Its not the same thing – the 3 types of collaboration

A year or so ago, i found myself in a (slightly heated) discussion around what the key enabling factors for collaboration were. Somewhere along the way, I discovered (as often happens when one is debating with ones spouse, or at least my spouse) that we were actually not talking about the same thing.

I was talking about helping teams to work together. He was talking about helping people who may not know one another connect as their expertise becomes relevant to one another. Oh. Well those are very different things, and while some enabling factors are similar, these two activities actually have rather different requirements both culturally, organizationally and technologically.

After working this issue for a while, I’ve labels the three major types of collaboration. This categorization seems to work for most people, and I’d love to hear what you think as well. I believe that it is critically important that we have a shared language to discuss and describe these different concepts if we are to make any progress toward enabling them in organizations. We cannot become sophisticated and make progress here if we cannot define the terms. So here is my take on this, and I look forward to your refining input.

Collaboration refers to a cluster of 3 types of activity – they are often interdependent and linked, but they are distinct in what they can achieve, and what is required to enable them.

1 Creative Collaboration.

Creative collaboration is collaboration that’s intended to create something. It is goal-oriented, and has a defined team (though stakeholders may come and go) that is responsible for delivering that product. Examples here are a product team, a legal team, a team responsible for an RFP, or a marketing launch, or developing a product, or a corporate acquisition.

The objective for this type of collaboration is to be able to achieve what an individual can not, either because its too much work for a single individual, or, as is more common, it requires a multitude of skills or perspectives to achieve.

The outcome that we’re concerned with is a factor of the team’s productivity. We want the outcome to happen as quickly, cheaply and with the highest possible quality, and collaboration has been shown to improve each of these dimensions. [citations]

What we need to do to encourage such collaboration is make it easy for teams to form, communicate, get organized, contribute, aggregate and iterate on work. I talk about this in depth in a recent post “Is Collaboration enough for Productivity.” Technology helps enormously here by providing shared workspaces, a variety of communications tools (wikis, document management, discussion forums, instant messages, etc), which, if you’re lucky enough to have well designed software, accelerates the rate at which people can get work done, and removes barriers like geographical and organizational distance.

The key cultural requirements for success for such teams are (and forgive me if you’ve heard this before) 1) a shared sense of mission 2) mutual respect 3) trust 4) a commitment to continual improvement. I’ve discussed these elements elsewhere on this blog, so I’ll spare you the details right now.

2. Connective Collaboration – its not the wisdom of crowds, its the aggregated wisdom of individuals.

This refers to connecting with a broader community – the organization as a whole, or even more broadly than than. You may not know most of the people in this community. The goal of this type of collaboration is to connect dots – find expertise and resources as you need them. Discover unexpected relevance, connections or insights, and maximize the chances that information, resources and expertise find the places that they’re meaningful or critical. (I’ve written about this in several places too – “Intel clear on ROI of Social Media” and “ Is collaboration enough to connect-the-dots?”). While there are examples of this type of requirement everywhere – science, healthcare, art, strategy, problem solving of nearly every kind – the most notable examples these days are from the intelligence community – is it possible that the intel community could have identified and connected the dots to warn them of the 9/11 attacks? The Christmas 09 underwear bomber? The answer is – maybe. There’s a lot involved in that problem, and I won’t get into all of it here, but recognizing patterns of droplets of  information and activity in an ocean of activity is not easy. The goal right now is to maximize the odds.

Connective Collaboration requires a broad, loosely connected community that can maintain awareness of activity, and ideally, technology that helps them find, discover or get pinged about relevant information, resources, insight and expertise –  that they may or may not have been aware of – elsewhere in the system. Status and microblogging have proven surprisingly useful here to build ambient awareness of what is going on  in the organization. It is also vital, however, to have communication and work indexed and searchable to be able to find those nuggets of connection. Semantic analysis, and statistics also have much to offer (and far to go) here.

3. Compounding Collaboration – Standing on the shoulders of giants.

The purpose of compounding collaboration is to ensure that whatever our endeavor, we are leveraging, to the greatest extent possible, the work that has been done already. Even if it is only to show us what to avoid. To the extent that we can do this, we can constantly compound and extend our capabilities, productivity and agility. There is nothing that can compete with this sort of dynamic, and it in competitive situations it trumps nearly any other dynamic (think of compound interest on your money – you cant catch up with an early, strong start).

