Tag Archives: collaboration

OpenCities and Seneca College

As many of you know I’m deeply interested in Open-Source systems and so was super thrilled when David Humphrey invited me over to Seneca College for a reception at the Centre for Development of Open Technology (CDOT). Who knew such a place existed. And in Toronto no less! There is something in the air around Toronto and open-source systems… why is that?

This is exactly one of the questions those of us planning OpenCities are hoping it answers… (as our more formal blurb hints at)

What is OpenCities Toronto 2007? Our goal is to gather 80 cool people to ask how do we collaboratively add more open to the urban landscape we share? What happens when people working on open source, public space, open content, mash up art, and open business work together? How do we make Toronto a magnet for people playing with the open meme?

Registration for OpenCities starts today. If you have any questions please feel free to ask in the comment box below, or, drop me an email. I’m doubly pumped since the whole event will be taking place at the Centre for Social Innovation – I can’t imagine a better space. (If you wondering – do I live in Toronto or Vancouver, I don’t blame you, I sometimes wonder myself).

Don't Ban Facebook – Op-ed in today's G&M

You can download the op-ed here.

The Globe and Mail published an op-ed I wrote today on why the government shouldn’t ban face book, but hire it.

The point is that Web 2.0 technologies, properly used, can improve communication and coordination across large organizations and communities. If the government must ban Facebook then it should also hire it to provide a similar service across its various ministries. If not it risks sending a strong message that it wants its employees to stay in your little box.

One thing I didn’t get into in the op-ed is the message this action sends to prospective (younger) employees. Such a ban is a great example of how the government sees its role as manager. Essential the public service is telling its employees “we don’t trust that you will do your job and will waste your (and our) time doing (what we think are) frivolous things. Who wants to work in an environment where there own boss doesn’t trust them? Does that sound like a learning environment? Does it sound like a fun environment?

Probably not.


Facebook Revisited

MAY 17, 2007 AT 12:38 AM EDT

Today’s federal and provincial governments talk a good game about public-service renewal, reducing hierarchy, and improving inter-ministry co-operation. But actions speak louder than words, and our bureaucracies’ instincts for secrecy and control still dominate their culture and frame their understanding of technology.

Last week, these instincts revealed themselves again when several public-service bureaucracies — including Parliament Hill and the Ontario Public Service — banned access to Facebook.

To public-service executives, Facebook may appear to be little more than a silly distraction. But it needn’t be. Indeed, it could be the very opposite. These technology platforms increasingly serve as a common space, even a community, a place where public servants could connect, exchange ideas and update one another on their work. Currently, the public service has a different way of achieving those goals: It’s called meetings, or worse, e-mail. Sadly, as anyone who works in a large organizations knows, those two activities can quickly consume a day, pulling one away from actual work. Facebook may “waste time” but it pales in comparison to the time spent in redundant meetings and answering a never-ending stream of e-mails.

An inspired public service shouldn’t ban Facebook, it should hire it.

A government-run Facebook, one that allowed public servants to list their interests, current area of work, past experiences, contact information and current status, would be indispensable. It would allow public servants across ministries to search out and engage counterparts with specialized knowledge, relevant interests or similar responsibilities. Moreover, it would allow public servants to set up networks, where people from different departments, but working on a similar issue, could keep one another abreast of their work.

In contrast, today’s public servants often find themselves unaware of, and unable to connect with, colleagues in other ministries or other levels of government who work on similar issues. This is not because their masters don’t want them to connect (although this is sometimes the case) but because they lack the technology to identify one another. As a result, public servants drafting policy on interconnected issues — such as the Environment Canada employee working on riverbed erosion and the Fisheries and Oceans employee working on spawning salmon — may not even know the other exists.

One goal of public-sector renewal is to enable better co-operation. Ian Green, the Public Policy Forum chair of Public Service
Governance noted in an on-line Globe and Mail commentary (Ensuring Our Public Service Is A Force For Good In The Lives Of Canadians — May 8) that governments face “increasingly complex and cross-cutting issues … such as environmental and health policy.” If improving co-ordination and the flow of information within and across government ministries is a central challenge, then Facebook isn’t a distraction, it’s an opportunity.

