Engineers are in increasing need of the opportunity to “collide.” As detailed in this Harvard Business Review article, “…creating collisions – chance encounters and unplanned interactions between knowledge workers, both inside and outside the organization – improves performance.”

Intuitively most can understand and accept the value of collaboration to benefit individuals and improve productivity. But there are real and expensive repercussions for not making collaboration a priority for engineering.

Consultant Joe Barkai describes how his team sees “design teams ignoring manufacturability constraints and serviceability considerations. We see engineers designing new parts rather than using an existing design, or, better yet, modify a design to allow the use of a part already inventory or available from an approved supplier.” These individualistic decisions have the power to delay launches, increase cost of goods sold, and ultimately disappoint existing and prospective customers.

As a result, many companies are building “cathedrals” specifically designed to maximize employee collisions:

“Samsung recently unveiled plans for a new U.S. headquarters, designed in stark contrast to its traditionally hierarchical culture. Vast outdoor areas sandwiched between floors will lure workers into public spaces, where Samsung’s executives hope that engineers and salespeople will actually mingle.”

But remote work is on the rise, and the field of engineering is becoming increasingly susceptible to this trend. Software engineering can be done from any location, with the “lab” living in the cloud. And a candidate’s specialized skillsets are trumping proximity to the office as new engineers are hired. The HBR article points out that, on average, two thirds of knowledge work happens outside the office.

So no matter how effectively the office space fosters social circles, collaborative technology has a big role to play fostering knowledge workers colliding for success. But not all collaboration technology has the power to create collisions. And engineers may be more reticent than other professionals to adopt technology that disrupts their established workflows. This is why it is important to leverage technology that acts as an extension of the way we naturally interact.

Company culture also plays a huge role in fostering collaboration, especially in a structured and “hard” business function such as engineering. As Peter Drucker famously once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” Simple, intuitive technology has to be combined with a clear corporate desire to value collaboration.

How can engineering departments assist in fostering these benefits of collaboration? Here are some tips:

  1. Reject the culture of “not invented here,” reinventing the wheel, and poor reuse, and instill a spirit of collaboration based on tangible operational and strategic benefits such as faster time to market, fewer mistakes and design changes, and improved manufacturability.
  2. Make collaboration an integral part of product development process by frontloading multidisciplinary decisions that, by definition, necessitate cross-functional collaboration.
  3. Put collaboration solutions at the center of your workspaces.
    • Make it simple to use (one touch to join a meeting).
    • Make it similar to collaborations you have when you’re in the same physical location (gathering in a circle).
    • Make the people on the far end as integrated into the conversation as possible (the center of the room versus hung on a wall at the far end).
    • Make it easy to share content.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) provides a good example of both valuing and empowering a culture of collaboration. With its primary mission to keep peace, NATO staffs civilians from a variety of professions, including the mechanical engineers that manage aircraft and vehicle maintenance, cyber security engineers, and building engineers that help manage and develop their global locations. The stakes of effective collaboration in this environment are high – delays and inefficiencies mean a bigger threat to the peace within the 28 nations it represents.

Using a blended implementation that includes video, voice and email together with other high-speed military communications solutions, the NATO relies on Polycom to foster collaboration for future crisis, diplomatic missions and humanitarian efforts.

“More than any other means, face-to-face connections are making it possible for us to perform and complete critical objectives in order to maintain global peace and ensure the safety of our partnering countries. Time, resources and strategy are of the essence, and this means needing to connect immediately,” said Gus Mommers, Branch head CMS, for NATO’s Communications and Information Agency (NCI Agency).

An important piece of the collaborative technology being used by NATO is the Polycom® RealPresence Centro™. The RealPresence Centro solution is designed to create a more comfortable, intimate and natural means to collaborate and ideate. People naturally interact in circles – a sports team huddle, a social circle at a party, a water cooler discussion. RealPresence Centro embraces natural human instincts and advanced technology to draw people together into a powerful, collaborative circle, giving everyone equality of contribution regardless of where they are located, while serving as a collaboration and content sharing hub.

“The RealPresence Centro system provides the highly secure, highly interactive collaboration solution we’ve been seeking to help advance our new ways of working program even further,” said Catherine Galoppin, Section Head CMS NCI Agency. “For the Agency this means saving time, resources, working securely from almost anywhere and an exceptional user experience. You walk into the room and you will realize this is not a traditional VTC room – Polycom has created a unique environment that takes collaborating from a distance to the next level.”

Collisions are becoming increasingly necessary in order for engineering to help drive business success. When you can’t be in the same room, effective technology and a culture of collaboration are required to create opportunities for engineers to collide with peers and other business functions. Organizations need to foster a culture that values collaboration, and provide the right workspaces and simple, intuitive technology to make it flourish. That’s the way to put social circles to work and let individuals reach their highest potential.