Talking and Walking Collaboration

Big A Moleskine Exchange, Big A's book, part 1
Creative Commons License photo credit: steev-o
A bit ago Shawn Callahan of Anecdote (friend and collaborator!) wrote an interesting blog post about people who write about collaboration – by themselves. Anecdote: What do you notice about these recent books on collaboration?. This triggered some reflections in the comments about the process of writing collaboratively.

Recently, more of my writing has been collaborative than solo (as evidenced by my paucity of blog posts!) I have written 3 articles collaboratively (more on those later, one of which was with Shawn and his biz partner Mark Schenk), one in the works and have been co-writing workshop documentation with our team. And of course…. THE BOOK.

As I responded to Shawn’s post, I realize that in reflecting on the collaborative writing process of the book, there is a point where it is impossible to separate the talking about collaboration with the walking the collaboration talk for me. That is because collaboration requires reflection, which is a sort of “talk,” no?

Here is what I wrote on Shawn’s blog:

As I’m just on the (hopefully) finishing edge of very collaboratively co-writing a book with John Smith and Etienne Wenger, I feel fully able to comment on the experience.

First, it takes a lot more work to write WITH others. And I’m not talking about pasting chapters together, each written by an individual. Truly co-writing and co-editing is both an amazing act of commitment to each other, learning and love.

The first year, when we thought it was “just an update to a report” collaboration was difficult for me. I did not know how to negotiate meaning. I was impatient. I alternately felt guilty or impatient with my collaborators. I was a lousy co-writer.

In the second year (yes, second year) we learned to listen to each other. We dealt with things we did not speak about in year one, like being heard, or feeling less for some reason or another. I learned to understand my strengths and weaknesses as a writer and a thinker, and to appreciate the strengths and weaknesses of my cowriters.

In the third year (yes, the THIRD year) I was enlivened by the learning. I was applying what we were writing/making sense of so there was an electricity. But slow electricity.

The fourth year (this year) IMPATIENCE to finish. Tired. Worried that our slow place was great for our learning and personal application in our practices, but too slow for usefulness in the world. I became impatient with the finishing process. Yet I’m so glad we revised and revised. It got better.

Am I happy with the final book? Well, I’ll confess, I have to wait until the world tells us if they find it useful. But I’m 100% happy we took the time, the practice, and the patience to write together. I’d equate this with a PhD course of study. It is irreplaceable.

And it is ENTIRELY DIFFERENT than writing on my own.

How do you reflect on your collaborative experiences so that you can do it even better the next time? Do you reflect alone? With your collaborators?

Ask Idealware: Solutions for Tagging and Archiving a Discussion List

Laura Quinn asked me to contribute an answer towards Idealware’s Ask Idealware. It was a great question so I happily shot off an answer in email. It also made me realize that this was yet another thing contributing to my recent pattern of “not getting to blogging.” I have been writing for other publications, traveling and prioritizing more time for my own health – exercise and meditation – and blogging keeps coming out on the losing end. So Laura said it was fine to repub on my blog so my total silence can be broken! 😉

Anyway, here is the piece!

Melanie asks:

I’m working with a group of public radio station fundraisers who want a way to communicate regularly online to share tips and tests they have done in conjunction with project we are working on together to increase the number of donors to public radio nation-wide. The consensus of this group is they would like to do this via listserv. I really dislike listservs and would like to find a different option. Especially so we can easily archive and tag the posts. The vast majority of this group tells me they will be most likely to participate if something comes to their email inbox, not if they have to go to a blog to read and make comments. Is there a blog/listserv hybrid solution, perhaps using rss or something like that?

Nancy White, with Full Circle Interaction, responds:

If I hear you right, there are a number of things you want to support in this interaction:

  • Q&A and sharing of tips within the group via email
  • Archiving and organizing the tips so they can be found later, especially via tags
  • You intend to use the offerings as is without synthesis or editing (or not?)

Here are a couple of ideas that come to mind. They offer a bit of variation – so it depends which of the above activities are most important. The real challenge is most discussion tools haven’t yet integrated tagging even in web interfaces, and I have not seen any that enable tagging via email. So instead of having people tag as they post, it has to be done post-posting. That adds work. But it probably increases the consistency of tagging. Getting a group unfamiliar with tagging to institute a consistent tagging practice is not so quick nor easy. 😉

  • Combine an email list, tagging tool, and wiki. Use an email list with a web repository that offers a permalink to each post, then use an external tagging tool like to tag them. Aggregate those tags automatically into something like a wiki. For example, with Wikispaces you can automatically feed tags into a page. So you can either make a page for each tag, or if there aren’t too many tags, aggregate them on one page. If you do this, I suggest that you have an overall tag (like nancycrazyforchocolate) and then a tag that addresses the specific content of the post. This requires somebunny/bunnies to do the tagging. Maybe ask people to take turns doing this and have an initial conversation about shared tagging practices.
  • Curate the Q&As. The KM4Dev community functions in the day to day via a DGroups email list with a web repository. They pair this with a wiki (using Mediawiki) on their server where they collect “community knowledge” The community practice is whomever asks the question, collects the answers then summarizes them on a wiki page. A template helps organize those who feel a bit intimidated by the practice. Again, DOING this takes time to develop as a community practice. It is finally pretty well adopted by the KM4Dev community, but after 2 years of bugging by yours truly, now known as the wiki pest from the west.
  • Use a blog but set up email subscriptions. I’m not sure – and this would be good to ask one of our community’s blog experts, if there is blog software that not only delivers blog posts by email, but allows posting of comments by email. Here the key practices would be requiring the initiator of the question to actually post it on the blog and tag it initially. And remind people of the power of search.

Finally, I have to ask the hard question. Will people go back and use the archived and tagged material, or will they follow the age old pattern of just asking again? Will they wade through multiple messages or is synthesis going to really add significant value? We find in KM4Dev that community members tend to re-ask, but other, non members, seem to be hitting the wiki, suggesting that the artifacts we’ve produced are of value beyond the community. But in community, we seem to love that personal response that comes at the moment of asking and answering.

The Ask Idealware posts take on some of the questions that you send us at Have other great options? Disagree with our answer? Help us out by entering your own answer as a comment below.