Monday, 25 January 2010

What exactly is 'collaboration' - and who owns it ?

This article is mostly prompted by internal discussions within my group at work, but also because I have been reading Prof. Andrew MacAfee's book on Enterprise 2.0. Also in the bigger picture it links back to some posts from late last year on the TiMAF definition of information and information management, because your definition of what constitutes collaboration will impact on who the 'owners' are.

To set a little context, we have been taking about business ownership models for SharePoint (MOSS 2007) in our organization. Our CIO is very much focused on IT providing a service to the business and as such we always look for the 'business sponsor' or 'business owner'. For SharePoint specifically this an issue due to its both its broad feature set, and in no small way due to the Microsoft marketing which depicts it as a tool which 'the business' can use with a lot of help from IT.

So how about splitting up SharePoint's major features does that help? Well it may do, because it might be fairly easy to find the business sponsor for records management functionality, or for business intelligence features. I suppose document management might be more difficult to find a single owner because of its broad scope, unless you have an ECM strategy which in turn has a business owner/sponsor.

Collaboration however is a much more nebulous beast. What exactly constitutes collaboration may change depending on the organization or even the circumstances, and who might want to stand up as the business owner of something so ephemeral ?

At the Open University 'collaboration' was part of our ECM programme, but to be honest that was only collaborative workspaces, wikis, blogs etc not the 'communications' tools such as the Exchange email servers which belonged to a well established group. However we did 'own' collaboration to the extent that we wrote the collaboration strategy, and guidelines on which tools should / could be used for which collaborative endeavours. However as ECM Programme Manager I was also 'co-owner' of our corporate intranet, and in many organizations Corporate Communications (or whomever else) might step up and take the collaboration space because of its links to the intranet. On the other side of the coin I have worked as a consultant with Corp. Comms executives who vehemently insisted that any form of collaboration tool, web based or not, was well outside of their remit.

Throw in newer collaboration related 'phenomena' such as Enterprise 2.0 and things can get even more complicated. Prof. McAfee suggested in a recent post that overusing the word 'social' was a great way to kill your E2.0 initiatives before they even get started (make sure you read all the comments to get the full discourse). Those who decry “social this and social that” as over use of an empty buzz word seem to have forgotten the reason collaboration is so important is because we are social animals, and we like to work together (there are of course sound evolutionary reasons for this !).

So at this point I would suggest that part of the solution is to accept that there is no such thing as single amorphous blob labeled as collaboration – but many contextually different elements to collaboration, each of which may lend itself to a different type of technology or tool, to a different type of management, and even to a different loci for 'ownership'. As a starting point, lets look at the Wikipedia definition of collaboration:

“Collaboration is a recursive process where two or more people or organizations work together in an intersection of common goals — for example, an intellectual endeavor that is creative in nature—by sharing knowledge, learning and building consensus.” (click for the full definition)

If we then acknowledge that we must concentrate on people, process, content and context for successful collaboration, and that dividing collaboration into synchronous or asynchronous is too simplistic, how else might we categorize or collaborative endeavors towards our common goals?

The following five sub-categories are my suggestion for slicing and dicing it to help it make sense:

Messaging Centric Collaboration: The lowest common denominator or fall back position for many, this category includes not only the use of email for collaboration (with all the bad practice this entails, such as large CC lists and attachments) but also Instant Messaging and SMS texting tools.

Content Centric Collaboration: Working together to create or edit a particular item (or items) of information. A good example is the Document Library centred approach of MOSS 2007, where the discussion forum, project blog or even the wiki is used to provide collaboration around the creation of content in MS Office formatted ‘documents’. Other ECM or DM products generally support this mode of collaboration through commenting directly on documents etc.

Conversation Centric Collaboration: The focus is not any particular content item, but instead on free flowing, creative discussions, often between geographically dispersed teams or individuals. Also often used in a ‘knowledge management’ focused scenario, tools might include blogs, wikis and instant messaging.

