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The Promise of Online Collaboration

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken


I think one of the most fascinating questions of this point in history is whether we, as a society, are awesome or terrible at online collaboration. Personally, I’m rooting for terrible. I actually would be happy if we were completely wretched at it right now.

The promise of collaboration


Why? Well, for starters, we've been promised much by online collaboration. That it "changes everything":

 












Mass collaboration, facilitated by the internet, has been touted as a powerful, world-changing opportunity. And so far, there have been amazing successes: Wikipedia, Open Street Map, Ushahidi. In my own experience, online collaboration has been astonishing, opening opportunities I could never have imagined even five years ago. I think the promise of the digital era is (mostly) real, and that over time it's going to reform governance. 

Yet, our days as professionals are still spent in face-to-face meetings. Digital democracy has hardly taken root. Most people don’t engage in online communities; the content is largely created and debated by a small subset of power users. When people do engage online, it’s usually for “light” collaboration, leaving the heavier or more complicated tasks for in-person work.

So there are a few possibilities to explain this state of affairs:

  1. We’re good at online collaboration, but only for certain cases and situations

    or

  2. There are fundamental differences between in-person and online collaboration

    or

  3. We have no idea what we’re doing*

*But impressive examples (like Wikipedia) are inevitable by virtue of the sheer number of collaboration experiments between the sheer number of people on the internet

I think that we have no idea what we're doing

Or at least, we have little idea. And that's good news, in a roundabout way. Consider this:
  1. Innovation labs are the order of the day for governments. They’re built around tools, processes, techniques, and understanding what sort of space and conditions people require to innovate.

  2. If you go back thirty years in the Public Participation research, you run into articles like Citizens Panels: A New Approach to Citizen Participation. Ten years later, other researchers were still sorting it out:

    “...most citizen participation techniques have been judged to be less than adequate tools for informing policy makers about the people's will. Recently, having planners or policy analysts work closely with long-standing citizen panels… panels can overcome many of the limitations to effective citizen participation.”

  3. The roles of facilitators and guides are increasingly recognized as crucial for organizations. Some (very worthwhile) examples from the Government of Canada:
    1. National Manager’s Community Tools for Leadership
    2. Or their Tools for Building a Learning Organization 
    3. Or Policy Horizons’ Learn and Grow Together: What is a learning organization?

Which I'm taking as evidence of this idea:

We’re still learning how to collaborate in person, let alone online.

The above examples demonstrate the realization that inviting a bunch of people into a room and hoping for the best is a terrible approach. We still do that online (and sadly, sometimes, in person). 

And we're pretty new to online (the Government of Canada declared “mission accomplished” on Government On-Line only nine years ago). It’d be perfectly reasonable if we were not that good at online collaboration yet. Online is different. There are similarities, but it’s different. We'd be crazy to think that we simply understand how to do this intuitively. Instead, it will be part art, part science. It will merit rigour and some degree of professionalization.

This is good news. It means that the lofty promise of online collaboration remains intact. It's a matter of scaling a learning curve, which we've just begun, towards truly and fully understanding (and becoming effective at) online collaboration. 

With that in mind, I stand by my seemingly hyperbolic opening line. I think one of the most fascinating questions of this point in history is whether we’re awesome or terrible at online collaboration.