Thursday, 1 October 2009

Collaborative thinking

Rosie sent me a link to a blog she follows which contains an interesting comment on collaborative thinking. The author of the blog, Tim, has obviously been reading and thinking about engaging people in activities – or even how groups of people act when they are not obviously engaged. I’m not sure of the context in which Tim has been operating but I’ve been thinking about how to get the best out of volunteers – a problem we’re constantly faced with.

But I think collaborative thinking is broader than that: how can we better capture the intelligence of groups of people? I’m not sure that intelligence is the right word. How can we channel that intelligence (or whatever) into a benefit? Let’s examine Tim’s key themes:

NUMBERS are important: critical mass, yes, but the chance of channelling many people into a coherent direction diminishes with numbers. And the number of potential interactions increases rapidly: perhaps someone can comment on the mathematical formula which I’ve forgotten but the argument goes something like this: two people have one link, three have three, four have six, five people have fifteen links and so on. Networking and technology help, of course.

NETWORKING enhances collaboration: I don’t have a problem with this – sharing and discussing ideas with others usually results in expansion of ideas. Technology enhances this, too, although I haven’t seen much expansion of ideas on Facebook!

SELF-ORGANISATION is essential: I do have a problem with this, at least if some positive aim is envisaged. I agree that many aspects of how a group should operate can be left to the group, but some guidance needs to be given or agreed otherwise the direction will be unpredictable – and the group may go round in circles. When I was involved in managing complex business projects, we often stressed the need to have clear objectives which should not be confused with tasks or activities – what has to be achieved rather than what has to be done.

Learning takes place in CONVERSATION often resulting in individual action: I’m not sure what this means. Is it about learning or action? Do collaborative groups not take decisions often because it’s very difficult in this environment to do so? Group decision making is difficult, although I have witnessed something very surprising in Young Enterprise companies. These are groups of 10-20 students – 16-17 year-olds – who are running their own company. On several occasions I have watched as a fairly rowdy bunch of students will debate an important decision in seemingly chaotic manner – but after 5-10 minutes the group will come to a consensus with which they all agree (or which they all accept). The process by which they arrived at this is still a mystery to me!

We need a DUAL ECONOMY: I interpret this as relating the infrastructure to the loosely-coupled group. Tim says ‘collaboration makes failure cheap’ – in financial terms perhaps but in terms of motivation and continuation of any collaborative activity surely failure risks disillusion. I’ve been involved in failures in the organised world and we simply picked up the pieces and move on, but in a collaborative world I’m sure people would walk away.

TECHNOLOGY affects collaboration: yes! But can it be made to work? People have differing views of technology, differing skills and differing levels of willingness to participate. In one of my last assignments with IBM I ran an international team that was located across the world. We met every six weeks or so and we operated through e-mail and conference calls. But the most powerful tool was a messenger: we could see when our colleagues were at their desks and we could chat as if we were in the same office. I’ve used the term ‘next-desk thinking’ – behaving as though we were in the same room. We also had to develop other ways of operating remotely – body-language is very difficult to interpret on a telephone call! So technology can enhance collaboration but it can also be an inhibitor. There’s no substitute for talking face-to-face.

SPIRITUALITY should not be overlooked: I need more time to relate to this.

Perhaps I’m coming to all this from a very different background. I subscribe to a series of reports from a web site that claims to provide real world advice on how to make technology work in business. I’ve just been sent a link to an entry from a ‘leadership coach’ – from the US of course – giving nine tips to improve effectiveness as a leader. I don’t think they conflict with Tim’s points but they make interesting reading. There’s a link to the full set below but three of the tips struck me:

  • Go to other people’s offices for meetings –easier to get away than to get rid of visitors

  • Snooze – my sailing friend Ian is a very keen on this
  • Act like a lady – you need to read the explanation of this one!

Tim's blog entry

Tech Republic

No comments: