Chaos in Collaboration: The Concept of Collaboration (Part 2 of 5)

This is Part 2 of the Chaos in Collaboration series.

“Collaboration” is a term with a wide degree of applicability, although I have traditionally viewed it narrowly within a project team situation, whereby multiple people are working together to achieve a joint outcome. The team is assembled for the purpose of achieving that outcome, and once the achievement has been made, the team is disbanded, and its members get on with other things. Canonical scenarios include making a decision (“In what markets should we open an office in 2008?”), authoring a document (a response to an RFP, or a press release about a new product), or preparing a new product or service for release to the market (a new software version, a new computer keyboard, etc.).

Thus the current place where collaboration happens (or doesn’t) is within groups and teams. Having said that, there are different shapes of collaboration, and for a want of a better term, let’s look at the cutlery of collaboration.

  • The Spoon … everyone on the team is jointly and equally involved, and is working together on joint outcomes in real-time. For example, a document could be prepared in this way, with everyone in a meeting room, one person typing and everyone suggesting (at the same time) what the document should say.
  • The Fork … the tasks of the team are broken down by one person and are divided out amongst the other people based on expertise or interest. Each person does their piece, and then hands it back to the coordinator to bring it all together. Whether people are working at the same or not the focus of concern. They may or may not be, but what’s most vital is that their work goes together in a seamless way. That is, of course, primarily the concern of the person playing the task breakdown and delegation role. For example, the same document could be developed in this way, with each person on the team being given a different part of the document to draft and then to hand back to the central person to pull it all together.
  • The Knife … where the tasks in an overall team project are broken down and routed in sequence to the next person who should be doing something with it. The work of each person is pretty much self-contained, and the next person applies their critical eye to it. For example, the same document above could be drafted in this way, with the product manager writing the first draft, marketing preparing a second draft, and then legal reviewing and signing off on the final draft.

Depending on what shape a particular instance of collaboration takes, dictates the nature of the tools that will be required. The spoon requires real-time screen sharing and application sharing tools, the fork requires a shared workspace, and the knife particularly needs a workflow routing capability.

Now we have issues of location and shape sorted out, let’s go one step further. If we super-impose the picture of team collaboration on the content lifecycle within an organization—and I like the five phase model of creation, publication, leverage (business use), archival and then deletion [1]—then my viewpoint of collaboration fits very much in the first of those phases: creation. Within here, the team members need to interact, to communicate, to coordinate their work, and when these people have to work together although they can’t be together, they rely on collaboration technology to facilitate and mediate their interaction. This was what the 7 Pillars reference architecture was designed to elucidate — those things that team members need within the context of a team project.

But in normal circumstances, the creation phase of the content lifecycle is of short duration, and Information Management professionals are much more interested in the other four phases of the lifecycle. In terms of duration, even if the creation phase takes 6 months to run its course, the content artifacts arising from that work will have to be managed for years (and in some cases, even decades). In terms of interest, deciding where and how to publish the material so as to make it available to the widest possible audience for use aligned with business outcomes, and then the need to archive and finally delete organizational content has its own body of knowledge and organizational practices. The creation stuff can almost be shaken off as only of cursory interest to an Information Management professional, because it falls outside of their main focus and intent. Once the content is ready, then an Information Management professional starts to get interested. Correct me if my view is wrong, but that’s the sense I get from the Information Management professionals that I have interacted with.

I am beginning to recognize that there is a change underway—and perhaps it has been underway for a long time and I’m only just now raising my view to take a wider perspective—and that the concept of collaboration that I have for so long narrowly defined is becoming much more broad. And the change is of great potential interest to Information Management professionals. Whereas I have viewed collaboration as being the thing that happens within the creation phase, many of the newer collaboration technologies are more focused on the publication and leverage phases of the content lifecycle.

1. There are other variants of the content lifecycle; see for example, CMSReview

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