Process Centric Collaboration: Enhancing a particular production process workflow by adding a collaborative element. This may include discussion with teams or individuals up or downstream in the process workflow, or the collaborative brainstorming of issues causing exceptions in the process etc. For example in the EMC Documentum workflow tools there was a feature that would automatically create an eRoom workspace, assign users to it and email them a message with a link to the workspace and information on the process exception !

Collaborative Management: The co-ordination of programs, projects or processes via collaborative interaction, for example using team workspaces, team calendars and collaborative project management tools.

My colleague Martin White, Managing Director of Intranet Focus likes these definitions (we used them when working together for the UN Secretariat) and he uses them with his clients. As I publish on this blog under a Creative Commons license, feel free to use them too - but this leads to my first question to any readers who would like to comment:

Does this way of splitting 'collaboration' into constituent parts look helpful to you ?

My second question links back to my mention of our internal discussions:

Who is the 'business owner' of collaboration in your organization ?


Gordon said...

Hi Jed,

Good post. In terms of slicing collaboration into different categories, I'm personally fond of Shawn Callaghan's 3 models of collaboration: team collaboration, community collaboration, and network collaboration.

Team collab is what we all recognize as "the project" - fixed timeline, agreed upon outcomes, fixed group. Community collab is what we'd recognize as the community of interest or practice - volunteer membership, no fixed outputs, lots of communication. And network collab is that emergent collaboration that e2.0 types are so fond of. Think delicious bookmarking. All we're doing is sharing, coordinated through the use of a central system - individual actions creating value for the group as a whole, without really trying to agree upon their actions ahead of time.

Clay Shirky discusses the ladder of activities in group undertakings in Here Comes Everybody in a similar fashion, each activity being harder than the first. His 3 main types of group actions are sharing, cooperation, and collective action. That's kinda the same as the basis of network, community, and project collaboration.

So instead of focusing on the content types or a ECM/CMS/object-based taxonomy of collaboration, I like this social-actor / action-based classification. You can use the same tools across all three, you can create the same kind of content across all three (email, blog posts, bookmarks, office documents, spreadsheets).

You've got the bases covered in your five (Content-centric = project collab; conversation = community or early stage project), but I think the Anecdote model simplifies things a bit and looks to a more generalized approach.

Martin White said...


Thanks for posting these, as I have been using them for some months now since you developed them for our project at the UN, and have not been able to atttribute them to you.

The problem with 'collaboration' is just the same as the problem we have had with 'portal' since Merrill Lynch defined the EIP market in 1999. It is a term that seems to mean everything and yet actually means nothing without an organisational context. Many businesses have made the assumption that employees are not collaborating enough and what they need is a collaboration platform, usually SharePoint. However probe deeper and you find that no one can tell you the extent of collaboration at present, and what the barriers are that need an IT solution.

It is well worth reading Morten Hansen's book on collaboration in which he states, based on a decade of large-scale research, that bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration.

Your model is the only one I have come across which looks at the information element of collaboration. This is vitally important because decisions have to be made about information repositories. Many companies have a document management system, an intranet, a collaboration application, an HR portal, an ERP application etc. Collaboration will involve interfaces with all these applications to source information, and these interfaces are usually ignored in the rush to 'improve' collaboration. Then there is the user of a search application who cannot find important information because it has been dropped into a collaboration space on SharePoint and now sits inside an ACL space from which it will never again emerge.

Your categorisation enables me for the first time to start to have sensible discussions with clients about the strategic value of collaboration within an overall information management strategy.

Martin White

Jed Cawthorne said...

Gentlement, thank you for your comments.

Gordon - while I am well aware of Clay's work I have to admit I don't have the book. However I was not aware of Shawn's stuff, so many thanks for the link !

Martin - again I was not aware of Morten's book either, so thank you very much for that link. Your mention of search is a good point - unless we are collaboratively creating content - how do we find the information around which we want or need to collaborate.

It is indeed a 'messy' problem area in systems speak, and one which often leads to an oversimplified and less than holistic treatment in my opinion.

Once again, thanks for partaking in the conversation :-)

how to ollie said...

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Jed Cawthorne said...

"How to Ollie" - thank you, thats very kind :-)

Michael Sampson said...

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