Thoughts on how we think about online collaboration

Wednesday, November 18, 2015
by Kent Aitken RSS / cpsrenewalFacebook / cpsrenewalLinkedIn / Kent Aitkentwitter / kentdaitkengovloop / KentAitken

I threw some of these thoughts out on Twitter the other day; if this is redundant,  you have my apologies.

In October I presented at the Conference Board of Canada's Public Sector Social Media Event on the topic of online collaboration, drawing heavily from a post called The Promise of Online Collaboration. The short version is the hypothesis that we are probably not good at online collaboration - we meaning everyone (not just government), and online collaboration meaning digital-based working groups, citizen engagement, or participation in online communities*.

In the talk I suggested that it's the responsibility of those convening online collaborations to become familiar with a much wider variety of formats so they can more appropriately design interactions (as Jared Spool has written, "design the design meeting").

In response, one of the questions in the Q&A was along the lines of "It sounds like you're suggesting more tools, which hasn't really worked for us in the past."

Fair point, though I'd say it's actually a handful of things:
  1. Breaking the standard mental model for online collaboration
  2. Being wary of the defaults that tools drive people towards

1. The mental model

There are some beautifully creative online systems, but as a general rule there's one core: threaded comments. This forms the core of most collaboration spaces (e.g. Github, Basecamp, GCconnex, blogs and websites, Jive, citizen engagement platforms). Which seems like a close analog to group discussion, but imagine this:

Let's say every time you wanted to work with a group, your only option was to open a large room, hand people a document to read, then invite them towards an infinite number of flipcharts. They can start their own, or add to others'. Depending on what time they get there. People can vote on which flipcharts are close to the front of the room. And sometimes, but not always, the person that invited everyone there would summarize the content and send it around.

Because at the heart of it, that's often how we work together online: "Here's a thing. What do you think? Feel free to add your own ideas, too."

That's crazy.

It might work. Heck, it's something we do on purpose in person sometimes. But we tend to assume that it'll work every time, for everybody.

2. Be wary of defaults

I originally had three sections, one of which would have been about choosing between platforms. For today, let's assume we have the tools we already have.

The problem is that the design of the tools pushes you towards a small set of default approaches. An obvious example would be meeting lengths. Outlook's default is 30 minutes, thus we end up with a ton of 30-minute meetings. I love getting 15- and 45-minute meeting invites, if only because it shows that the person organizing it has thought through the discussion to be had.

A collaboration environment built around threaded comments leads us to the default of posting a document, blog, or some framing thoughts, then asking people to respond.

But there are options. The question - as it always is - is what serves the goal. What'll work. For example:

Blaise Hebert's approach to a GC-wide collaboration on Red Tape Reduction was to throw the "What do you think" approach out the window and ask people simple, short questions wrapped in pop culture, once a week: "If you could personify your challenges at work, what would such a villain be called?" Once people launched in with creative answers, then he'd dig into why, and what their reactions might mean.

Or, author Sam Sykes recently spent an evening turning Twitter's poll system into a crowd-based roleplaying game, starting at this point:
Even with a very vanilla platform, there are a raft of design questions:

  • Ask for ideas first, or post a document for discussion?
  • Ask broad questions that require long answers, or short specific ones?
  • Organize an activity in stages and build on the discussion that takes place, or launch into everything all at once?
  • Allow people to go in any direction, or provide parameters?
  • Stick to one space, or supplement the main platform with other channels?
  • Get involved in the conversation and try to spark interactions, or stay back and listen?
The obvious approach may not be best, and there's probably more room for creativity, design, and intentionality than it first appears.

*In fairness to our digital prowess, we don't get off scott-free in in-person forums, either. Try Thinking, Fast and Slowor Wiser: Getting Beyond Groupthink of Make Groups Smarteror Too Dumb for Democracyor the wealth of research on our subtle gender- and ethnicity-based biases that persist in group decision-making.