Tag Archives: cooperation

Cultural theories of risk and the rise of emergence systems

My (very cool) friend Alex T. recently introduced me to the grid/group typology. As explained in wikipedia:

Mary Douglas, an anthropologist studying traditional African religion observed that different societies feared different sorts of threats, and that these differences correlated with differences in their social structure. Later, Douglas argued that social structures differ along two principal axes: “grid” and “group (see graph).”

The important things is – if your society organized itself along one of these structures – it is challenging, if not impossible to see a solution outside of that structure. What I think is exciting is that the egalitarian mode of thinking – thanks to the internet and social software – may be ascendant, explaining some of the reason market based systems (individualists) and bureaucracy based systems (hierarchist) feel threatened.

Grid vs Group

From Christopher Hood: The Art of The State (again via wikipedia):

Fatalists feel isolated in a world that imposes arbitrary constraints on them. They view nature as a ball on a flat surface, rolling randomly in any direction. There is little they can do to control their situation, and resign themselves to riding out whatever fate throws at them.

Hierarchist see a society with a well-defined role for each member. Thus , they believe in the need for a well-defined system of rules, and fear social deviance (such as crime) that disrupts those rules. Hierarchists see nature as “perverse/tolerant”: it can be exploited within certain limits, but if those limits are exceeded the system will collapse. They thus rely heavily on experts, who can identify those limits and establish rules to keep society within proper bounds.

Individualist see their choices as unconstrained by society and they lack close ties to other people. They value individual initiative in the marketplace, and fear threats like war that would hamper free exchange. The individualist view of nature as resilient. Like a ball resting at the bottom of a cup, nature will return to its original stable position after any disturbance. Thus, individualists embrace trial-and-error, as they have confidence that the system will fix itself in the end.

Arguably, much of the left-right axis of our politics is a battle between Individualists on the right (let the market rule!) and Hierarchists on the left (government oversight!) with fatalists abstaining (what’s the point?).

Hood’s description of Egalitarians is intriguing mostly because I think it is quite narrow and, if slightly tweaked, could help describe the rise of an important new block of voters (part of the neo-progressive movement Taylor and I write about).

Hood description (again, via wikipedia)

Egalitarians experience low grid and high group. They live in voluntary associations where everyone is equal and the good of the group comes before the good of any individual. In order to maintain their solidarity, egalitarians are sensitive to low probability-high consequence risks (such as nuclear power), and use them to paint a picture of impending apocalypse. Risk and Culture was, in part, a polemic against the environmental movement, which Douglas and Wildavsky saw as sharing the worldview and social organization of religious cults. Egalitarians see nature as fragile, like a ball balanced precariously on an overturned cup. Any small disturbance will send it crashing down. Thus egalitarians advocate the precautionary principle and cling to traditional ways of life that have proven to be sustainable, rather than risking disaster by trying new technologies.

Hood describes the Egalitarian way as one with high levels of cooperation within a group that is socially distinct from the outside world and which relies on dynamic rules set through constant debate and case-specific solutions to every issue as it arises.

Hood’s contempt is well placed. Many tightly held communities facing what they believe to be massive threats can indeed take on cult-like characteristics. But that is not their only possibility. Indeed, societies that organize along these lines have new powerful tools – namely the internet – to use to organize themselves. More importantly, these communities can coordinate themselves and achieve powerful outcomes even with weak bonds. Many of the “egalitarians” I see today are those creating projects that seek to engage citizens and pool individual resources to address collective problems. Indeed, many open-source projects fit this mold very well.

More importantly, most of these projects are not cult-like, but are self-organizing and emergent. They see that a situation (like the environment or the open web) is vulnerable and they don’t believe a) it is self-correcting (like individualists) b) it can be perfectly moderated or controlled by top down systems (like hierarchists); or c) that collective or individual action is futile (like fatalists).

There are few examples of egalitarians (or emergents) that spring to mind as successful – certainly the organizational and political discourse has been dominated by hierarchists and individualists. Maybe this explains why people have such a hard time defining new forms of organisation – like open-source projects. They are trying to peg their participants as either right-wing market loving individualists or left-wing regulation loving hierarchists. The fact is they are neither. While hardly uniform, my experience is that they are often libertarians (low-grid) who believe in free-association, collaboration and emergent systems (high-group).

The increased manifestation of this new structure in society could diversify how we perceive and try to solve problems. But in the short term observers (like pundits on CNN) will continue to try to put force this peg of a new circular group into an old square hole.



Collaboration – a dirty word rescued by connectivity


1. The act of working together; united labor.

2. the act of willingly cooperating with an enemy, especially an enemy nation occupying one’s own country.

During a conversation over breakfast yesterday I was asked to talk about my experience in open source public policy (through Canada25) which led me to talk about the differences between cooperation and collaboration I’ve ruminated upon before here.

After outlining the idea my friend stopped me and said

“You know, it is interesting, for people in my generation (re: boomers) collaboration was a dirty word.”

