The Joy and the Pain of E-Collaboration

March 28, 2012 | LND | Methods & Tools, SDC Experiences |


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Riff FullanE-collaboration has been around since computer networks were invented, but of course our increasing interconnectedness presents more opportunities for us to do it, and to do so with a greater variety of tools. What is e-collaboration? A brief way to describe it is working together to produce something (a document, a position, a decision) using electronic media. It is easy to get lost among the tools, but successful e-collaboration is much more about the people who are involved and how their interaction is facilitated, than it is about the technologies used.

By Riff Fullan, Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation

Why talk about joy and pain in the context of e-collaboration? That’s because working together on something using electronic media (e.g., the internet) can often involve both sides of the coin: sometimes it is highly rewarding and other times it can be quite frustrating. I recently facilitated an email-based dialogue around e-collaboration among Focal Points, facilitators, webmasters and thematic backstoppers of SDC networks. Without trying to summarize what was a rich and detailed discussion, here are some of my impressions…

We had a very interesting exchange on motivation and how to enhance it: in every SDC network, staff and partners are very BUSY people. Competing priorities and commitments make it difficult to contribute to an e-collaboration exercise lasting several weeks. It is also true that e-collaboration itself presents barriers to participation, such as: different technologies in use; the reality that by posting a message one exposes oneself in a larger group (many of whose members may be unknown to you); the difficulty of expressing opinions while at the same time being somehow a representative of the organisation, etc.

These realities form part of the ‘backdrop’ of our work. We cannot get away from them, so we need to think about how to reduce their influence. Fortunately, there are many ways to do this, including: creating an atmosphere of trust and tolerance (this is a facilitator’s and/or Focal Point’s job, and sometimes it takes a while to establish, but it is both crucial and very powerful); structuring and timing of dialogues to not make unrealistic demands on people’s time; ensuring as much as possible that the topic is relevant to the work of a significant number of participants; cultivating a spirit of experimentation and willingness to try new things (new technologies, but for many the idea itself of collaborating in a non-face-to-face way can be quite a challenge).

What else stuck out for me in our conversations? I would say two things:

1)      Figuring out how to organise and implement an e-collaboration exercise is very much about asking the right questions. This sounds easy, but it can involve quite a bit of effort, and  includes such things as:

  1. How cohesive and trusting is the network?
  2. How can the importance of the output/outcome be best demonstrated to network members?
  3. What kind of engagement/support is needed from management in order to increase the likelihood of success?
  4. How much experience do members have with the technology we want to use?
  5. Connected with this, what kind(s) of technical tool(s) will give us the best chance of producing our desired output?
  6. Another related question would be: what kinds of tools are open for us to use (e.g. in some institutional contexts there are many options, in others, only a few)?

2)      A successful e-collaboration exercise should balance the needs of participants as much as possible. Again, an easy statement to make, but a complex one to satisfy. Such balance requires:

  1. An awareness of the ‘culture’ of the network (especially how much members are habituated to e-collaboration and to the tools used to support it)
  2. An appreciation that there is no such thing as ‘one size fits all’. In other words, different network members have different learning styles, different levels of skill, different reactions to technology, etc.
  3. Related to this is the realization that a combination of incentives may be the most effective way to generate participation (e.g., directive/top-down, plus self-driven/bottom-up)
  4. One also needs to play a strong, yet positive role in encouraging and convincing people to experiment with new ways of working and with using different technologies to do so.
  5. On the technology front, one of the most interesting things coming out of our discussion was the suggestion that using a combination of technologies (e.g., email or chat/skype discussion with wiki) can often help increase the effectiveness of e-collaboration efforts.

There is of course a lot more one can say about the topic, and in fact many of the things which contribute to good e-collaboration also contribute to good ediscussion in general, but for me just talking about the complexities, the ins and outs and the joy and pain, is an excellent way for us to collectively build our capacity and motivation to keep trying…..and to sometimes succeed! What would you suggest about making meaningful e-collaboration easier to achieve?


Comments to“The Joy and the Pain of E-Collaboration”

  1. Dear Riff
    Many thanks for your striking summary on our e-discussion on e-collaboration. For me it’s to the point. By participating and by closely observing our discussion I learned what makes an e-discussion successful. There are 3 key factors forming in front of my eyes the “human triangle” of e-collaboration: people – interaction – facilitation. Then add technology and a supportive organizational culture.
    Best, Nadia


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