The ART of Collaboration

I was recently asked to present at the Knowledge and Innovation Network (KIN) summer workshop on the topic of “Collaborative Behaviours”. The slides I used have been posted to Slideshare and embedded at the end of this blog post. This post is a summary of the key points I made during my session.

Preamble

“Knowledge can only be volunteered, it can’t be conscripted”. A quote from the redoubtable Dave Snowden. But is the same true for collaboration? If people are given the right tools and the right environment, will they spontaneously collaborate and share knowledge? Why do some people find it difficult to share and collaborate? Would incentives and rewards make a difference?

What is “collaboration”?

According to dictionary definitions, collaboration means:

  1. The act of working with another or others on a joint project
  2. Something created by working jointly with another or others
  3. The act of cooperating as a traitor, especially with an enemy occupying one’s own country.

I think we can discount point 3 from this discussion, but it is worth testing all three of these definitions with the behaviours described later in this blog post to determine whether there are consistent characteristics that can be applied to all three.

For the purpose of having one single, all-embracing definition, I prefer to use the following:

Collaboration is when individuals or groups work together, combining their strengths and negating weaknesses to accomplish a set of goals.

I think the important point about this definition is that the outcomes are more likely to be amplified when working together as opposed to individually.

Types of Collaboration

It might help our comprehension about what we mean by “collaboration” by looking at various collaborative models.

Peer to Peer Production

Not to be confused with P2P file sharing, such as BitTorrent. P2P production is defined as “any coordinated, (chiefly) internet-based effort whereby volunteers contribute project components, and there exists some process to combine them to produce a unified intellectual work”. Source: Wikipedia.

The process is one-step, meaning the user accesses some or part of an original file from a P2P community website, modifies or enhances the file in some way, and then submits the modified file back into the community.

Probably the best-known examples of peer-to-peer production networks are the Apache Foundation Network and the Linux network (8000 developers from 800 countries). Other collaborative networks include ccMixter, a community music site featuring remixes licensed under Creative Commons where you can listen to, sample, mash-up, or interact with music and Remix The Video, and Scratch, for creating interactive stories, animations, games, music, and art for sharing on the web.

As part of my research for this presentation I attended a lecture at City University London, given by Dr Stephen Clulow, who described the motivators for peer-to-peer collaboration as:

  • Competence
  • Autonomy
  • Relatedness (knowing what you are doing is appreciated by others).

I’ll come back to motivators later in this post.

The Digital Workplace

Collaboration in the workplace is now high on the priority list of many organisations seeking to leverage social technologies to free-up knowledge and provide opportunities for co-creation, co-production and innovation.

I particularly liked this diagram and explanation from Jane McConnell at Net Strategy (reproduced below):

Digital Workplace

Source: http://netjmc.com/digital-workplace/digital-workplace-in-brief-5-fundamentals

  • The managed dimension includes business applications and validated, authoritative, reference content. It is primarily internal but extends partially into the client-partner sphere for inter-enterprise projects and processes.
  • The structured collaborative dimension involves teamwork on projects with specific goals, deliverables and timelines. It overlaps with both social collaboration and the managed dimension.
  • The social collaborative dimension is self-organizing. It includes social networking, micro blogging, community building and other social features such as user-generated content. This dimension stretches the furthest into the public world and is deliberately drawn off the chart because it is the biggest unknown today and triggers the most apprehension in management.

David Gauntlet has defined the motivators for collaboration in the digital workplace in his book “Making Is Connecting” as:

  • Pleasure
  • To feel an active participation
  • A wish to be recognised.

I’ll come back to motivators later in this post.

Barriers to collaboration

Understanding the barriers and obstacles is the first step to identifying potential solutions. Individuals acting alone may not be empowered to make the desired changes, but if there is a real desire to collaborate and share knowledge, most if not all of these obstacles can be overcome or circumvented.

