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Mass Collaboration and the Challenge of Integration

Mass Collaboration and the Challenge of Integration

At the heart of every mass collaboration is a core of heavy-lifters dealing with a high level of complexity. What does this mean for Epic Collaboration and efforts like it? Hailey Cooperrider provides a bit of insight on the topic, and relates it to the Epic Collaboration story as it is currently unfolding.

Since getting started with Epic Collaboration, we've been thinking hard at Collabforge about how to balance our leadership and stewardship role with the vision of an engaged collaborative community, and with our own limitations as a small business. This post unpacks the nature of this challenge in three parts:

  1. A theoretical exploration of a core challenge in any mass collaboration
  2. A look back at Collabforge's approach to developing Epic Collaboration so far
  3. A frank assessment of where we are now, and where could most use your help

By reading this piece, you'll get unique insight into mass collaboration generally, and how it's unfolding in one particular instance. For our part, we hope we'll be able to locate some folks who are willing anad available to help us now.

1. Stigmergy, scalability and integration

One of the most exciting aspects of mass collaboration success stories like Wikipedia or open source software is the idea that thousands of uncoordinated contributors from all over the world can make something of unprecedented value. How amazing that each of us can pursue our unique interest in the collaboration, and yet a coherent product emerges. Collabforge’s past learnings from research on social insects (that’s why our logo is an ant!) goes some way to explaining this phenomenon.

Contrary to popular belief, the “queen” in social insect colonies does not direct the activity of the “workers”. Much of their work is coordinated instead via the medium of their environment, in a process known as stigmergy (Wikipedia). Ants leave pheromone trails where they discover sources of food, triggering other ants to follow. Termites roll up balls of mud and mark them with pheromones, triggering other termites to add their own ball of mud. Through a combination of pure instinct and environmental signals, beautiful feats of architecture emerge.

The dynamics on the Internet also involve stigmergy. Software engineers using the coding coordination tool GitHub often respond to each other by editing code, rather than talking about coding outcomes in the abstract. Wikipedia authors edit the content of articles directly, as a way of expressing their belief in how an article should read, rather than reaching consensus through conversation first.

While this stigmergic mode does much to accelerate and scale cocreation, one only needs to view a bridge made of sacrificial ant parts to understand the limitations of a collaborative process that does not involve shared vision and empathy. 

Inspiring, sure, but not all these guys make it out alive.

It’s important to recognise that while stigmergic approaches can accelerate a collaboration, it is rare that they fully replace the ancient social and political modes that have underpinned human civilisation for millennia.

Take Wikipedia, for example. While there are indeed millions of minor contributors, the guts of it are contributed by a few thousand diehards. These committed Wikipedians not only do a lot of the heavy lifting of making the encyclopedia, they also spend countless hours developing the rules, guidelines and processes that support the work of the masses. Without these governance and quality control functions, it’s doubtful that Wikipedia would have had the same disruptive effect on its industry.

The story is the same in open source software. While anyone can submit patches, extensions, or updates to a piece open source software, there is usually a subset of designated “committers” who decide whether those submissions get included in the official codebase. The nature and efficiency of these processes are a massive factor in the health of an open source project, and have a huge influence on how the product actually looks. The popular Wordpress blogging platform, for example, only achieves its legendary ease-of-use because the core project leaders act as stewards of the official code, and work to instill this value in the broader developer community.

In his seminal work Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm, Yochai Benkler describes this work as the “integration function”. According to Benkler, the cost of integrating and quality-controlling many contributions is often the central limiting factor on the scalability of (what he calls) peer production. In other words, integration is an inevitable bottleneck for any mass collaboration project. That’s why it’s never enough to simply build a clever website, open the doors, and wait for the masses to enter and start cocreating. 

Unlike social insects who have perfected their integration function and made it instinctual over millions of years of evolution, humans must continuously redesign this function for each novel context. Not only must we design our online platform and community processes, but we must continuously evolve these things in step with the evolving community and our increasing understanding of what it is we were actually trying to do in the first place.

2. Integration and Epic Collaboration

Seen in this light, we could say that Collabforge is in the business of helping organisations redesign their integration functions (and also redesign the way they continuously redesign this function) in order to enable mass collaboration in service of their mission. We spend a lot of time working backwards from an epic vision of collaborating with a crowd, to the underlying limitations in business process and culture that prevent that from happening. It’s not an easy job, but it’s one that can have unbelievable outcomes when given the appropriate time and resources.

