On Collaboration: Part Two

In On Collaboration: Part One, I introduced some personal perspectives on the concept of Collaboration.  And while I noted the infancy of our academic understanding of the concept, I mentioned my discovery of one journal article in particular that had captured my attention.

Authors Fiore, Rosen, Smith-Jentsch, Letsky & Warner (2010) wrote Toward an Understanding of Macrocognition in Teams: Predicting Processes in Complex Collaborative Contexts.  The authors of this article put some science around the murky concept of Collaboration. And they share some validated guidance for how to help make Collaboration happen productively.

They identify five keys to collaboration, keys which you might want to apply to your own collaborations:

Collaboration Key #1: Externalized Cognition

A fancy term, yes.  But externalized cognition simply refers to the degree that knowledge is made external beyond each individual within a team and hence shared amongst a team.  Examples of externalized cognition could be as simple as white-board mapping of thinking for other team members, or note-taking that then is shared amongst them. The degree with which this happens - that cognition is externalized - is a contributor to productive outcomes from collaboration. So, next time you are bringing a group together, be sure to fill that white board up with the fruits of the conversation. Take notes, and share them. Consider what ways you can bring physical form to the group's cognitive work.

Collaboration Key #2: Team Cognition

Team cognition occurs when the team has been able to establish individual roles for each member, so that unique skills can be applied to a problem in a coordinated way.  In outcome, the team comes to operate like an “information processing unit”. The best example I can think of to illustrate this is the way players on a football team play.  The quarterback calls the play, and is responsible to make the throw, while the defense-men work to clear the path for the forwards trying to make the catch and get across the line. The team players operate as a coordinated unit. When you build a team, are you conscious about bringing together a skill set of people, with individual and diverse strengths that together can form a unit? And is it clear that each 'player on the team' has a specific role to play as a part of that team?

Collaboration Key #3: Group Communication Orientation

The authors note that performance improves when group communication is clearly oriented to the task-at-hand.  You can all imagine the times when groups get sidelined by personal differences, opining, or even debating formatting of documents.  Improved team performance outcomes come from focusing group communication on the problem to be solved.  Even more specifically, improved outcomes come from a majority of time allotted to defining the problem at hand.  Poor outcomes resulted when groups spent time working on solutions before giving adequate attention to problem definition.  And perhaps counter-intuitively, spending time considering negative possible outcomes contributes to improved performance as well. The next time you pull a team together, remember this: ensure communication is focused on the task explicitly.  Carve off diligent time to consider the problem before any consideration is given to possible solutions.  And be proactive about considering all potential outcomes, including, importantly, the negative ones.

Collaboration Key #4: Collaborative Learning

A fourth key to collaboration is collaborative learning, which refers to how well groups “share, store and retrieve” learning.  This is quite straightforward to explain though not necessarily to achieve.  It requires an efficient means around which learning is shared and leveraged across the team. There are many collaboration tools: think Skype, Google Groups or Google Docs and of course the ever-reliable collaboration tool of face-to-face time. And do note that there is a difference between sharing data or information or documents and sharing ‘learning’. While data, information and documents matter, it is key is to facilitate the sharing, storing and retrieval of the group's learning. When putting together your next team, seek to define the collaboration tools and the face-to-face touch points that will serve the sharing, storing and retrieving of the group's learning.  And then use them diligently.

Collaboration Key #5: Knowledge Building

The final collaboration key is knowledge building. This is a more detailed idea that requires a deeper understanding of the differences between data vs. information vs. knowledge. Very briefly, data transforms into information when it becomes contextualized and information then becomes knowledge once connections are made between pieces of information. A key to successful collaboration is in the team's ability to achieve this process of Knowledge Building: to take data, transform it into information and then to transform that information into knowledge.  

My goal here was to provide some academic understanding about the science of collaboration in a way that you might be able to apply it to your immediate team-work activities. In continued spirit of the concept, please do share your experiences, your thoughts, your questions, and your suggestions.

Heidi McCulloch

1 Comment

  • Heidi Graf said

    Thank you for bringing some of the academics around collaboration to the forefront. So often these business techniques are lost in rhetoric and/or smoke & mirrors and as a result the brain trust is disbanded or diluted (the latter half of that sentence is so rhetorical!!!).

    Having said that knowledge management within collaboration is not a new concept but agreed most industries, even outside the advertising/communications,etc. still struggle to not only join hands but link brains.

    My own experience is the hardest thing to establish is who needs to know what, when & how. If you can crack that without monumental clashes of ego, you may in fact be, wait for it, collaborating.

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Tags: Productivity, Teamwork, Strategy, Corporate Culture, Integration