networks, data security. I observed an incredible amount of differentiation and specification: special IT solutions for each and every corporate user group, small developers piggybacking off larger IT systems, such as SAP, further pushing differentiation; programming which is decentralised, flexible and agile in close collaboration with customers to replace standard IT.

Besides, there is a lot of talk around the interconnectedness of everything and everyone.
The Internet of things, how can cars, houses and all things in them become „intelligent“ and communicate with one another and with humans. How can various „ecosystems“ become seamlessly interconnected, as is already happening with the tracking of shipments from seller to buyer. The explosion of different kinds of social networks and their increasing penetration of every facet of our lifes and what the implications are for companies. It’s also about startups and entrepreneurship: smart young people creating new, disruptive business models off the internet. „JustPark“ for example, a new parking app showing people the way to the nearest free parking space – connecting them to private people who can offer their own parking space for a few hours a day, a similar concept to Airb&b. Or „usedSoft“, a platform reselling used software licences for a lower price.

I am breathless about so much change!

Discussing „collaboration“ at CeBIT, you usually get stuck at the „tool level“ since everybody is an engineer or developer. I had an interesting conversation with somebody from SAP on how they themselves collaborate in international virtual teams. He said now that Microsoft has developed „Lync“ into „Skype for Business“ to be used on company’s intranets, this is fast becoming the easiest way to be in touch. You can see who is online, you can spontaneously organize meetings with several people seeing each other from your desk, the chat function is always on and if you briefly want to work together on a document with somebody you just share the screen back and forth; it has become really easy. They combine this with SAP Jam, their own virtual platform to share all kinds of documents, and Cisco Telepresence for bigger meetings. Even people hating videoconferences are impressed with this new videoconference technology, as it creates the perfect illusion of sitting opposite each other and personally meeting your colleagues from far away.

Hearing about Skype for business gives me hope that in future more members of virtual teams will use Skype to communicate. Most companies I meet have so far prohibited its use as it was not on the intranet. When I ask participants, for example from the automotive industry where I do a lot of work, whether they have ever physically seen their Chinese colleagues the answer is often „no“. Maybe this will be easier in future. So far so good. Everything is becoming more intuitive, easier to use, faster and more lifelike.

But are these instruments being used? And how are they being used? What about the human side of collaboration? From my experience, many participants in international teams do not even want to pick up the phone to spontaneously call a Chinese colleague, as they fear language problems and have never build a relationship and a basis for trust with their colleagues.

When I put this question to the people I talk to they hesitate for a moment, then utter a sound like „ahhh“ or „hmmm“, and then, after a little while „yes, that of course is also important…“ The ever increasing quality of virtual communication channels and media can easily create the illusion that colleagues at the other end are really sitting in the next city and not in a totally different environment thousands of kilometres away. Therefore people tend to expect similar reactions, behaviours and seamless communication. It is even more frustrating then, when this communication turns out to be more complicated than expected. The better the tools, the more this might be so. When I insist a little bit with my interlocutors they admit that collaboration across continents is not so easy after all. A wide field for interventions on „collaboration“!

As I walked across the exhibition and listened in to various presentations, the subject of collaboration showed up in different ways:

A presentation introducing a study on generation Y, the digital natives, in Germany brings up some interesting insights: 52 % of them are looking for purpose in their work, 58 % want to implement their own ideas. This generation wants to be involved, wants to be asked and heard, and is motivated when they can tell friends about a personal idea that has been implemented in their company. Also, they are used to immediate feedback – having been brought up with the like-button in the social media – and expect similar feedback from their superiors. Since we have relatively few of these young people, companies think a lot about how to recruit and retain them. In this presentation Adidas was mentioned as a company which looks at this intensely. This is interesting for tomorrow’s leadership competencies: we have been talking about „empowerment“ for quite some time, but the reality in companies is often different. Leaders who cannot lead in a collaborative way may find it much harder to deal with this young generation. And now companies get rated publicly on the portal „Kununu“ by their employees, just as doctors get rated on „Jameda“!

I continued my walk and ended up in the department for drones. Now, I have some problems with the idea of dozens of flying objects circling above or around my head in the foreseeable future, so I was a little sceptical coming into the area. They had built a space, the size of a small football field, with netting all around, as a racecourse for drones. These little things accelerated from 0 to 100 km/h in no time at all. Wow, scary!

But then I listened to a presentation of a company using drone technology for humanitarian aid missions. They reported how last year with the help of tiny drones they were able to map villages in Nepal which had been totally destroyed by the earthquake. They were able to develop huge, high resolution maps that could be printed and put on a big table, allowing the villagers to see for themselves and engage in a discussion how to rebuild their villages. Also, they related how small clinics that are maybe only five kilometres away as the crow flies from a bigger, central clinic are really hard to reach in the mountains of Nepal, taking sometimes a hike of one or several days and being completely cut off during the rainy season. A drone manages to fly medicine there within 20 minutes! Their objective is to help engaged local partners to manage the technology and create local jobs. Wow, another wow, what a great project! And as the most important competence next to using the technology they identified the capability to collaborate with partners in a socially and interculturally sensitive way!

Another presentation I listened to was about startups and young entrepreneurs. Amongst other things they were talking about formats of collaboration that have come up in that scene. Next to „hackathons“ I found the concept of „FUN-Meetings“ really interesting: FUN stands for „Fuck-up nights“ – a format with the objective to share mistakes and failed experiments and learn from them together. The motto is „fail fast, fail forward, learn“. Wouldn’t that be an interesting idea for traditional companies when they seriously want to create a collaborative culture of innovation? There is a lot to learn from the start-up scene!

Conclusions from my visit:

Breathtaking developments, making limitless collaboration technically easier than ever before. This should definitely generate more focus on the „softer“ aspects of collaboration as well. Interventions in this area will probably have to become more and more virtual themselves, and will have to be structured into shorter, highly relevant units. I suspect that our offerings as trainers and consultants too will have to become more agile, flexible and customer specific!