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Following up from my earlier post on Native Collaboration Techniques, let me elaborate on the concept using an example situation for collaboration. Let us take a scenario where the technology platform is a Virtual Classroom where learners dial-in using a phone line or VoIP.  They connect to the virtual collaboration platform component which allows things like application sharing, presentations, surveys, quizzes, breakout rooms etc. At the end of the class, records for attendance and quiz results are stored for future analysis. The network level access is brought about by one-to-one or one-to-many chat sessions or back channels that learners can initiate while the class is going on.

Let us assume a content/domain of collaboration, say, sales training. Let us take the simple example of a topic that focuses on (say) requirements capture or needs analysis from a customer and the offer of the correct product to the customer.

The context in this scenario could be the need to shorten the ramp up time for training new hires on the company’s basic process for sales so that they can become productive quicker than usual. From the new hire perspective, the state of world is that they have to use their prior experience, skills learnt and practice in the classroom to make sure that they not only understand the products, but also the customers and the sales process.

Let us assume that the company has invested in building  a simulation that models the products, best practices and customer profiles in their business and provides a real-life immersive activity for the learner to learn and practice on skills.

Now, in the class, the basic process is explained with a couple of examples. The instructor then starts the collaborative activity. This activity is really the simulation they have developed but with one major difference. The difference is that instead of the learners playing them outside the context of the collaboration platform (like a LAB situation), the simulation provides the instructor a way to see how each individual learner (or groups that she may have created in the class) are performing. That means. the instructor can literally view the sales process executing in the hands of the learners and can intervene at any point if a select indicator for a specific step in the process shows an alert for a user.

It could also be that the learners co-execute a simulation. This could be made possible if the instructor creates teams and configures them to use various channels (closed user groups) for collaboration so that they could combine efforts to execute the sales process on the simulator.

In this situation, the simulation and the virtual platform operate seamlessly together to bring the right results from the collaborative activity. Not only are the basic elements of the classroom (instructor, learners’ roster, help materials etc) available to the simulator, but also the simulator provides its own integration points (interrupt a process, view collaboration activities in a group, trace key decision points etc) to the virtual platform.

In this sense, this is an example where the best collaboration practices and expertise in the domain can be brought together to augment the learning experience. This is something that could be standardized and built into frameworks much like the way SCORM has evolved, as well as take current collaboration platforms to the next level.

In an earlier post, I had visited collaboration techniques and some concepts there that I had encountered and thought about. One conclusion was that:

It goes back to us, as individuals, and how we collaborate as subjects, alone or in teams or in networks. If the capability to collaborate in structured ways is learnt and becomes “native” so will adoption on a more widespread basis.

How can collaboration or the capability thereof, go native? By imparting a purpose to collaboration, I am focusing on collaboration that needs to be explicit, rather than implicit (or as a function of collectives). How can it become an essential part of our daily workflows?

One obvious component is technology of some sort – phone, Internet-based etc. and the knowledge & skills on the technology that you need to collaborate.

The other obvious component is your network and the level of access that you have to people with whom you can collaborate.

The third component is the collaboration skill itself, which is composed of not only soft skills (including social etiquette and cultural sensitivity), but also language skills (how effectively can you communicate) and knowledge of various structured and unstructured collaboration techniques (for example, collaboration could also include negotiation or mediation apart from the regular terms in which we view collaboration).

The fourth component is the content/domain of collaboration. Techniques like the Johari window  are pretty useful here to analyze the domain with respect to the collaboration participants and their level of knowledge.

An important fifth dimension, apart from technology, networks and collaboration skill, also emerges – context. It is really important to understand state of the world before, during and after the collaboration process ends. If we are able to capture that, then we are able to do two things – one, document the process for others to learn from and two, measure the outcomes and build performance indicators.

At this time (or at any time in the past), these have always existed in some form or the other. Online/digital technology scores because of its capability to bring diverse geographically distributed people together on a collaborative platform, but leaves much to be desired in terms of facilitating the use of formal techniques for collaboration.

In our experience, we have more or less learnt to collaborate by experience (I would say this would be a fairly acceptable generalization) and by making mistakes. But also a lot by how we see our peers and seniors collaborate. We take these complex skills involving social interaction, emotional control,  tact, courtesy and so many other dimensions to produce the results we so desire. There are also a large number of successful models that people have developed over the years. In fact Stephen Covey’s Sixth Habit is Principles of Creative Cooperation.