He went to explain that he’d talked with young people in his organization and had discovered that they had largely abandoned the word’s negative connotations, but he was again struck by how easily I embraced and used the term. For boomers – he explained – “collaboration” brings forward notions of Vichy France or narcs, people who sold out or who betrayed their origins in some way, often for gain or even to work (usually on behalf of) of a new (usually alien and/or evil) outsider.

What a difference a generation makes. Today I see more and more of my friends using the term. Which begs the question…


One hypothesis I have relates to the changing nature of our economy and how we work.

I don’t know if people have to work in teams more frequently then they use to, but i feel fairly confident that even if the frequency of teamwork has remained consistent, the emergent, or self-organizing, or even self-directed nature of those teams has probably increased. Thanks to the telecommunication revolution, and even just the rise of the knowledge economy, we are increasingly being asked to work together as we exchange, mix, re-mix and mash up ideas.

As a result, I think ours is a generation that is grasping for more nuanced and complex ways to describe working with others. No where is this more important than in the online world where the opportunities for both communicating, and miscommunicating, have never been easier. And within the online world nowhere is this more important than in the open source space where whole new models of how people can work together on large complex problems are emerging. With so much going on, is it any surprise our vocabulary is adjusting?

I say great. We need a more sophisticated and nuanced vocabulary to describe how we work together. The fact is people can work together in lots of different ways, conflating that variation with a single term is likely to make success harder to repeat.

Now… the revival of the word evangilism among non-religious coders is also interesting. I’ve done research as to where that came from and would be curious how it started getting used. The resistance to that word – especially given the culture wars in the US – is likely to be much greater. Outside the technology geek world that word still triggers LOTS of people.

Anatomy of a Positional Negotiation (redux)

Back in March I wrote this post about the breakdown in negotiations between Ryan Smyth (a hockey star) and the Edmonton Oilers. Because things fell apart despite the fact that Smyth, the Oilers and their fans all wanted an agreement, this negotiation remains my favourite example about how process, and not substance, can torpedo agreements and destroy relationships. Indeed, the case is so good, it has become a key teaching tool in my negotiation workshops (when in Canada, of course…).

Interestingly, recent events have added to the important negotiation lessons that can be drawn.

When sharing the case some people contended that Smyth and the Oilers didn’t fall out but instead cut a secret deal, one that would bring Ryan back to Edmonton once he became a free-agent. The fact that, after being traded, Ryan stood crying in the Edmonton Airport while awaiting his flight to New York didn’t dissuade these doubters. This was of course, all part of the act.

Well, on July 2nd, on the first day of free-agency, Ryan Smyth signed a contract with the Colorado Avalanch for $31.25 million. A bad outcome for Oilers fans, but a good outcome for my credibility as a negotiation consultant.

So why didn’t Smyth go back to Edmonton?

I can think of two reasons – both of which spring from the positional negotiation process Smyth and the Oilers adopted.

Firstly, the previous negotiations permanently damaged relations between Smyth and the Oilers. A haggling process never builds a stronger relationship. It generally involves the parties slugging it out as they tell one another why the other’s current offer is insulting. Of course none of it’s “personal.” But isn’t it is telling that the Oilers broke off negotiations and traded Smyth without notifying him (I believe he learnt he’d been traded by watching TV). Moreover, as I mentioned before, Smyth was distraught enough to cry during the interview in the airport. You don’t have to be a negotiation consultant to know that when one person makes another cry, the agrieved party is looking for ways to work with them again. In this case, Smyth probably wasn’t receptive to any new offers from the Oilers. Their prior negotiation burnt that bridge.

Second, the Oilers painted themselves into a corner on the issue of price. I’ve maintained that Smyth probably wanted to be in Edmonton or Calgary. In the above linked to YouTube video Smyth says his heart is in Edmonton, and he probably wants to be close to family, community, charitable work, etc… I suspect he might have accepted a marginally reduced salary in order to stay there. But with other teams now offering over $31 million, the Oilers probably needed to offer $29-30 million in order to compete. Given their previous “best” offer had been $27 million, any new higher offer would be an admission that they’d undervalued Smyth. That left them with two options. Option 1: Eat humble pie, offer $30 million and admit they’d been lowballing Smyth. In the testosterone world of hockey I suspect the Oilers GM’s ego couldn’t stomach that choice… Not that it would have mattered, any such an offer would have been tainted. It would be like saying “sorry we tried to screw you in our previous negotiations, but we hope that you’ll come work for us now that we’ve been forced to offer you more.” That left option 2: Save face by walking away and claiming the Avalanch over-paid.

Of course, the Oilers’ GM may genuinely believe that Smyth isn’t worth $30 million. Who knows, he may be right. Only time will tell. But, the negotiation process he adopted – and not the substance – destroyed an opportunity for getting Smyth at a much lower price. Most people believe negotiations succeed or fail based on substance (can buyers and sellers agree on a price), sadly that is only sometimes the case. All too often, the determining factor is how we conduct negotiations.

Crisis Management? Try Open Source Public Service

Does anyone still believe that government services can’t be designed to rely on volunteers? Apparently so. We continue to build whole systems so that we don’t have to rely on people (take the bus system for example, it doesn’t rely on constant customer input – indeed I think it actively discourages it).

So I was struck the other day when I stumbled into an unfortunate situation that reminded me of how much one of our most critical support system relies on ordinary citizens volunteering their time and resources to provide essential information.

Last Sunday night, through the review mirror, I witnessed a terrible car accident.

A block behind me, two cars hit head on at a 90 degree angle – with one car flipping end over end and landing on its roof in the middle of the intersection.

Although it was late in the evening there were at least 20-30 people on the surrounding streets… and within 5 seconds of the crash I could saw over the soft glow of over 15 cellphone LCD screens light up the night. Within 60 seconds, I could hear the ambulance sirens.

It was a terrible situation, but also an excellent example of how governments already rely on open system – even to deliver essential, life saving services. 911 services rely on unpaid, volunteer citizens to take the time and expend the (relatively low) resources to precisely guide emergency resources. It is an interesting counterpoint to government officials who design systems that pointedly avoid citizen feedback. More importantly, if we trust on volunteers to provide information to improve an essential service, why don’t we trust them to provide a constant stream of feedback on other government services?

Messina and Firefox

So I know I’m late to the party but wanted to contribute some thoughts to the Messina debate on Mozilla.

What I find most interesting are not the specifics of the discussion, but the principles beings discussed and the manner by which they are being discussed.

Break Messina piece down and he is essentially making two assertions:

1. “I don’t understand Mozilla’s strategy” and (unsurprisingly!) here are my ideas
2. “Let the community rule”

The response, has been fairly quiet. Some were clearly frustrated. Others saw it as an opportunity to raise their own pet issues. What I haven’t seen (on Planet Mozilla) is a post that really engages Chris’ ideas and says “I don’t agree with Chris on ‘a’ or ‘b’, but he’s right about ‘c.’ ” To be fair, it’s hard to react well to criticism – especially from someone you count on as an ally. When you spend your day fighting billion dollar beasts you don’t exactly want to spend time and energy defending your rear.

However, the silence risks increasing the gap between Mozilla and those who agree with Chris (which judging from his blog may or may not be a fair number of people). I was struck that one commentator said: “I didn’t know somebody could talk like this about Firefox until now.” Such a comment should be a red flag. If the community has some sacred cows or self-censors itself, that’s a bad sign. For this, and other reasons, the thrust of Messina-like rant’s may have significant implications for the future of Mozilla.

The problem is that as the Mozilla community grows and the choices for where to concentrate resources become less and less ‘obvious,’ the community members will increasingly want be part of the strategic decision-making process. When the objective is clear – build a better open browser – its easy to allocate my scarce economic resources towards the project because the aim is obvious (so I either buy-in or I don’t). But as success takes on more nebulous meaning, I need to understand why I should allocate my time and energy. Indeed, I’m more likely to do so if a) I understand the goal and b) I know I can help contribute to deciding what the goal should be.

In this regard Mozilla need to constantly re-examine how it manages strategy and engages with its community (which I know it does!). Personally, I agree with Messina that Mozilla is not a browser company. Indeed, in a previous (not entirely well formed) post, I argue that Mozilla’s isn’t even a software company. Mozilla’s is a community management organization. Consequently its core competency is not coding, but community management. The concern (I think) I share with Messina (if I read between the lines of his rant) is that as Mozilla grows and becomes more successful the decisions it must make also become increasingly complex and involve higher stakes. The fear is that Mozilla will react by adopting more corporate decision-making processes because a) its familiar – everybody knows how this process works and b) its easy – one can consult, but ultimately decisions reside with a few people who trust (or at least employ) one another.

However, if Mozilla is a community management organization then the opposite is true. Mozilla needs a way to treat its strategy like its code, open to editing and contribution. I know it already strives to do this. But what does open-strategy vs. 2.0 look like? What does community management 2.0 look like? Can Mozilla make its community integral to its strategy development? I believe that at its core, Mozilla’s success will depend on its capacity to facilitate these discussions (I may even use the dreaded term… dialogues). This may feel time consuming and onerous, but it pales in comparison to the cost of losing community members (or not attracting them in the first place).

If Mozilla can crack this problem then rants like Messina’s won’t be a threat, they’ll be an opportunity. Or at least he’ll a place where he can channel them.

New Book Review: Robert Axelrod's "The Evolution of Cooperation"

About 6 weeks ago during a trip to Ottawa David Brock urged me (for a second time!) to pick up a copy of Robert Axelrod’s “The Evolution of Cooperation.” As the title suggests it is a book about the conditions under which cooperation might emerge. While I’m willing to concede that this book may not be for everyone’s cup of tea, it is still a fine cup I belive many would enjoy. Indeed, given how frustrating and empty game theory felt while I was in grad school I wish I’d had this book at my desk.

I’ve written a review of the book you can find here. In short, I’m glad I moved it to the top of the batting order – it was completely worth it. Thanks D-Rock.

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…