Published in Partnership with Forbes and in advance of the 2013 Skoll World Forum. Watch the live stream April 10-12 by clicking here.

So many technologies allow us to collaborate “virtually” today. Email, instant messaging, video conferencing, and desktop sharing are common parts of the workday for many people. But regardless of what technologies we use, all of our interactions still rely on a basic element: each other. No matter how many shiny tools we have, we can’t get things done without other people.

Recently Cisco undertook a study of human behavior and the barriers to effective collaboration: how it affects productivity, workplace efficiency, and business results. This study showed without question that collaboration is grounded in human interaction and relationships. One participant even said: “We need to get back to the intimacy.”

We learned that people were more engaged when they could see and hear each other well, basically interacting the way humans have interacted for thousands of years: face to face. When personal meetings were not possible for our participants, they embraced technology, such as high-definition videoconferencing, that most closely emulates human interactions.

We identified four key ingredients for successful collaboration, and they all rely on human behavior.

  • Build relationships and networks that lead to trust
  • Turn human interactions into results
  • Balance decision-making and consensus building
  • Evolve the culture for productive collaboration

But one of the most important things we learned–which applies to social change–is that a primary reason people collaborate is to innovate.

In businesses, this type of collaboration focuses on developing creative solutions or ideas that improve an existing process or product. Through ongoing collaboration, socialization, and vetting, the idea develops into a viable solution to address a new market opportunity, re-engineer a core process, solve a problem, or create business value.

Social change makers collaborate this way every day. In recent years, social entrepreneurs and staff at nonprofits and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have embraced the concept of collaborating to innovate and to scale and replicate their programs. They recognize that by building networks and connections, both within and outside their organizations, they can impact any issue, anywhere on the planet.

Many of the problems we face today are so large and widespread, no one organization or agency can solve them alone. Natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy and the 2011 Japan earthquake, for example, require dozens of organizations to deliver crucial services to victims quickly. Without some level of collaboration, some services can be easily duplicated while other needs are missed altogether.

Many participants in our study said collaboration made them feel “community oriented.” This led to shared ownership, which reduced the chance of territorial attitudes. Likewise, many organizations are exchanging ownership for collaboration in social movements today.

One example of this is NetHope – a group of 37 leading international nonprofits and NGOs that deliver US$40 billion in humanitarian development, emergency response, disaster relief, and conservation programs each year.

Many NetHope member organizations have similar missions, and are likely competing directly for media attention and donor dollars. But they have found that by collaborating and pooling resources, especially during disaster responses, they can more effectively and efficiently deliver food, water, healthcare, and other services to more people.

Water for People embraces collaboration so much it is written into its mission. The Denver, Colorado-based nonprofit “works with people and partners to develop innovative and long-lasting solutions to the water, sanitation, and hygiene problems in the developing world.” By working with local, community-based organizations and individuals, Water for People creates lasting solutions that can be supported by local role-players who were involved in every step of the process.

Teach for America, an education nonprofit, is built on a collaborative network of new college graduates who commit to teach for two years in underserved schools in 46 regions across the United States. Corps members improve their effectiveness through collaboration by sharing successful classroom strategies, participating in ongoing professional development, and refining teaching strategies. As many as 63 percent of corps members continue to serve as lifelong leaders after their two-year tenure is over, working to expand educational opportunities for all children.

Collaboration allows us to act collectively, pooling resources and talents to solve problems far too big for any one of us to solve alone. And if human interaction is the vehicle for innovation, technology is the accelerator.

Technology enables collaboration and innovation to happen on a global scale. I believe that if you give an NGO a technology infrastructure that supports collaboration, you can accelerate their time to impact.

Teach for America has done it. By standardizing networking infrastructure and adopting technologies like videoconferencing, its staff has reduced operating costs, cut down on travel expenses, and grown. Through technology-enabled training, collaboration, and recruitment, its corps has grown 150 percent—from 4000 corps members in 2008 to more than 10,000 in 2012. These teachers are reaching more than 750,000 students, 80 percent of whom are from low-income communities.

Building on its relationships throughout the developing world, Water for People partnered with Akvo to develop an Internet-based system for collecting, analyzing, and reporting data on water and sanitation projects. Organizations are now using this tool to provide accountability and transparency to donors and the public, along with analytical tools for data-driven decision-making.

And NetHope has created an online space where staff from member organizations can collaborate with each other and with corporate partners about cloud computing technologies that could help them reduce costs and increase efficiency. They can learn from their peers about what technologies work in certain situations and access expertise and products they might not otherwise have the resources to implement.

Our survey participants described collaboration as “Two or more people working toward a shared goal that might be out of their reach as individuals.” This statement shows that the power of human interaction applies not just to the business world but to social causes as well.

What has your organization found are the ingredients for successful collaboration?