That’s why when we embarked on Epic Collaboration - in some senses our own attempt to redesign our integration function in service of our mission - we knew it wouldn’t be easy. We knew we would have to go slow and steady, balancing the need to sustain ourselves, with the need to keep the interest and trust of the community. We know from experience how easy it is to trip over your own toes by going too fast, and how easy it is to lose the buy-in and good faith of participants by moving too slow.

Knowing this, we set off, confident that our long experience and deep knowledge would guide us, and knowing that we had never been surrounded a more inspiring and capable network of people.

Collabforge’s vision is to help build the world’s collaboration capability. Epic Collaboration’s vision, in turn, is to cultivate a global network of committed people and organisations, collaborating on making collaboration better. This vision in turn generated a hypothesis that the best way to collaborate on collaboration would be to start with stories, and build up to more abstract elements like patterns, frameworks and approaches. This would provide a way of working that we could do on our own, but that others could easily contribute to as well. 

We started testing this internally, collecting stories to add to the knowledge base within our team. We interviewed ourselves on our own past case studies around collaboration. We pulled out both learnings of why some collaborations were flying successes, and others flailed, and identified common blockers.

Once we figured out what exactly we were looking for and what was needed, we made the circle wider and started interviewing some of our project’s closest supporters. Each of these amazing individuals brought a unique perspective, and helped us hone our ideas and value proposition:

We never doubted that we were surrounded by accomplished and generous people, but looking at this list still amazes me. And this is just who we could cram into the very short window before our event. Things only got better with the event itself. We felt fully validated that Epic Collaboration is something the world needs, and there was a huge outpouring of ideas, insights, and promises for contributions.

Therein lies the challenge. When we all go back to our desks, it is still up to the small team at Collabforge to integrate all of these insights into the Epic Collaboration platform and knowledge base. There’s no shortcut to this, even with how much we know about this challenge.

Friday June 20, 5:13pm, Collabforge’s team room at Hub Melbourne

Despite all of the goodwill, I’m left feeling more than a little anxious and vulnerable, wondering just how to translate all of this potential energy into epic momentum.

3. Where to now

Every community-based organisation and initiative struggles with this challenge. The answer is unique to every context, and is usually a complex combination of strategy, business model, creativity, communication, and disciplined elbow grease.

Over the coming months, this is our challenge: how to translate the promise of Epic Collaboration into a reality that is truly owned by everyone and no one at the same time. And it’s going to take time. We expect to be flailing and failing our way forward for many months, until we can have something that your great aunt will understand and enjoy the first time she encounters it.

Our challenge right now, then, is how to ask for the right kind of help. It’s already proving to be more than we can handle to integrate the ideas and insights we already have. What we need at this moment are folks who are willing to step forward and help with the heavy lifting of integration. Here are some of the specific things that looks like:

1. Creating and curating stories, patterns, frameworks and approaches

Our initial promise was to publish two case studies per week, one from Collabforge and one from someone else. Already, this is proving difficult. Lots of people have submitted their ideas for stories through the website, but we can barely find time to respond, nevermind interviewing them, writing up their story, and getting them to approve it. We believe we can keep our two-story pace, but that’s going to leave a lot of people waiting in line.

It’d be great to find folks who are interested in coming in, learning a bit about the process and platform, and helping us make epic knowledge. Or better yet, folks who can see how the knowledge is already shaping up, and can submit stories and frameworks that are already fully formed.

2. Improving the platform itself

One thing we really want to avoid is focusing too much on the technology, and letting the lack of the “right platform” be a blocker to the community. Yet that’s where we are. We have a good starting point with our Drupal-based CollabCo platform (GitHub), but there is a bit of work to do to customise it for the unique purposes of Epic Collaboration. With just a little bit of work, we can make the knowledge more accessible, and make the contribution process simpler, leading to a virtuous circle of inspiration and collaboration. 

But it’s been kind of impossible to prioritise this over some really pressing business needs. And that stresses me out. I think to myself: why did we even start this project, if we can’t keep a simple site up to date? Time to let my guard down, and ask for help.

If there’s anyone out there with even a mid level of Drupal skill and a decent design eye, you could do a lot to help to advance the cause of Epic Collaboration. We’re planning to present at the Melbourne Drupal meetup on July 8th too, so come there if you want a deeper dive into the platform.

3.Share this post and give us pointers

The more people who see us, and understand what we are trying to do, the more likely we are to find those few people who are both willing and available to help right now. Please share this post with your networks, or let us know who we should be talking with in the comments.

If you’ve read this far, then that’s pretty amazing. If you’ve shared this post, or put your hand up to help, then that’s epic.

And oh yeah, come to the Collaborating with the Crowd event at Hub Melbourne next Thursday. All proceeds get invested back into Epic.