To achieve this, we need to be able to capture work. Work is not only about documents. Work is what happens when you’re creating those documents (or other products) – what resources were used? What questions were asked? Who answered them? How did you overcome obstacles? What were the false starts or poor assumptions? What processes were followed?

The beauty is, that if you’re using technology to support Creative Collaboration, you should be capturing all this, so that the next people coming through can learn from what you achieved – or failed too. (cultural note – you need a culture where its ok to fail, and it is a respected part of the learning, discovery and continual improvement process).

The field of Knowledge Management was devised to support this type of efficiency and collaboration. But the trouble with KM as it was defined in the 1990s , is that knowledge capture and dissemination was separate from the work itself. It is something that must be undertaken and explicitly referred to. The implications of this are many, but it usually means that only the most formal, documented and recognized knowledge is captured. That a vast majority of insight is lost, and that what is captured is only found if someone explicitly thinks of looking there. In other words, because the prior generation of knowledge management techniques were largely divorced from the act of work itself, they were inefficient at both capture and dissemination of knowledge.

The new age of collaborative technologies should fix this, and make knowledge capture and transfer much, much easier.

There are other issues here as well – onboarding and training of new people.

I was recently part of a discussion where people were talking about the twin issues of senior people leaving and junior people coming up to speed. I’m a firm believer that one of the most tried, true and effective methods of transferring large amounts of knowledge is through apprenticeship – (try learning to make a pie crust from a book, vs doing it  with a friend or relative who already knows how). The transparency and team environments that good collaborative technologies can create enable apprenticeship on a broader scale than ever possible – and the beauty is that it goes both ways. The new kid can teach the old fart some new tricks too – without any loss of face on either side. Transparent environments are tricky and imperfect, and extremely sensitive to culture and organization – but they are also the most effective learning environments there are.

So there you have it. Deb’s basic taxonomy of collaboration. Thanks, Ken, for pointing out that I hadn’t pulled this together in a single post before. And thanks in advance to you, for your feedback so that this can be further refined and increasingly useful.

21 comments

  1. Thanks for writing this up! Good summary of the fact “collaboration” is not the same to everyone. It was great seeing you yesterday.

  2. Thanks Deb, good post and I like the division in type & size

    I’ve witnessed these same types of collaboration and what I usually miss is connecting the dots between the three different types: it’s like there are 3 separate rings of collaboration that don’t or hardly touch

    With regards to the apprenticeship: in some organisations that’s the only way because the circles don’t interact. But this only work where there are longlasting relationships. If people switch company every 3 years or so it’s very ineffective and costly

    Knowledge management requires standardisation as well, just as onboarding and training. The onboarding process is usually equal to the Knowledge process, leading to the same results for both

    I pretty much see the same things now: individuals participating wildly in microblogging or blogging and social networks, companies reluctant to participate, and enterprises giving in to FUD
    Who will connect those dots?

  3. a great take on collaboration and very similar to a theme that I agree whole-heartedly with.

    I write about two types of collaboration in my eBook “Two Types of Collaboration and Ten Requirements for Using Them” (here: http://www.fishbowlsolutions.com/StellentSolutions/ContentManagementResources/index.htm)

    The two types of Collaboration that I have found are Social Collaboration (person / team centric, task oriented, intentional) and Informational Collaboration (information centric, knowledge oriented and accidental)

    I think that your 2nd and 3rd types of collaboration are generally contained under what I find as “Accidental Collaboration”.

    I’d be interested in your thoughts on the eBook as well!

    1. Billy – Thanks very much for introducing yourself. I will certainly be checking it out. However, while I believe that connective and compounding have historically been accidental, its our current mission to make these more determinate. Our goal is to maximize the potential for information and expertise finding the context(s) where is is relevant and valuable.

      I look forward to reading your book.

  4. Hi Deb,

    Found your blog through a comment you left over at CMS Wire.

    Your 3 versions of collaboration sound very much like Shawn Callahan’s work at Anecdote in Australia. He describes in his whitepaper “Building a collaborative workplace” from Apr 2008 the notion of Team Collaboration, Community Collaboration, and Network Collaboration. They are very close to your concepts. Team is about fixed membership, fixed output, the classic project. Community is about shared interests, porous membership, and no fixed output. And Network is aggregated individual behaviors, fed back to the individuals to provide value (think social bookmarking).

    http://www.anecdote.com.au/whitepapers.php?wpid=15

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