Better still, implementing such a project would be cheap and simple. After all, the computer code that runs Facebook has already been written. More importantly, it works, and, as the government is all too aware, government employees like using it. Why not ask Facebook to create a government version? No expensive scaling or customization would be required. More importantly, by government-IT standards, it would be inexpensive.

It would certainly be an improvement over current government online directories. Anyone familiar with the federal government’s Electronic Directory Services (GEDS) knows it cannot conduct searches based on interests, knowledge or experience. Indeed, searches are only permissible by name, title, telephone and department. Ironically, if you knew any of that information, you probably wouldn’t need the search engine to begin with.

Retired public servants still talk of a time when ministries were smaller, located within walking distance of one another, and where everyone knew everyone else. In their day — 60 years ago — inter-ministerial problems were solved over lunch and coffee in a shared cafeteria or local restaurant. Properly embraced, technologies like Facebook offer an opportunity to recapture the strengths of this era.

By facilitating communication, collaboration and a sense of community, the public services of Canada may discover what their
employees already know: Tools like Facebook are the new cafeterias, where challenges are resolved, colleagues are kept up to date, and inter-ministerial co-operation takes place. Sure, ban Facebook if you must. But also hire it. The job of the public services will be easier and Canadians interests will be more effectively served.

David Eaves is a frequent speaker and consultant on public policy and negotiation. He recently spoke at the Association of Professional Executives conference on Public Service Renewal.

Wikinomics: A book on the internet for your parents

Just finished reading wikinomics and have reviewed it here. My advice? Definitely wait for the paperback and consider skipping it altogether. I’m an open-source and wiki fan and I found the book wildly wide-eyed and optimistic. Moreover, it is filled with unsubstantiated claims about the future of the economy and corporations. Most frustratingly, for a book about mass collaboration, the authors never get granular about their definition of collaboration…

Read it all here if you are interested. Plus here are a couple of alternative books that are much, much better, especially this one, which I’ll be talking about more soon.

Wiki's and Open Source: Collaborative or Cooperative?

This is a follow up to my previous post Community Management as Open Source’s Core Competency which has become the most viewed post on this site. I’ve been meaning to follow it up for some time, sorry for the delay.

Online communities, and in particular their collaborative nature, have been generating a lot of buzz lately. But are online communities collaborative?


The more I reflect on it, the more I suspect the answer is a qualified no. While at present there is a tremendous amount of online cooperation, this is not the same as collaboration. This is not to say the cooperative capacity of online communities has not been a boon, but simply an effort to recognize and concern ourselves, with its limits.

I suspect the world’s most interesting and challenging problems cannot be solved in isolation from, or even in cooperation with ,others. Elegant and effective solutions (those most useful to users or consumers) likely benefit from, and probably require, an interplay of ideas and perspectives. Consequently, for those involved in online collaborative projects – such as Wiki’s or open source – understanding the distinction between cooperation and collaboration is critical. If online communities cannot foster collaboration then they will fall short of the hype and ambitions they have set for themselves. Conversely, communities that figure out how to enable their members to collaborate (as opposed to merely cooperate) may end up having a decisive advantage.

Defining the problem

Why distinguish between collaboration and cooperation? Because the subtle difference between these words describes a lot about where we are versus where we need to be vis-à-vis online communities. Admittedly, Websters’ defines the two words very similarly. However, I would argue that collaboration, unlike cooperation, requires the parties involved in a project jointly solve problems.

Truly collaborative processes enable differing and possibly conflicting views to merge and create something new and previously unimagined (think of Hegel’s thesis and anti-thesis coming together in a synthesis). Many online projects – offered up as collaborative – do not meet this standard. For example, some on-line projects, particularly open-source software projects, break problems down into smaller pieces which are tackled by individuals. Sub-dividing a problem and allowing a network of volunteers to opt-in and provide solutions it is a highly efficient. However, those involved in the project many never need to talk, exchange ideas or even interact. Indeed tricky problems may often end up relying on a single clever hacker, operating alone, to solve a problem. While this can be part of a cooperative effort – people with a common goal contributing labour to achieve it – I’m not sure it is collaborative. Equally, many wiki’s simply replace old information with new information, or rely on an arbiter to settle differences. This is at best cooperative, at worst competitive, but again probably not collaborative. (Side note: Please understand, I do not mean to belittle the incredible success of online communities. Indeed the achievements of open source projects and wiki’s are remarkable. However, my concern is that cooperative approaches may only be able to solve a specific, and limited, problem type. Cultivating collaborative communities may be necessary to solve larger, more complex and interesting problems.)

