Collaborative Culture in a Virtual World

When we talk about collaboration, those of us who haven’t grown up with digital tools sometimes have a hard time wrapping our brain around collaborating with someone we haven’t ever met face-to-face. I’ve always been a person who uses visual cues such as nods and gestures to help me understand the thoughts of my team members and respond accordingly. Without that context, how do you build the elements of successful collaboration from the beginning? I’ve had to learn the skills on the fly, and I’ve learned some lessons along the way. Here’s the story of my early online attempts at collaboration

Act I: In which I realize that we’re all equal online
My first online collaboration adventure began with a face-to-face colleague who taught in a school across town from me. If you read the story on my blog, you’ll hear about how we built an online community where our students could come together and work on a project related to their science studies. There’s piece of that story that I didn’t share in that blog post but that I’ll share with you here. At the time, my colleague taught at a school where 90% of the students came from privileged families where I taught in an inner-city inclusion school for the visually impaired. Back then, our school system was still under a desegregation order, and while racially integrated schools were supposed to be the norm, the reality was that it didn’t happen much at all. For many of our students, it was their first opportunity to interact positively with a student of a different race. Until the day they met to wrap up our collaboration, many had no idea that the people they so often stereotyped were the same people they were looking forward to meeting. It was probably the first lesson I had in the power of online collaboration to level the playing field.

Act 2: In which I realize that we’re not all the same online
A little over 10 years ago, I began writing for Scholastic where I’d be given assignments from a producer I’d never met and then email my work to an editor who had no idea of my personality or writing style. It was odd and disconcerting for a while, until I began working with Lyn. Lyn and I developed an online rapport through our emails that made it easier to work together virtually. After working with Lyn for about a year, we finally found we’d have the opportunity to meet at the next FETC. I went looking for Lyn at the Scholastic booth when I arrived and found….that Lyn could be a male name too… We had a good laugh over it, but it made me wonder how often I let my preconceptions color my interactions.

So what lessons have I learned? Here are three that have served me well:

1. Speak from a personal perspective. If you want to relate online, it helps to tell stories. Strict lists of facts and figures and best practices might impress, but they don’t do much to encourage collaboration. Spend time relating information to your personal beliefs to help others see where you’re coming from.
2. Ask questions. Without the context that comes from a physical presence, asking questions is the easiest way to clarify expectations and go beyond assumptions.
3. Do your homework. If you’re going to be working with a virtual team, do a little sleuthing to find out more about them. You can do this by asking questions, but sometimes a person’s blog, Twitter posts, Flickr pictures and Delicious links can give you even more insight into your collaborators. You might even use a simple Google search to learn about a person through the digital trail you find.

Speaking of working together online, here’s a simple but interesting web tool that can show how the rules of collaboration play out in a virtual community. SwarmSketch is a collaborative drawing tool in which random contributors add to a drawing based on a popular web search term that week. You can watch an animation of a previous week’s sketch or participate in the current sketch by contributing your piece and then voting on the contributions of others. Take a minute to visit the site, read the intro and give it a try. Go ahead…we’ll wait here for you.

Back already? OK, so how do you think SwarmSketch is a model of the 3 skills of collaboration we mentioned in the previous discussions?

The site built Trust by establishing the group norms (you can only contribute a small portion to the overall picture), gave an opportunity to Accept Offers (darkening the lines of contributors who are building toward the common vision) and required Awareness (carefully viewing previous contributions to see where you should add your own) And, like most web collaborations, the contributions are often random and encompass the globe, but somehow they all come together to make a coherent whole.

Here’s the big takeaway point from all of this: True collaboration can’t be demanded, it can only be inspired. Here’s hoping you’re inspired to take the first step and add your thoughts to the conversation here!

Apply it!
Ready to give it a try together? Let’s practice our own collaboration skills by building a mind map of our collective understanding of collaboration. If you follow this link, you’ll arrive on a Thinkature Mindmap I’ve begun. Just pick a user name for yourself, then double-click anywhere on the page to create a text card. Use the tools to the left to move, freehand draw, point, or link to another card. (Note: Since this post was originally written, Thinkature has spent more time down than up. You can see an image of the mindmap here.)

An interesting aside…about 2 months ago, I posted the following comment on Twitter and Plurk:

Nadine Norris replied a bit later and decided to begin a mindmap to explore the idea further. By the end of the night, over a dozen people had come together to collaborate on the idea both on the mindmap and in online conversations. For me, the experience really brought home the potential of personal learning networks and the power of knowledge building through online collaboration.

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