Chocolate and Collaboration
Shawn Callahan of Anecdote and I are working on a project together that involves “collaboration.” Heard that word before, right? It's easy to toss around. But what does it really mean in practice, particularly when we talk about distributed participants? What does it mean to collaborate in places where self interest is also at play? What are the connections with cooperation? (If you are interested in cooperation, I strongly urge you to check out the work that Howard Rheingold, Jim Benson and friends have been doing with the Institute for the Future and the Cooperation Commons .)
We thought it might be fun to share some of our thoughts about collaboration on our blogs. Shawn's is here. Of course there are lots of other things written about collaboration? There sure are. So why blog about it now? Because we find it useful to bring earlier practices into what is happening with networks and new tools. Plus, collaboration is always worth talking about, right?
Conceptually it is useful to describe collaboration as the act of people working with people to get something done at work or at play. In this context, we're talking about work, often with distributed participants. The collaboration practices are diverse, so it is helpful to see what general patterns are at play. Here's the three patterns we see that give us a basis to start talking more tangibly about collaboration practices.
In Team Collaboration, the members of the group are known, there are clear task interdependencies, expected reciprocity, and explicit timelines and goals. To achieve the goal, members must fulfill their tasks within the stated time. Team Collaboration often suggests that while there is explicit leadership, the participants cooperate on an equal footing and will receive equal recognition. An example is a research project to develop a prototype for X in five months with six team members and a set of resources.
In Community Collaboration, there is a shared domain or area of interest, but the goal is more often on learning, rather than task. People share and build knowledge, rather than complete projects. Membership may be bounded and explicit or open. Periods of participation are often open or “ongoing.” Membership is often on equal footing, but more experienced practitioners may have more status or power in the community. Reciprocity is within the group, but not always one to one (“I did this for you, now you do this for me.”) An example might be a community of practice that is interested in the type of research mentioned in the team example above. A member of that team may come to her community and ask for examples of past projects or to bounce ideas off of others.
Network Collaboration steps beyond the relationship centric nature of team and community collaboration. And this is where it gets interesting. Network collaboration starts in individual action and self interest and accrues to the network. Membership and timelines are open and unbounded. There are no explicit roles. Members most likely do not know all the other members. Power is distributed. This form of collaboration has been busted wide open with the advent of new online tools, a response to the overwhelming volume of information we are creating and number of people we can connect with. The tools both expose us to possibility, remind us of the overwhelming volume and offer us ways to share the task of coping with that volume.
An example of network collaboration might be members of the team in the first example above bookmarking web sites as they find them. This benefits their team, possibly their related communities of practice but it also benefits the wider network of people interested in the topic. At the same time, they may find other bookmarks left by network members relevant to their team work. This sort of network activity benefits the individual and a network of people reciprocally over time. The reciprocity connection is remote and undefined. You act in self-interest but provide a network-wide benefit.
This is just the tip of the network, um, I mean, iceberg on network collaboration. Look at the work on Value Networks, Collective Intelligence , CrowdSourcing, Cooperation, and Participatory Media. This is where it's happening. And organizations need to find ways to be part of it - not just try to recreate it within their borders. This can be a significant challenge to existing organizational structures which may feel threatened by the complexity of networks and the shift in power dynamics from more traditional hierarchical models. In other words, the ship is rocking, baby. And the deck chairs may be sliding fast.
So do we all rush out and change all of our collaboration practices to network forms? Ditch our teams and communities? Nope. That would risk throwing the baby out with the bath water.
Networks don't exist alone. They are part of the ecosystem of collaboration which includes team and community collaboration. Teams are not dead. Communities of Practice are not dead. They are alive and well. In fact, they could be even healthier now they have the wider embrace and power of networks to amplify their work, keep them from getting stale and stuck in narrow, parochial thinking and offer them places for members to go to and come from. If collaborative teams had communities and networks to both draw from and contribute to, collaborative efforts born in teams could expand beyond those teams for added value. That ongoing community and network value could be available back to teams.
It is the collaboration chocolate confection. There is that perfect truffle center, rich and dark (the team). There is the robe of chocolate, dusting of cocoa, the company of other truffles nearby (the community). Then there is the fantastic universe of chocolate, the breadth and dizzying depth of possibility (the network.)
So what does that mean for practice?
The next step is to try some generalizations and see if they fit. For example, these three distinctions are driven by a different motivation, which in turn informs the type of collaboration practice. Team collaboration is motivated by a goal or objective to get something specific delivered. It requires explicit, agreed upon processes, dedicated time and resources and context specific tools. Community collaboration is focused on learning and developing one’s practice over time. It requires motivation, easy to use tools, and in a very practical sense, a bit of time and attention. Network collaboration provides network level benefits by attending to personal knowledge management needs. It requires very lightweight and easy to use tools that integrate into daily practices, assist in discoverability and sense making, and, like community collaboration, a bit of time and attention.
That's a start. What's next? More questions.