Sometimes conversations on collaboration can get a bit confused. Often because you aren’t talking about the same thing, but without realizing. The concept of collaboration means different things to different people… and at different times. It’s a matter of context.
I find it useful to think (and explain) a bit extra about the context of collaboration when discussing with others, but also on my own when analyzing behaviours and observations.
The three typical contexts presented here have provided an excellent basis for me (I know it’s no rocket science, but it has proven useful often enough for me to want to share).
Usually, I apply this model when talking about intranets, but I think it works pretty well also in public networks.
Many tools and features are used in all contexts, but in different ways and with variations of intensity and – definitely – for different purposes.
Teams with a goal
Teams with a goal are typically in need of a project space of some kind. A couple of characteristics:
- Limited external visibility of the project space if any at all
- Non-homogenous membership profile. Members are selected based on complementary competences and characteristics
- An end in sight. When the goal is reached, the project space is no longer needed (except as a repository for reference if need be)
- Greater need for and use of tools for task management
- Easily understandable business rationale
As this context has long been the easiest to understand and assign monetary value, web support was available early, also on a commercial online basis.
Individuals sharing interests as individuals
The obvious examples of individuals sharing interests as individuals are all public: Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. People who have something in common (socially, business or interest) connect, keep in contact and share information on a “free-for-all” basis: “Here’s my update/picture/link. Come and get it if you’re interested.” Conceptually, the purest example in my book is Delicious, where I share my bookmarks publicly for anyone to find and use, with no strings attached whatsoever. Some characteristics:
- One-to-any communication
- Ad-hoc and serendipitous
- Difficult-to-explain business benefits
While this type of collaboration has seen unparalleled success the latest decade in the public arena, it has had greater difficulties to make the same headway within companies and organizations. Quite understandably so, too, at least as long as you think conventionally; structure, purpose, process, measurability, cause-and-effect. In many cases, the public sites for individual collaboration may even have had a negative effect on internal acceptance. “I don’t want to introduce something for my employees to waste their time internally on socializing as they do already on Facebook”.
But those of us who have had the opportunity to use rich and comprehensive social intranets are very aware that they pay off. It’s just so darned difficult to present their value in a way that the conventionally minded understand.
Individuals banding together in communities of interest
In comparison with the Teams with a goal-scenario, Communities are:
- Openly visible – although joining may be limited
- Homogenous – people join out of a common interest
- Longer lasting – as long as they stay vital
- Focus on sharing knowledge, not on task management
- Greater difficulties in measuring business value
Most of the time, it’s easier to measure the business value of employees being able to form internal voluntary communities of interest across borders and distances, be they geographical or organizational. Project managers sharing lessons learned, asking each other for help, sharing useful links, collaborating on describing best practices in wikis etc or programmers, or people working for a particular client, a customer segment or in a particular area of technology or…
But there is an increase of communities of interest also in the public domain; groups on LinkedIn and Facebook, by hashtags on Twitter etc. For companies who do not offer similar possibilities internally, I think these public communities represent a major risk of leakage of intellectual property.
So, next time the arguments of your discussion partner seem not to make sense, take a step back and spend some time on understanding if you talk about collaboration in the same contexts or in different.