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David Wilcox on ‘What makes engagement and collaboration work?’

May 24, 2007

In step with tomorrow's 'Social Impact of the Web' event at the RSA, David Wilcox has written an article for the RSA website exploring this question. He makes four statements about the necessary positives – but it's the follow up questions in each case that do such a good job of pinpointing where the potential and the frustrations lie. David writes

''It is people, not organisations, that collaborate – so their personalities and preferences are hugely important.
How do we better understand that, online as well as off?

Organisations create the cultures which may or may not encourage sharing.
Will blogs and other social media really help change that, when senior managers are often reluctant to use new tools?

Conversations and stories work better than bullet points to get people talking.
So why are many meeting rooms still dominated by immovable Board tables, and conferences by Powerpoint?

Effective collaboration requires trust, relationships and understanding that take time to develop.
Why are so many online systems still developed on the basis of "build it and they will come and work together" … ending up with empty forums and a lot of money wasted? ''


I'm not going to attempt to answer the back-questions here, though I look forward to tomorrow's discussion. But I do want to introduce a thought about psychology, collaboration, knowledge and understanding which I think touches upon several of them – not least senior management culture and the persistence of Powerpoint 'lectures' at conferences.

It's this – we still don't believe that we can understand something or, therefore, manage it unless we can encompass and contain it. Individuals still strive to almost literally 'get their heads around' the facts or the process or the problem or the solution. They want to see the edges and they want to be able to see all the feedback in order to know that they are having the effect they desire. So there's a paradox in any place that individuals try to use collaboration, and what I would call 'distributed comprehension', to do something and yet want to drag all the outcomes and consequences back in and contain it within their own heads. Part of the voodoo of this is to capture the soul of the outcome in a Powerpoint presentation – and then let others peek at it in order to confirm your mastery. 

I'm subject to this as much as anyone – so this isn't about some stupid group of 'others'. If we believe that distributed groups can now bring about better outcomes and have unprecedented emergent effects then maybe we are just going to have to get used to only seeing part of the picture and controlling or influencing part of the action. On the one hand this looks like a new web2.0 phenomenon but on the other hand it's remeniscent of the experiences of a 19th century general in a major battle.

This is how I feel about the social web itself. I look out at the lightspeed expansion of content, connections, combinations, tools and, yes, rubbish out there and I feel two things. I want to get a handle on it, understand it, see those expanding edges and be able to explain and commend it to others. But I'm also in awe of it and have a growing feeling that I would be (or become) insane to try to capture it. I was suddenly put in mind of the Romantics arriving in the Alps and gazing on mountains of a scale they had never seen before. They talked about 'the sublime' - the uncontainable. They didn't just see really big impressive mountains (that could plausibly be represented on a relief map) they saw something that they realised they couldn't encompass, maybe they saw "nature" in general. They were overwhelmed and changed by it and spent their lives trying to find aesthetic forms which would allow them to communicate it, and express its impact on them, but not to contain it.

How does this translate to collaboration and engagement? I think that David's questions point to the fact that we haven't yet learned to let go. This way of doing things will only really take off when members of groups accept that the group, as a whole, may understand, resolve and do things which no individual member can understand, resolve or do. We do that with societies and economies, give or take the odd outbreak of totalitarianism, accepting that no one of us can determine the flow of the whole. But online collaboration has briefly made collective action look like a process, a system, which can have determinate outputs which can be owned, understood and powerpointed by one person.

Perhaps social media will compel us to accept that we all need to see, feel and participate in the world through other people – at least some of the time.

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