Monday, September 10, 2007

Creating collaborative systems


To cooperate you need to share a common goal with those you cooperate with. Most of the time the failure of cooperation is from an inability to share a common goal.

To collaborate you do not need to share a common goal- rather for you to work together to evolve goals, some of which may be shared and others may find strong disagreement.

To participate you do not need to work together- you only need to take part.

Unfortunately we use the word cooperation to describe what at best may be a participation. Most systems that enable, reinforce or cause success of these roles are therefore often accidental and not by design. It is not uncommon therefore to encounter a poverty of systems that enable, reinforce or cause success of participatory, collaborative or cooperative roles.

At best most democratic processes result in participating. They enable participation by franchise. However they do not reinforce participation- the participant is rarely rewarded by the act of participating. It is little wonder that democratic processes report poor turnouts and hung verdicts. H.G.Wells in his Anticipations has even predicted democracy to be a passing phase.

The value and endurance of the outcomes depends on what roles people play. It depends on the systems that enable, reinforce or cause the success of the roles.

Collaborative roles

Participative decision making requires those with a stake in the decision to take part- it does not require a voice nor a result favorable to the participant. Unless of course you want the participant to continue to participate.

Collaborative decision making moves a step ahead- it focuses on having people work together and discover common goals and even define common projects. Systems that enable collaboration ensure a voice for every participant. Such systems ensure they reinforce dialog and reward positive attitudes and working together.

Systems that enable participation, collaboration or cooperation can be restricted to a set of predefined participants (closed) or they can be open to participation from anyone.

Decision making

Meetings in organizations are a participatory process- they provide a means to participate. They do not necessarily provide the participants with a voice. They also do not require the participants to work together.

Decision making in governments is perhaps the best example of collaborative decision making. Yet unfortunately in most governments collaboration lacks a proper system to enable, reinforce and reward working together.

In a government decisions are made through a “consensus” evolved from people working together. Decisions start as a proposal, complaint, suggestion, request or even a brochure that is put on a government file. The file journeys through the government hierarchy based on the “rules of business” of the government or sometimes on the route explicitly suggested by the initiator of the proposal. This requires that all people who are part of the route work together to evolve a consensus. While this system enables different participants to work together, this system does not reinforce working together nor does it reward working together.

On-line collaboration

Wikipedia is perhaps the best example of online open collaboration. Anyone can take part in creating wikipedia. All you need to do is visit and create an article on a subject of interest to you or just modify an existing article to incorporate your suggestions. It is the working together of man individuals interested in the topics on wikipedia that shapes each article. The more the people who take part the better is the final product, the greater is the value and benefit to the contributors.

Wikipedia thus not only enables collaboration but it reinforces it- authors take part in each others articles and make positive contributions. Negative contributions are quickly removed by other participants. Wikipedia also rewards the contributors with the end product: the allowing them to enjoy the fruits of articles they initiated, authored and edited.

Wikis in business and government

Businesses and governments can use a wiki- the open source software that allows you to create user-editable websites like the wikipedia- to create collaborative systems. Such systems can be open or restricted to private participation.

Wikis offer themselves as excellent means to adress the many collaborative needs of business and government: creating customer support, providing customer-driven services, designing new products, writing manuals, creating relevant projects, discovering missions, negotiating, gathering data, benchmarking, discovering what works- or what does not, understanding the progress, capturing changes in the environment.

Need of the hour

All projects and problems require a participative, collaborative or cooperative role. If we do not create systems that enable, reinforce or reward the role we desire we will not have the performance that we desire.

Thankfully designing participatory, collaborative and cooperative systems is getting easier and easier!

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