Calculating the Cost of Collaboration — A World War I Lesson

All too often, we rush headlong into collaboration in the firm belief that all collaboration is good and must, therefore, have primarily an upside. We become excited by the anticipated benefits of collaboration: better innovation, better sales, greater client satisfaction, and better operations. The truth, however, can be quite different. Most of us have seen well-intentioned collaborations founder on the rocks of ignorance, insularity, and inexperience. Many of us carry the battle scars of failed collaboration efforts.

Professor Morten Hansen has studied scores of collaborations. As a result, he offers some sage advice in his book, Collaboration: Be disciplined. In particular, do not undertake any collaboration until you have investigated the proposed collaboration sufficiently to establish that “the net value of collaboration is greater than the return minus both opportunity costs and collaboration costs.” He calls this net value, the “collaboration premium.”

World War I and the Collaboration Premium

On April 6, 1917, the United States entered World War I. The presenting issue was the German sinking of several American merchant ships. Given that tensions had been rising for months, there had been ample time for US political and military leaders to undertake the collaboration test: to determine beforehand if the net value of participating outweighed the foregoing of other projects (opportunity cost) and the extensive costs of getting involved in a war that was not universally popular at home.

With the benefit of hindsight it is easy to say that because the US and its allies won, it was worth the price the country paid to participate in the war. But is that fair? Yet, even if they had attempted a proper collaboration cost calculation, could US leaders ever have contemplated the true and horrifying scope of events like those that took place at Meuse-Argonne?

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive

In his article, Killing Machines at Meuse-Argonne, 1918, Alfred S. Bradford, Jr. describes the Meuse-Argonne offensive in the following way:

In late September 1918, some 600,000 American troops massed in a valley in northeastern France as part of the final major campaign of World War I, the Meuse-Argonne offensive. A newcomer to the Allied effort, the United States had begun sending large numbers of soldiers to Europe only months before. Many of these men were raw recruits who knew nothing of the horrors of machine guns, poison gas, combat aircraft, and other weapons born of the Industrial Revolution. More than a million U.S. soldiers would eventually join the assault of the well-entrenched Germans; American forces would suffer more than 120,000 casualties, including 26,277 dead.

The Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery

Many of these dead found their final resting place in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. According to the American Battle Monuments Commission, this cemetery “is the largest American military cemetery in Europe. Within these 130 acres are the remains of more than 14,200 American men and women who died in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive.”

Admittedly, these numbers are large: one million soldiers, 120,000 casualties, 26,277 dead, over 14,200 graves, 130 acres. But it is hard to really wrap your mind around them without a visual.

Thanks to The Great War video series, we have a compelling visual. Take a look at the following video. It brings home the vast scale of suffering — all embodied in neat rows of crosses and stars that stretch across those 130 acres.

Calculating Your Collaboration Premium or Penalty

Would US political and military leaders have made a different choice on April 6, 1917, if they had known the true costs of collaboration in World War I? We will never know. Nonetheless, we should not ignore the lessons of their experience. It is vitally important that we think hard about true costs before we leap headlong into collaboration. This means honestly facing the possibility of a collaboration penalty rather than the desired collaboration premium.

After all, no decent organization wants its people to end up in a corporate version of the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery.

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For a video overview of this week in World War I, see:

[Photo Credit: Wikimedia]

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