In no particular priority order:

  • Knowledge is power: Knowledge and information hoarders exist in every organisation. However, their knowledge is likely to be one-dimensional and limited to their own small network. This can’t compare to the wealth of knowledge in social networks. A case of “none of us is smarter than all of us”.
  • Fear of change: There is no doubting that we live in far more uncertain times, where change and complexity is all around us. Holding back change is a bit like King Canute – with same outcome!
  • Can’t teach an old dog new tricks: Some people will never change. Accept it and move on.
  • Command and control: We don’t collaborate because there’s a real or perceived hierarchy in the workplace. Over the years, the leadership has developed a culture that appears to value one person or group over another.
  • WIIFM: What’s in it for me? It’s reasonable to seek value in what you do; otherwise you’ll consider your actions as being a waste of time.
  • Lack of time: The research report “Why Businesses Don’t Collaborate” cites the management of email and attending meetings as the biggest consumers of staff time. These points probably deserve more time and space than I’m giving them here, but the underlying issues here are (a) deciding what is important and (b) having some control of, or input to, meeting agendas.
  • Lack of support from the top: Bottom-up initiatives will fail to take hold unless there is some support from senior managers and directors. Collaboration initiatives need to be aligned with business or service goals.
  • Sceptical middle management: What I call the “marzipan layer”. You may have support from the top (the icing), and bottom-up encouragement (the cake). But middle management is more likely to understand the detailed processes that provide the foundations for how the organisation operates. They will be potentially risk-averse, since any change may have unpredictable consequences, and for which they may be accountable.
  • No tools/poor tools/too many tools: To be effective, collaboration has to be made simple. Intuitive tools accelerate user acceptance and can maximise the outcomes. However, tools need to be relevant and optimised to the task(s) to be completed. Too many choices result in cognitive dissonance (confusion on what to use for each task). No tools – no comment!
  • Inadequate education/support strategies: Collaboration needs to be recognised as a key workplace skill, and included in personal learning & development plans.  It’s not something that can be taught in a pedagogical sense, but can be encouraged through coaching and mentoring.
  • Information overload: Usually associated with management of email. Not the best environment for collaboration, or finding what is relevant from the torrent that hits your email inbox each day. Requires discipline on what is shared – does everyone need to know this snippet of information?
  • Micromanagement: Once assigned a task or objective by a manager, most knowledge workers will just want to get on with it, with a degree of autonomy on how they go about it.  Some managers or supervisors feel the need to oversee every small detail, which discourages initiative and dis-incentivises the worker.
  • Dissonance: It happens when bosses tell people they want everyone to collaborate. But at the same time, they assign tasks, targets and goals to various individuals and teams. Agendas that vary greatly and can range from complementary to conflicting.
  • Too-Rigid job descriptions: Tightly written and prescriptive job descriptions will that create real or perceived boundaries that inhibit initiatives and taking on new responsibilities.
  • Language: Collaboration is always going to be difficult if the parties cannot make themselves understood.
  • Culture: Not every culture is open and transparent. Need to be aware of rules and protocols that define collaboration with other cultures.
  • Geography: The layout of your workplace can help or hurt collaboration. The greater the distance between colleagues, the greater the chance of flawed communication. Not just over-reliance on e-mail when face-to-face conversation is needed, but genuine “out of sight, out of mind” lapses that keep smart people out of the brainstorming, decision making or socialising that leads to positive outcomes.
  • Fear of rejection: You have something to contribute, but previous experience leads you to believe that your opinion is not valued. Typically seen in hierarchical networks.
  • Legal, Compliance, Security: It’s not always possible, or even desirable to have open and transparent discussion. Closed groups or communities can be used in some circumstances, but we have to accept that sometimes wider collaboration is not possible.
  • Digital Divide: Hopefully less of an issue than it used to be, but there is no doubt that anyone not able to connect to the Internet is likely to be at a disadvantage for knowledge and information sharing.

Incentives and Rewards

Speaking personally, incentives and rewards have never made any difference to me in terms of making me want to collaborate more than I do at present. But there is evidence that incentives do work for some (albeit artificial) scenarios, such as Macon Money.  This “serious game” explored how diverse people within a community could be brought together using real-world incentives (in this case, players holding half of a “play bond” tried to find the local citizen bearing the other half, then turned in their play money for real cash).

