Ramblings on Virtual Collaboration(first unedited draft 3/99, additions 5/99)
Full Circle Associates
© 1999, 2000
I'm a relative new-bee to virtual collaborations, having jumped online in 1996. Like a bee, testing each flower to see if it will yield pollen, I've been working with a few VirCollabs and have taken away a few lessons. Time to make a little honey.
First, what do I mean by "virtual collaborations?" There have been some significant and helpful research and writing on virtual corporations (VoTalk link, http://www.bigbangworkshops.com), virtual workgroups and collaboration. But there seems to be a new subset emerging that looks to connect independent knowledge workers, irrespective of distance, time zone or nationality, to form temporary and even "permanent" business alliances. An even smaller subset seeks to formalize relationships and provide a distinct infrastructure to these efforts, moving towards the concept of a virtual corporation or organization. Something in between is voluntary virtual collaboration. I'll start my ramblings with these aggregations.
Let me ramble first to my personal disclaimers. I'm a junkie for this stuff. I know from my F2F work that collaboration is a powerful agent for getting things done, for creating change and for extending resources to their farthest imaginable limits. These experiences have been mostly in the non-profit, volunteer and community spheres. In all cases, joint purpose and a general lack of resources individually drove collaborations to success. Me, I get a literal thrill out of a successful collaboration, a rush from the connections between people, organizations, talent and RESULTS. Almost as good as chocolate. I love connections. And I love the kismet of seemingly random connections that bring new mixes of people, talents and ideas to one table.
As I have moved into the cyber world, it only seemed natural to explore what form collaboration would take across distance and time. This started through participation in online communities and coincided with my move from the corporate world to the world of what entrepreneur Jon Sidoli calls "the independent knowledge professional." (Yup, I'm a consultant!). These two factors represented for me an interesting convergence and opportunity.
Initially regular online interactions with members of social communities led to my migration to communities more focused on issues, topics or projects. I spent time online "getting to know" many of these people, developing relationships, and, more importantly, cultivating mutual trust. Soon I found myself turning to these people individually as collaborators, subcontractors and project partners, mirroring my business relationship patterns in my geographic market.
The Dynamics of Online Collaboration
Some groupings of online dynamics include:
- Getting past "knowledge is power" to "Shared knowledge is shared power"
- Getting overwhelmed
- Separating wheat from chaff
Like anything else, most of these are tightly intertwined and highly dependent on the group, and the individuals that make up the group. But there are some patterns that can help read the roadmap and potentially avoid pitfalls in online collaborations. These are short, quick overviews which will be developed into a series of longer essays.
I have to confess that a number of people have roundly told me I am totally insane to trust these "imaginary friends" I work with, and that sooner or later I will get burned. I acknowledge and, more importantly, accept that risk. At the same time, I search for tools, techniques and associates that can help me identify collaborators with what might be called a higher "trust indicator." And I'm an optimist. What can I say?
Trust is slippery. It may be easy to grant, but more often it is easier to take away. Some methods for building trust include:
- Personal documentation - resumes, references, work examples
These can be faked, but the more extensive the documentation, the less likely. Personal profiles, networking tools such as NetDeva (http://www.netdev.com) and PlanetAll (http://www.planetall.com) provide some ways to organize and share information. But to extract value, the tools have to be actively used across the community.
- Gradual, Socially-focused conversations - The more traditional way of getting to know folks online which works if you have time to develop trust. Virtual "third places" like coffee houses and bars provide a casual setting to get to know folks from more than one (business) perspective.
- Test Cases/Tasks - One of the most effective ways I've gotten to know and trust others is to work on a focused, time-delimited task. This allows people to show their competencies and reliability. This could be constructed to fit the needs of the participants.
I'm not sure if this belong under trust, because the act of sharing, giving, living the credo of the "Gift Economy" is another manifestation of trust. If knowledge is our currency, giving it away is an act of trust. But it also yields back to the giver through mutual reciprocity.
Reciprocity acts as a form of online transaction. Acknowledgement of a participant's presence, welcoming, noting absences, all build reciprocity. There is nothing worse than sharing something in a collaborative online workspace and getting ZERO feedback. It is deflating. When we can't acknowledge with applause, head nodding or eyebrow raising, we must get more deliberate in the text.
Nothing gets older faster than circular paths with no driving purpose. Online collaboration is not simply an exercise in online conversation.
The evolution of roles online is still a bit of mystery to me. There is a delicate line between declaring one's role, gaining support and approval for a role, and being seen as someone trying to control a group. The central issues regarding role revolve around decision making, power and control mechanisms.
A secondary issue with roles is stereotyping into roles. While one can easily mingle new-bees and experts in an online community, the role they enter with often sticks. Measurable records of proficiency gained over time (gaining stature within the group) might help overcome this, especially using rich profiling tools.
The most unexpected and deepest pit I've run into in online collaboration has been around issues of control. I do not have enough experience to tease out the issues yet, but the most helpful things that people have done have been to be as explicit as possible about who has control of what. It seems that the absence of understanding of who controls what is more damaging than most strong control mechanisms. The threat of control. Collaborators appreciate understanding motivation behind control and decision making, requiring more communication up front, but saving on the back en.
Online communication is at once both an extension of offline communication layered with the complications of text-only interactions. It favors the strong reader/writer. It is confounded by style, interpretation and the very easy opportunity for misinterpretation. We come laden with our life experiences and filters, and have only our reading and writing skills upon which to rely. Some of us have strong preferences, an even aversions to others' styles. Some have the tendency to find others who share styles, making it easy to form groups, isolate and fragment a team. These same tendency can support the formation of very strong, successful teams. Skillful observation of communication dynamics by facilitators or team leaders can play a significant role in helping a team evolve.
There is also an operational component to communication. Access to the online space, time distances, bandwidth, frequency and pacing of participation all impact the online team dynamics.
The Internet facilitates the gathering and organization of vast amounts of information, can facilitate groups over time and distance previously attainable only at great cost, and is rapidly providing a rich, multimedia environment. These are provide the opportunity for learning for both individuals and teams. But what are the best ways to share/teach/learn?