It’s been a wild week or two, so Nancy White’s post “Challenging the myths of distributed collaboration” has sat unanswered while we mulled its implications. Nancy was responding to our description of distributed collaboration networks, where Alex says:

A distributed collaboration network is the next generation of online community, creating shared value through technology-supported collaboration. It leverages “Web 2.0” tools – tools like blogging, tagging, and RSS – that push the Internet beyond information portals and towards collaborative communities. It’s a decentralized, non-hierarchical way of working together that facilitates nimble, project-specific teamwork within a larger, ongoing community.

This community is supported by an ecosystem of web sites that share content and relationships using technologies that make group collaboration an almost effortless extension of individual workflow. A blog post written on one site might pop up in a topical web page on another part of the network.

Nancy makes a number of thoughtful points, but her main disagreement is over the word “effortless”:

I have yet to experience effortless collaboration. Period. I have experienced enjoyable and fun collaboration. I have endured miserable collaboration. But it has never been effortless. This is because collaboration asks us to go beyond our selves and commit to others as well.

I worry about creating utopian dreams that collaboration becomes effortless because of tools and technology. Collaboration will become easier when people shift towards a cooperative value set. When they are willing to slow down for the group, rather than simply running on their own individual cycles. When they can find a connection of shared values or goals. Tools will help – YES. But they come second after people and their processes.

Here’s where there may be an inadvertent misunderstanding: we actually say “almost effortless”, and while that may sound like a quibble, it isn’t. The entire point is that it’s these micromargins of effort — that tiny extra bit of work, that social nudge, required to share a bookmark in, say, or to tag a blog post with an agreed-on keyword — that make the difference. The role of the technology is to provide a kind of drive train (including a transmission that Toyota would kill for) converting that little extra effort, along with the effort that went into individual workflow in the first place, into collaboration.

That’s not the end of the story, of course; aggregation is only a start. But as people see the magnifying effects of that small amount of additional effort — how (if you’ll forgive a quick bit of branding disguised as a metaphor) a low-watt social signal gets amplified — they also see the benefits: a broader network of contacts, a wider audience, exposure to previously unknown communities. They may receive input and advice from completely unexpected quarters, or simply the gratification of having contributed to something worthwhile. The best social technologies are those that give big rewards for small efforts of collaboration.

Our experience is that this builds on exactly the kind of values and social capital that Nancy rightly argues are at the root of collaboration. And this may be where we have an honest difference of opinion. While she suggests collaboration relies on a cultural shift, we’ve seen a lot to suggest that those values are alive and well in the culture we have now. They may be obscured by the rhetoric of individual enterprise, but the cooperative impulse takes surprisingly little to awaken it. Hence Wikipedia, Flickr‘s groups and pools (as Lee White mentions in a comment on Nancy’s post), and the growth of tagging.

Of course, not every social technology offers the kind of effort-to-collaborative-effect gear ratio we’re talking about here. But the ones that do should be leading candidates for inclusion in our toolboxes.

Just as significantly, not every form of collaboration — online or offline — can be facilitated with a social nudge. Tomorrow, next year and next century, we’ll still be complaining about herding cats and pushing string. But our hope is that we’ll find, increasingly, that we all have a little more energy to devote to collaboration in the arenas that don’t support the social nudge, thanks to those that do. And as the experience of successful collaboration becomes more widespread, the underlying values and purview of the social nudge should expand as well.

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