At the height of the Industrial Revolution, which began in the UK in the 18th Century, the greatest need was not for more raw materials, investment or manpower, but for the effective and speedy transfer of knowledge.
The key to success was collaboration and cooperation.
Back in the time of the Victorians some of this important knowledge transfer happened in exactly the way it does today: by the fluidity of employment where an individual takes their skills and contacts to a new organisation, which hopefully is open to their ideas. Study tours were also a big part of the process, one which today we have replaced with specialist business media and exhibitions, though it is unlikely these activities are approached with the metholodical zeal shown by our ancestors.
Where we have diverged from the Revolutionaries of 200 years ago is in the formation of open collaboration, often with direct business rivals. The network of informal philosophical societies, like the Lunar Society of Birmingham, in which members met to discuss ‘natural philosophy’ (i.e. science) and often its application to manufacturing flourished from 1765 to 1809, and it has been said of them, “They were, if you like, the revolutionary committee of that most far reaching of all the eighteenth century revolutions, the Industrial Revolution”.
It was this collaboration that enabled the leading industrialists of the day to continually make progress, adapting ideas created, tested and developed by others to make their own processes better rather than trying to create solutions by spinning solely in their own orbits. By knowing what others had trialled and tested, it meant that much going over new ground was avoided, mistakes remained unrepeated and progess rapidly made.
Collaboration and effective networks have never been more important in our changing economies, but how to build and sustain them in a culture of information overload? By creating virtual spaces that facilitate networking across boundaries, where information can be shared, action plans created and outcomes measured, again and again…