It’s clear that gaming concepts can draw people into taking interest and becoming part of something bigger than themselves, e.g. earning badges in FourSquare. But we’re also starting to see game technology being used in serious professional networks, as in the recent release of the Jive Gamification Module.

I was hoping to collect some hard evidence of how incentives and rewards might be influencing collaborative behaviours by posting this question on Quora:

Is there any evidence that rewards and incentives improve team-working and collaboration?

There has been little response, but whether this is because there is little or no evidence, or because the question didn’t really excite the community I’m not sure.

So for me, the jury is still out on this one, at least until I see some better evidence than in the Macon Money example mentioned previously.

The ART of collaboration

Admittedly I haven’t read every book, white paper or blog that purports to reveal the secrets of good collaborative behaviour. However, I have done sufficient research to realise that this is a very complex topic. I must admit that I’ve not been wholly convinced by what I have read, heard or seen and I don’t think anyone has really identified the key characteristics of good collaborator. So I’ve fallen back on my own experience (over many more years than I care to mention), and identified the characteristics that I think are most important for online collaboration.

1. Authenticity

This is not just ‘identity’, in terms of an on-line profile. It means, “are you who you say you are”? Are you truthful, genuine and sincere? Do you provide relevant attributions to your sources? Do you cite the origins of your content? Are you indeed a human being? Not to be confused with a Bot or a clever Artificial Intelligence application (don’t laugh even experts can be fooled. See the Turing Test).

2. Recognition (or Reward)

One thing that academics do appear to agree on is that a key influencer for good collaborative behaviour is recognition or reward. This does not have to be monetary reward, or gaining power and influence though promotion. In many cases it is simply being recognised as someone who has demonstrated knowledge or expertise on a particular topic. For the truly networked individual, to be acknowledged as an “expert” by your peers carries far more weight than some transient, short-term financial reward. I would go so far as to argue that collaborative behaviour that is driven mostly or entirely by financial reward will only be very superficial and is not sustainable in the long term.

3. Trust

To my mind, the most important characteristic, and the most ephemeral, since it’s not something that can be easily measured or evaluated. Trust relies on believing that a person will behave reasonably and will do what he or she says.

We establish trust with the people we engage with by the way we behave and how they reciprocate. Feelings of empathy with another person may also play a part. Establishing trust with people in an online network is more difficult than for face-to-face encounters, where we can tap into emotional signals and evaluate body language. However, trust, once established, can be just as strong for on-line engagement as it is for real-life. In fact, there are many people in my on-line networks that I’ve never met; yet I trust them more than some of the people I meet from day to day.

4. Passion

Enthusiasm, commitment, devotion to a cause or belief – all of these define ‘passion’. These are strong, emotional characteristics that provide the motivation for collaboration.  Having passion for something (or someone?) gives a meaning to our actions and, in the context of collaboration, connects the authenticity, recognition and trust characteristics. Long before there were social networks, hobbyists would gather to share their passion, whether it is photography, model making, knitting or gardening.  Such clubs and organisations are founded on the principles of sharing of ideas and techniques to support learning and improvement.  But the other (and arguably more significant) factor is that members of these gatherings also crave recognition for something they have achieved. This is not dissimilar to the recognition we wish to achieve through online collaboration, where knowledge or expertise can be recognised by our peers.

The diagram below shows how all of these characteristics combine together to form what I believe is the ideal model for collaborative behaviour. My only surprise from the research I undertook for this topic (admittedly not exhaustive) was how few references there were to “Trust”, and no references at all to “Authenticity”. Two of my key characteristics. However, we all seem to agree on ‘Recognition” as one of the fundamental characteristics.

The ART of Collaboration

To conclude: I’ve emphasised the acronym ART in this post and in the diagram above because I do feel that effective collaboration is an “art” in the true sense of the word, i.e. a skill that is learnt through practice. I wonder….are you practising this ART enough?

Useful References.

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