It is so difficult for formal models to be built in a highly subjective and individualized area. I quote Yes Minister where Hacker reveals the three varieties of Civil Service silence – Discreet, Stubborn and Courageous silence.

… He also warned me of the ‘Three Varieties of Civil Service Silence’, which would be Humphrey’s last resort if completely cornered: 1 The silence when they do not want to tell you the facts: Discreet Silence. 2 The silence when they do not intend to take any action: Stubborn Silence. 3 The silence when you catch them out and they haven’t a leg to stand on. They imply that they could vindicate themselves completely if only they were free to tell all, but they are too honourable to do so: Courageous Silence. (The Complete Yes Minister, pp. 93-4)

How does one depict or infer Courageous Silence online on a Chat or Social network discussion?

However, there is value that exists if we do use/adapt somebody’s well thought out or experimented mechanism or recipe for collaboration. After all that is where a lot of people make money in training because they can interpret and adapt to the individual’s context when suggesting a recipe or building capability on a specific technique.

To really be useful and pervasive, we must find ways to enable these dimensions on an Internet scale, in our applications. We must make these tools & techniques and the  knowledge thereof easy to grasp and implement. And this process will continue to evolve and benefit from multiple related developments in technology and technique.

While researching structured collaboration techniques, I came across some interesting work people are doing. Mindquarry, for example, provides a model of collaboration patterns based on 4 elements – people, productivity software, collaborative software and methods. I had earlier referred to Mindtools, who provide a rich set of structured collaboration techniques, like for example starbusting, which is a form of brainstorming. Also, Value based management offers a host of techniques, models and theories.

Essentially, structured technology aided collaboration techniques are a medium through which learning efficiencies can be increased. These techniques:

  • are contextual to domain
  • are contextual to collaboration type (say, brainstorming vs voting)
  • are open or close ended (in terms of time, scope, boundaries etc)
  • could be ad-hoc or planned
  • are quantifiable (both quantitatively and qualitatively speaking)
  • are historically referenceable (audit trails for recorded collaborations)
  • have rules of engagement
  • can be structured to the desired level (sequence of activities, organization of inputs, permissions and access roles)
  • are sensitive to scale of audience, available knowledge and other physical parameters
  • result in trackable outputs/analytics

The logical next step, from a design perspective, is to attempt to model them.  Aldo de Moor’s paper on Community Memory Activation with Collaboration patterns yields some insights on what patterns could be modelled. The abstract for the paper is:

We present a model of collaboration patterns as reusable conceptual structures capturing essential collaboration requirements. These patterns include goal patterns (what is the collaboration about?), communication patterns (how does communication to accomplish goals take place?), information patterns (what content knowledge is essential to satisfy collaborative and communicative goals?), task patterns (what particular information patterns are needed for particular action or interaction goals?), and meta-patterns (what patterns are necessary to interpret, link and assess the quality of the other collaboration patterns?). We show how these patterns can be used to activate communities of practice by improving their collective, distributed memory of communicative interactions and information. We outline an approach that structures how collaboration patterns in communities of practice can be elicited, represented, analyzed, and applied. By presenting a realistic scenario, we illustrate how community memory could be activated in practice.

The other key component is to understand what is the need to collaborate and the forces impeding the required collaboration. This is key to understanding whether collaboration techniques shall be used, substituted by informal methods or not used at all. It is important to understand if they are “over sold and under used” or are “methods seeking an application” or are really cost-effective or intuitive. We have seen that in software engineering too and this may require change management to implement in enterprises.

In other words, the challenge is not quite really all about the technology or process, but is perhaps more about the individual mindset and the overall objectives with which structured collaboration techniques are to be implemented (basically saying that a great process or tool does not automatically ensure collaboration that follows the process or uses the tool or format).

It goes back to us, as individuals, and how we collaborate as subjects, alone or in teams or in networks. If the capability to collaborate in structured ways is learnt and becomes “native” so will adoption on a more widespread basis. On the other hand, organizations or learning delivery modalities can include, as mandatory components, such patterns, tools or processes as part of the workflow.

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