by Mark Elliott
Everywhere we turn, we hear more and more about the need for collaboration. We can’t realise a thriving future for humanity, it is said, unless we can bring together communities, corporations, academia and the public sector. Our very survival, the strength of our economies, and peace and justice all seem to depend on collaboration.
And yet, there is little agreement on what the word actually means. Or rather, everyone seems to have a different definition. Which is okay, because it can and should mean a lot of things. But what it absolutely does not mean is plopping a bunch of excited people in a conference room, and hoping magic will just happen. In our experience, if you are expecting (even banking) on the outcome of collaborative magic, then you’ll need some solid design behind the process.
While much of the world has only a vague and likely suspicious understanding of collaboration, there are hidden amongst the masses a small but passionate number of experienced collaboration practitioners. They may not call themselves that, or even specifically identify with the word collaboration, but they are fiercely dedicated to the purpose of helping people work and create together better. But (perhaps unsurprisingly) these practitioners aren’t working together very well to answer the challenge of defining or setting standards for collaboration. Many would argue that actual collaboration will defy any serious effort to bring more sense to it. We disagree.
We believe the territory of collaboration can be mapped. We believe that certain frameworks and methodologies can be established and defended, in full expectation that they will be overturned later. In other words, we believe that collaboration can be a discipline, a field, and a science, as much as it is an art.
More importantly, we think this work is valuable and critical. The ability to collaborate well shouldn’t be locked up with just a few experts with their arcane and personal methods. We envision, instead, a world in which collaboration is taught in schools starting at a young age. Collaboration principles, practices and behaviours should be occupy a central place in our shared vocabulary, so that no matter what our field or discipline, we know how to get started and carry it through.
Interestingly, the market is now starting to ask for this. I don’t how many times I’ve walked into a corporate building, and seen on everyone’s keycard lanyard ‘collaboration’ written as one of their five corporate principles. More recently, Deloitte Access Economics teamed up with Google to show that the “collaborative economy” in Australia is worth more than 46 billion dollars, with an additional 9 billion dollars of unrealised value. And that’s just Australia.
From an education perspective, future generations are both primed for this opportunity, and completely hobbled. They are primed because their leisure activities are increasingly collaborative. Multiplayer online games like Minecraft or Clash of Clans, for example, inspire young children to engage in highly strategic discussions on the playground about their next move. On the flipside, the way children are educated seems designed to strip away any instinct for collaboration. This in particular occurs when they are being evaluated. Individualistic evaluations are provided to people who, for the rest of their work life, will be judged on outcomes that they can only deliver by working effectively with others. This continues well into tertiary education, which is intended to prepare students for the workforce. Academics in particular, struggle with collaboration, because their publishing incentives are typically oriented towards individual achievement.
So what does it look like to change this trend? In the first place, we need to put a name on the new field we are trying to create. We need it to be perceived as a skill that people feel that they do or don’t have, that is well developed or underdeveloped. After years of noodling on this, we have landed on the term “collaboration design.”
Why “design”? Because the word has currency, and it makes sense. We have visual design, web design, information design, service design, and so on. With collaboration design, we move collaboration from the realm of the mystical into the realm of the practical. It becomes something that we can learn and do. It becomes achievable.
Here’s a few more reasons why we feel this makes sense:
- Design thinking - We have found that the principles of design thinking hold well in this context: empathising with participants, defining the problem/challenge, developing ideas, prototyping them, then testing and refining.
- Shared capability - Because effective collaboration is a shared capability (held by all participants), a design focus means that a collaboration design can be “put in between” everyone as a joint focus, which helps support and foster this shared capability.
- Conscious collaboration - Like other design processes, using the term “collaboration design” helps cue us to reflect on making the conscious decision to resource it (as opposed to just hoping for the best!).
So what exactly is collaboration design? Given it’s an emerging field, that’s still an open question - which is why it’s so exciting to jump into the space right now. But for us at Collabforge, and the types of challenges and opportunities we regularly face, from a design principles perspective, the practice of collaboration design needs to be:
- Cocreative - The design of a given ollaboration should be cocreated by those who will be participating, paying, or otherwise involved.
- Scalable - Collaboration designs should be able to scale up and down in terms of participants and modes of engagement as required to deliver their impact (e.g. start with 2 people, but able to ultimately involve 2 million).
- Sustainable - In order to get from idea to impact, the process of collaboration should not be limited to one-off workshops or facilitations, but instead be an ongoing and evolving activity, owned and supported by all participants.
So what are we doing about it? We are doing our damndest to spread or own knowledge about collaboration design, and to bring together others who are interested in doing the same. That’s why we’ve created EpicCollaboration.com. It's just getting started, but we encourage you to explore the site and read more about our (and other) approaches we’ve been collecting here.
This post was was written collaboratively by Mark Elliott, Hailey Cooperrider and Rebecca Dahl of Collabforge, with support from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology.