Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Do collaborative online groups need to be successful?

I have been reading a paper by James Robertsen of Step Two entitled Successful collaboration requires support. It discusses the need for central support and nurturing of online collaboration within an organisation rather than simply a 'build it and they will collaborate' approach.

While I agree with James' points, I do not feel that it is necessary for all collaborative groups to succeed. Sometime failure can be more educational, or can provide an organisation with insights into the actual priorities of staff and management - or can simply be due to changing communities and situations.

Considering an organisation as an ecosystem, with different operational units being different niches, each with their own specific characteristics and environments, over time some groups will thrive, some will survive but with less success and some will fail (particularly as the environment changes).

I see collaboration as an intersection of communication and knowledge, therefore any collaborative community is keenly affected by changes in its composition, the people, the organisational environment and priorities.

For example if a community leader leaves, or is simply not present, a community may fail, or one or more people may step into these shoes and take a community to new heights.

Sometimes the community leaders are not the obvious candidates, those who make the most 'noise' (the most posts or the most controversial). Instead they are often people in the background who provides the 'engine' of the community - as a critical source of knowledge, as a mediator between strong personalities or by asking the questions that make others reconsider what they believe.

Equally when an organisation changes structure, direction or priorities, some communities grow in significance and interest and others will fade. This is a wholly natural progression in the 'life' of an organisation and does not represent failure by the leaders or administrators of collaborative communities. Nor does it imply that the concept of collaboration is flawed.

My personal experience of collaborative communities over more than ten years of operating and participating in them is that they all ebb and flow over time. Often only a few individuals are required at their core, however without a mosaic of participants, who often are transient or contribute little to the discussions, the communities do not provide the knowledge transfer of value to an organisation.

Therefore, in my view, the best way to foster collaborative communities and support an environment where they can be successful (based on their own characteristics and niche) is to expose them to as large a group of participants as possible, thereby enabling others to learn from and share their own experience - even if it is not directly relevant to their current job.

To make communities fail, the best approach is to restrict participation to a small group, avoid cross-fertilisation and suppress active discussion and left-field ideas.

In other words, collaborative communities, in my view, thrive in open systems and die in closed ones, just as trapping two spiders in a glass jar over several months is not conducive to having them thrive.


  1. Hi Craig, I've also seen the same ebb-and-flow of collaboration amongst the groups I've been involved in.

    In organisations, however, I would distinguish between two different situations:

    1. supporting 'general' collaboration, mostly around relationships that already exist

    2. pursuing collaboration as a 'project' or 'strategy'

    For the former, I'm content to provide some support, and let the groups come and go as appropriate.

    In the latter case, we should see collaboration as just a means to an end.

    When we decide to take collaboration as a project, we should identify clear business outcomes, a purpose beyond just chatting.

    Groups will still come and go of course, but we explicitly make a decision to provide them with real support, confident that the organisation will benefit as a result.

    What do you think?

  2. I have written an MSc thesis on this topic and it is a massive one to wrap up easily in one blog post.

    Online groups are subject to the usual team/group issues (group think, 80/20 split in participation, etc.).

    I suppose it all depends on what you want your online group to achieve.

    I feel that a lot of Google Groups are a failure, even though they might be very popular, because the topics discussed often repeat much and the quality of discussions can be very noisy.

  3. Hi Craig
    Given that government tends to be the slowest and the most risk averse traveller in the realm of new technologies, one danger i see in letting online collaboration groups fail is that it becomes a case for the whole concept to be canned entirely. It can sometimes be tough to explain that it was the application of the tool that wasn't so successful rather than the tool itself. Any ideas of how that can be avoided?

  4. Hi Ladan,

    That's one of those 'big hairy problems' that there isn't a single clearcut answer for.

    I'd suggest that managing expectations at the start is a critical part of the answer, define the terms under which the group could be considered a success or failure to keep the focus on what the groups are doing well and are adding to the organisation.

    Then ensure the group is well supported through its life - particularly communicating to the group influencers/leaders and keeping them onboard. These champions are frequently the ones that see any type of initiative through its growth pains.

    Finally, ensure that there is clear communication back to senior stakeholders on how, and why, the group is succeeding or failing and what is being learnt for next time. This gets to the nuts and bolts of whether it was the application of the tool or the tool itself that caused the outcome. Equally the support and perceptions of stakeholders should be assessed.

  5. I'm experiencing Ladan's issue at the moment, or more specifically: my team is trying to sell to a govt agency the idea and practice of collaborative tools to answer their need to foster collaboration and stop 'silos of thinking'.

    We're hitting huge brick walls in their thinking, esp. things like:
    - Information quality: what if one staff-member's answer to another's question is not accurate? Wrong information will be allowed to grow and cause errors elsewhere.
    - Authority: some staff will contribute information that they're just not qualified to, or have the authority to.
    - Staff won't use collaborative tools because they won't want to be seen to not know the answers.

    Now to me, common sense and real-world scenarios would show that this thinking is not valid. But we're struggling to convince the stakeholders.

    One way we're tackling this is to prototype our solutions, so people can use an interface and experience this sort of collaboration, rather than just having an opinion based on a PowerPoint presentation.

    What do you think? Any other ideas to tackle this?

  6. Hi Ben,

    I think the best way is to find a group who says 'yes we want to do this' and let them loose.

    Support them and over time they become a reference site others in the organisation can look at (though you still run into the 'but we have unique needs' argument).

    I've been doing this and are seeing some wins, though the education curve at the start is often still steep.

    From some discussions I've had lately what emerges through the use of collaboration tools (and a subject for a later post) is that while the types of issues you mention are commonly raised before implementing these tools, the real questions and issues that emerge are frequently about resourcing.

    A conversation/collaboration requires more time commitment than a monologue - therefore the resources need to be available to have it succeed.

    This can be the real challenge (and no I have no simple answers!)