Tag Archives: collaborative networks

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…

Community Management as Open Source's Core Competency

Reaction to this post has been overwhelming – I made it the basis of a presentation at the 2007 Free Software and  Open Source Symposium at Seneca college. You can watch it here as a slidecast.

A good friend of mine, Mike B. and I have been exchanging thoughts on open source projects. Mike’s experience is grounded in the ‘traditional’ world of open source – he works on the web browser Firefox (which if you don’t use, you should). I freely admit my own open source credentials are more suspect – I draw my lessons from my experience engaging in a form of open source public policy through Canada25. Beyond, that, what I know is based on what others are kind enough to share with me, and what I am able to learn through articles, books and podcasts.

For those not interested in the whole spiel below the short version is this:

Companies or foundations that run open source project are not software firms, they are community management firms whose communities happen to make software. Consequently to survive and thrive these projects need to invest less in enhancing governance structures or employees who/that will improve their capacity to code. Instead, we should consider skills and structures that emphasize facilitation, mediation, and conflict management – tools, skills and structures that will enable the community to better collaborate.

More detailed thoughts I’m fleshing out an idea flow that goes something like this:

  1. Open source software firms (like Mozilla, the makers of Firefox) are not software companies, they are community management firms whose community happens to produce a software package. (I’ll talk more about Canada25 as open source in the future)
  1. The core competencies of a community management organization are different from those of a software firm. Specifically, core competencies reside in their capacity to support and enable the community to collaborate and contribute to the project. Furthermore, the community’s contributions will not likely be limited to a single function (such as coding new features) but will need to include all aspects of the projects evolution including discussions about the direction of the software or marketplace and its impact on strategy. As people volunteer more time and become more invested my hypothesis is that they will want (at least) input (not to be confused with decision-making authority) in more strategic decisions.
  1. Consequently, the structures and skill sets of those working on an open source initiative need evolve over time:
    1. In the beginning, because of their size, open source projects can pretend to be software firms – this is because the community is sufficiently small that everyone knows one another so that levels of trust are high and the need for formal community structures are low. In this earlier phase:

i. Respect and influence is based on raw brain power/problem solving capabilities – rather than seek permission those who code solutions to problems earn respect, and others listen and/or follow their lead

ii. Common values and operating assumptions in the community are not, and don’t need to be encoded – it is small enough that those who ‘get it’ opt in, and those who don’t opt out.

    1. Success changes everything. As open source projects becomes increasingly successful (and, possibly, more political) the context around the community changes:

i. Success means more people join the community. This is not only true of the number of people, but also of the type of people (e.g. skill set, cultural background, etc…). This increase places stress on the community infrastructure. Specifically, an increase in participants can:

1. reduce levels of trust and the sense of community, raising transactions costs to effective collaboration

2. erode the assumed common community value as new entrants join the project for different reasons

3. decision-making becomes increasingly complex as the consultative nature of open source projects does not obviously scale. This may cause individuals/groups to feel disenfranchised and/or frustrated (and never underestimate the damage to productivity frustrated people can cause – thank you for this Shaver)

ii. As the product matures innovative leaps become harder. With the low hanging fruit plucked new features and ideas become harder to imagine and/or complex to code. The likelihood of one genius coder solving a problem is reduced. Thus at the same time that legacy governance structure (or lack thereof) makes collaboration more difficult, innovations become more difficult.

    1. Community Management as Cope Competency. My interest in all this is how we can take the ideas, methodologies and tools that come out of the negotiation/conflict management/collaborative decision-making arena and port them over to the open source space.

i. Training up in facilitation skills. Getting the core group of project employees trained up on how to collaboratively solve problems. Some basics might include:

1. using interests and not positions when resolving disagreements

2. using Chris Argyris’ theories about how (particularly smart technical people) fight over conclusions, by failing to share the data and analysis behind their thinking – often referred to as the ladder of inference.

ii. Rethinking decision-making processes – chiefly by setting expectations of how decisions will be made, what criteria will be applied when making them. It is likely essential to give community members a common set of criteria to use to evaluate decisions, that way they we can reframe discussion from what they like more to what adheres to the communities standards the closest. This is true for technical decisions, but also strategic or governance questions. The key around decision-making is not how democratic it is, but how well we set expectations for community members and then adhere to those expectations.

iii. Open source communities may fear accepting that even greater collaboration and openness is their core competency because it raises the underlying question no one wants to ask: Is the open source model scalable , and competitive?

The false answer is no: To believe that becoming more competitive and/or moving quickly means we need to consult less.

The true answer is yes. We can’t be competitive by running away from our core-competency, if we do that the we end up playing by the rules of the established corporate players, rules that we can’t win using. Forget their playbook, we have to get back in the box. We have to become faster, more efficient and easier to use at what we do best: engaging and enabling everyone in the community (customers, volunteers, etc…) to collaborate.

  1. Leaders Matter: The good and bad news is for project leaders – for example, paid employees of the project – is that you are THE role model for the community. Every action you take validates or invalidates certain behaviour types. If a employee behaves in an unconstructive way it will be hard to tell others in the community that this behaviour is out of bounds.

I suspect that most open source projects:

    1. Know this
    2. It causes nervousness
    3. Because participants are smart, we rationalize ourselves out of this problem

But… we can’t. And we shouldn’t. This is our single most important chip. It is what allows us to shape the behaviour and culture of the community. Let’s embrace it and use it.

Sorry for the long post – generated out of some thinking with friends at Canada25, Canada2020 and Firefox. Hope you have lots of thoughts, reactions and comments, definitely want to refine my thinking and there is likely a lot of refining to do.

UPDATE: If you found this piece interesting I’ve written a follow up on to this piece, entitled Wiki’s and Open-Source: Collaborative or Cooperative?