Collaboration thread in CACM for April 2008

There is an interesting pair of articles that focus on collaboration in the April 2008 Communications of the ACM.  And one of them leads to even more interesting stuff.

The first, Missing Links: Building Critical Social Ties for Global Collaborative Teamwork by Ilan Oshri, Julia Kotlarsky, and Leslie Willcocks talks about the importance of face-to-face (F2F) meetings in the world of truly global operations.  Their focus, however, isn't just that team members should meet in person.  The paper goes another level deeper into thinking about what should happen to build and maintain those social ties.

They describe a life cycle of social ties that starts with introduction then build-up then a renewal cycle.  And they talk about the kinds of activities that should be happening during each of these phases.  Most of these have to do with the things that need to happen socially to improve the ties.  There is minor discussion of the supporting tools.  The tools are there to support what the people need.

The second article is an opinion piece by Peter J. Denning and Peter Yaholkovsky, Getting to "We".  They provide a fairly straightforward description of collaboration as compared to information sharing, coordination, and cooperation.  (Thomas van der Wal discussed this article last week.)  Collaboration defined by D&Y:

Collaboration generally means working together synergistically. If your work requires support and agreement of others before you can take action, you are collaborating.

They also use these four elements to highlight the various "collaboration tools" and where they fit in their primary function.  For example, blogs are information sharing tools; project management is about coordination; discussion forums are about cooperation (usually); and brainstorming is an example of collaboration.

It is interesting to come back to this article after reading the "Missing Links" article later in the issue.  I note that none of the tools mentioned in the collaboration bucket are technology - they are methods of doing work together.

In their definition of collaboration, Denning & Yaholkovsky referenced Scott London's Collaboration and Community paper, so I popped over to have a look.  Interesting parallel with what they have said, not surprisingly.  I particularly liked his list of characteristics of collaborative endeavors. 

Collaborative endeavors generally share a number of basic characteristics:

  • The problems are ill-defined, or there is disagreement about how they should be defined.
  • Several stakeholders have a vested interest in the problems and are interdependent.
  • These stakeholders are not necessarily identified a priori or organized in any systematic way.
  • There may be a disparity of power and/or resources for dealing with the problems among the stakeholders.
  • Stakeholders may have different levels of expertise and different access to information about the problems.
  • The problems are often characterized by technical complexity and scientific uncertainty
  • Differing perspectives on the problems often lead to adversarial relationships among the stakeholders
  • Incremental or unilateral efforts to deal with the problems typically produce less than satisfactory solutions
  • Existing processes for addressing the problems have proved insufficient

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