3 Lessons on Collaboration from a Development Community
Collaboration is popular among large firms. I know this from the various marketing materials I’ve seen, for example the buzz around Google buzz, and I know it from my own personal experience. Several years ago I worked on a project for a customer to facilitate collaboration across their engineering teams. Due to a series of acquisitions the company had created numerous engineering silos. The company decided to encourage more connections across these teams. If the company could enable and encourage collaboration then there would be cross pollination of ideas, sharing and reinforcement of best practices, and more innovation.
This is not a unique challenge. Many companies, especially large firms are investing in a variety of programs and infrastructure to address collaboration amongst their employees. There is a catch-22. Collaboration occurs between people that have a connection, but to lead to innovation diverse backgrounds are needed. Unfortunately the more connected people are the less diversity in their backgrounds. The more likely you are to interact and collaborate with someone, the less likely that collaboration will generate innovation.
A Different Reason for Collaboration, Similar Challenges
TopCoder has a different motivation to create a collaborative environment for its online community: to generate growth in that community. Humans like to collaborate. For our community to be successful, we needed to incorporate collaboration. This lead to several questions:
- How do you foster individual connections within a virtual community?
- How can you create a collaborative environment without an employee/employer relationship to encourage it?
- Within a virtual community what tools will people need to collaborate?
The answers to these questions matter for corporations trying to encourage collaboration amongst their employees. They become more important when trying to include outside stakeholders, like customers or fans of a brand, in collaboration.
Focus on the Barriers, Collaboration will Follow
One solution to creating ties between individuals in a virtual community is to piggy back on the social networks. Unfortunately for TopCoder the social networks didn’t exist ten years ago. Instead rankings and history provide the connection at TopCoder. Ranking provides a precise measurement of where a member ranks amongst his or her peers at TopCoder. While ranking does create a hierarchy, it also reinforces that members are peers in the community. History provides a transparent index into all the activities a member has participated in on the platform. Just like an author’s pseudo name is established by the writing done under that name, a TopCoder handle develops its own reputation based on a member’s activity and rating.
People collaborate on what they want not on what they are told. By design (and some luck) we never tried to manage the conversation. Complaints about TopCoder, challenges to our business model, and even questions about the staff’s intelligence can all be found in the forums. We’ve never had a full time “community manager” and we’ve never had moderators for the forums. The TopCoder forums are self managed and self policed. This has encouraged and enabled collaboration amongst our members resulting in many of our business model and technology innovations.
In terms of tools, we’ve taken a Spartan path. Forums remain the lynch pin of the conversations, monitored with RSS feeds, email watches, and plain old browser refreshes there is a lot they can do. Later a wiki was added, but never gained as much traction with the community. We continue to look for other opportunities to support a truly collaborative environment for the community.
Lessons to Learn
Companies should focus on enabling and encouraging extraneous collaboration. That is collaboration that happens outside their normal connections and their normal job. Project teams already work together and people already talk to their close connections – the extraneous collaboration is where companies can derive new value. Our experience provides some important lessons.
- Collaboration cannot be managed. You can create a culture that values collaboration and an environment that empowers people to collaborate, but trying to force collaboration doesn’t work.
- Start small with technology investment. If employees won’t talk openly in forums, or respond to colleagues they haven’t met through email, your problems are bigger than if the latest enterprise application has full Twitter integration and support for Blackberry’s email client. Think of employees as the customers of your collaboration tools.
- Creating new connections between employees and fostering collaboration outside of the normal job function have to be the focus. Can your company go beyond a fixed employee base and encourage open collaboration with customers and other interested parties? Moving beyond the four walls of your company will vastly increase the diversity and value of collaboration