He is the author of the exemplar and influential blog How to Save the World which covers topics as diverse as environmental philosophy and activism, natural enterprise, narrative and storytelling, social networking and personal content management and innovation. He has written a number of articles on collaboration (scroll down to the 'collaboration' heading), and recently collaborated with Mitch Ditkoff and Tim Moore of Idea Champions and Carolyn Allen of Innovation Solution Center on a survey to discover what the charictaristics of an ideal collaborator might be. Some of the results of this survey have been incorporated into the collaboration page (as well as material from his blog).
[Questions in bold, responses in italic.]
In A Conversation On The Collaboration Process with Mitch Ditkoff, Carolyn Allen & Tim Moore, you defined collaboration as "the creation of a collective work-product by a highly responsive, interactive, iterative give-and-take process that yields something greater than what any set of individuals working alone could produce". Do you think the joint development of shared understandings is a necessary outcome of the above defined process?
Not only is it probably unnecessary, I'm not sure it's even always possible. The collaboration that produced the album Abbey Road was, I suspect, largely a matter of chemistry. So was the work of Eliot, Eliot's wife, & Pound, and so is the improv work of jazz combos. I think great collaboration defies dissection. It's a complex process, and as such is substantially unknowable. And since it is a complex process, any shared understandings would necessarily be emergent, I would think, rather than agreed-upon.
- Thanks for making that clarification - I agree that the understandings are emergent. It isn't so much an act of consciously deciding upon what the shared understanding are or will be, but rather that the shared understandings emerge (regardless of intent) within, between and across all the minds taking part - even if the contributors are not aware of this. - I needn't be aware of the understandings that the other contributors to a Wikipeida article have, and yet after we’ve all read and continue to collaboratively draft it, it seems we would necessarily have some sort of overlapping and emergent shared space, even if the individual interpretations vary, sometimes dramatically. Does this accord with you?
- I guess it depends on the application, the context, and on the perspective. In some cases yes, there will be shared understandings emerging. What matters, though, is the result, which often (as in a great musical composition) transcends understanding, and in others (highly individual actions coming out of a collaborative event, for example) will be the result of very different understandings, where a shared understanding is unnecessary.
It seems that from your above definition, the wiki drafting process would have no problem fitting in as a collaborative process (as opposed to cooperative). Any general (or specific) ideas on this medium as a collaborative (or cooperative) process? Perhaps you might briefly comment on the mass collaboration article - a Meta Collab article being developed on the wiki collaboration process.
Provided it's respectful and non-hierarchical, I think wikis could be extremely powerful collaborative tools. There will be a substantial learning curve for the collaborators, as there is for all new tools, but the wonderful thing about wikis is their flexibility -- they can evolve as needed to suit the needs of the specific collaboration. What would make them even better would be the ability to incorporate 'conversations', with their ability to iterate rapidly and add deep context. One of the thoughts I had reading your mass collaboration article was that the ability of wikis to identify and track back the individual 'author' might actually impede, rather than enabling, the development of truly collective work-product which, by definition, has no individual author.
- That is an interesting point - that identifying contributors might impede collaboration. In many wikis, although you can identify which collaborator contributed which bit of text, it is often so tricky to unravel the interplay of page edits as to make it a little too hard to be worth the time anyway. Having said this, it was quite a lift (and good for my research) when I was able to track the contributions I had made on Wikipedia's collaboration page when the article was referenced in an article on Geocollaboration using Peer-Peer GIS. This actually gave me more incentive to collaborate. So maybe this can work in opposing ways - limiting collaboration due to quibbles on ownership, and encouraging collaboration due to the ability to identify one's 'stake'?
- Yes-- again I think it depends on the application. To the extent individuals see some of the value of the exercise as being able to go back later and point to something in a wiki and say "See -- that was MY contribution" I think this "audit trail" could actually impede collaboration, and have people thinking about where they're making their "mark" instead of working to produce consensual, collective work products that transcends individual contributions and "scorekeeping". In a collaborative work of art, a change of a single word or even a comma can make a momentous difference, and could entail a long and quick back-and-forth exchange where 100 different words and phrasings were used before an AHA! was reached on precisely the right choice. In such circumstances author identification and versioning controls could be a royal pain, inhibiting the creative and collaborative process. That's what I meant about the need to incorporate conversation in wikis -- instantaneous collaboration where several people are making rapid changes at once until they know they have it right, and stop.
I would love to hear your thoughts on the viability of a general theory of collaboration - do you think it would be worthwhile for interested researchers/practitioners etc to work towards the development of a 'collabology' - a study of collaboration?
If we could use it to learn to collaborate better, it would be very worthwhile. We might have to settle for a set of principles of collaboration rather than a cohesive theory. We could start by looking at the attempts to develop principles, rules and theories of how a beehive or an ant colony operates. I suspect that the first principle would be: The more you practice it, learning from your mistakes, the better you get at it. Beyond that, I would think a lot depends on context: Collaborative open source software development, theatrical improvisation, collaborative literary or musical composition, and innovative new business formation might need different collaboration 'theories'.
- I agree - collaborative horses for collaborative courses (so to speak). The first principle as: 'The more you practice it while learning from your mistakes, the better you get at it.' suggests an interesting aspect to this orientation of research - that is, working from an application oriented perspective (as opposed to one strictly of theory and analysis). It seems that in academia (at least here in Australia), we are just coming into this realisation that the two perspectives are equally important and are often best carried out in parallel (which of course now seems obvious!). However, our institutions are still some way off from reflecting this understanding in their education and research structures and processes. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons why collaborative research sites such as MetaCollab sprung up in the first place?) In accordance with the above mentioned survey and taking in the top three qualities of an ideal collaborator, perhaps the second principle might be something like: ‘Cultivate a mind-set that engenders an open-minded, curious, enthusiasm for collaboration in general, as well as speaking one's mind even if it's an unpopular viewpoint.’ I wonder how this cultivation might best be fostered?
- I think a better word than "cultivate" might be "inspire". You inspire that mind-set in various ways: Invite the right people, who care about the subject in the first place, and let them infect others with their passion; teach people "improv" skills, that enable quick thinking, openness, playfulness, and letting go; and maybe most of all, sustain trust, without which there can be no generosity and hence no collaboration.