Why Open-Source systems tend to be cooperative and not collaborative

My guess is that unlike cooperation, online collaboration is rare. Why? Probably because online collaboration it is hard. Few people should find this surprising since face to face collaboration can itself be pretty hard. (I make a living off helping people do it better…) People approach problems with, among other things, different assumptions, stated and unstated goals, and data sets. Effective collaboration requires people to share these differences and resolve them. Anyone who has ever been to a business meeting (even among colleagues from the same company) knows that the process for achieving this is often neither self-evident nor easy. Numerous issues can sabotage collaborative efforts – including those that have nothing to do with the substance of the problem. For example, our ideas often end up being linked to our identity. Even just modifying our idea, or worse, adopting someone else wholesale, can feel like admitting someone else is smarter or better – something that may be difficult to do, especially in a voluntary community where your value and credibility is linked to your capacity to solve problems or provide ideas.

From what I can tell online projects only exasperate the challenges of face to face collaboration. Without personal relationships, trust, body language or even intonation, it is easy for communication to break down. Consequently, it is difficult for people to resolve differences, exchange ideas, or brainstorm freely. In short, it is difficult to collaborate.

Successful online projects seem to manage this by being either a) small – relying on a tight-knit community whose strong relationships enable them to collaborate; or b) large – achieving success by doing the opposite of collaboration: separating problems into discrete pieces that individuals can handle alone.

In the large group scenario, interaction may often be limited to peer review processes where criticism – not constructive problem-solving – is the dominant form of dialogue. Consequently, interactions are limited, and usually arbitrated by some central authority. This has the benefit of capping the level of conflict but the discourse among members may remain highly combative.

Such tension can be healthy: collaboration is inherently conflictual. Most ideas spring from parties sharing differing, conflicting perspectives and jointly working to develop a solution that meets both their interests. Eliminate all conflict and you eliminate the opportunity for new ideas. However, too much conflict and the opportunities for collaboration diminish. Large communities – particularly those involved in projects that have some cache – are insulated from the inevitable burnout and frustration that causes members who skin isn’t “thick enough” to drop out. Other community members jump in and fill their spot. It isn’t pretty, but it is sustainable, in a manner of words.

Some recommendations for community managers

Consequently, the goal of online communities should be to determine how to manage, not eliminate, conflict.
So far, to be collaborative – to enable people to work together and jointly solve problems – online communities appear to have two options: (please send others!)

1) Build relationships between their users – stronger relationships can (although not always) enable people to overcome breakdowns in communication. However, building relationships generally takes time and is to scale. To date, the voting system on the Omidyar network – which rewards those perceived as having ‘good’ behaviours and ideas – is the most effective I have seen to date. Although the behaviours are not defined, one can presume that those with higher ratings are likely to be more trustworthy and easier to collaborate with than those with lower ratings. However, this system does not help users develop collaborative behaviours or skills, it simply rewards those who are already perceived as being more collaborative then the mean. Consequently, users with poor collaborative skills, but possessing expertise or substantive knowledge essential to the success of a project, may struggle to contribute. Even more troubling, the vast majority of your users could be inept at collaborating, and this system will do nothing to raise the bar or improve the community. It will only highlight and identify who is least inept.

2) Develop online communities with built in methodologies and processes that encourage or even compel users to jointly solve problems. Here one can imagine an online community that forces users to work through Chris Argyrisladder of inference. While likely more difficult to design, such a system could compel users to be collaborative (possibly even regardless of their intentions).

A lot of the theory around collaborative decision-making is explored in greater detail in negotiation theory. This post is part of my continuing effort to flesh out how (and even if) negotiation theory can be applied to online collaborative networks… I promise more thoughts in the future – in the meantime please send or post yours!

One closing note – if there is a compelling link between negotiation theory and collaborative online networks then it would suggest a new interesting area for inter-disciplinary studies. For example, Stanford has the Centre for Internet and Society and the Gould Negotiation and Mediation Program. It would be interesting to know if these two centres believe they share this area of mutual interest. Maybe I’ll work up the courage to email Lawrence Lessig and ask…