Three Components Facilitating Effective Online Collaboration and Organization
The following essay was submitted for NET308 – Internet and Collaboration.
The purpose of this essay is to argue what facilitates effective online collaboration and organization. This essay first argues that it is absolutely imperative to move away from the now heavily outdated institutional model that served so well in the past but is neither relevant nor serviceable to online collaboration and organization. The essay then argues that the first component of effective online collaboration and organization is the concept of the organizational approach in which this essay analyses the works of Shirky and Blau with a prime example of the significance of this concept coming in the form of Wikipedia. The second component that this essay argues for is the concept of electronic networks of practice and the motivations of their members in which this essay continues detailing the concepts of Blau and incorporating the works of Wasko with Bit Torrent serving as a leading example. Finally, this essay argues that the concepts of the interaction between the digital and material world and hypermobility as explained by Sassen are a third component vital to effective online collaboration and organization with collaboration and disaster management serving as an example to these concepts.
In order to best understand what facilitates effective online collaboration and organization we must first understand the concept of institutions. Seumas Miller (2011) defines an institution as being ‘any structure or mechanism of social order and cooperation governing the behavior of a set of individuals within a given community’ and that an institution can be identified by its social purpose that transcends individuals ‘by mediating the rules that govern cooperative living behavior.’ This essay asserts that the social purpose behind an institution may include religion, education, social causes, financial among others. Further, Miller (2011) identifies four salient properties of an institution namely structure, function, culture and sanctions. From these dimensions come specific roles that are defined in terms of tasks and the rules that regulate their performance. Miller (2011) explains that these roles are ‘often related to one another’ in the form of a hierarchy and thus ‘involve different levels of status and degrees of authority.’
In moving towards a collaborative and organizational future it is important to acknowledge the problems that afflict the institutional concept. Clay Shirky (2005) identified three interrelated problems. The first of these is an institutional dependence upon various forms of structure – economic, legal and physical – each of which carries the burden of substantial costs to implement and maintain. The second problem is a managerial problem as these institutional structures require employees to manage to ensure that the institution is in a position to achieve its predefined purpose within each structure. Finally, an institution will always be exclusionary due to the structure placing a limitation on the number of people that it can hire. As a natural consequence of this institutions often miss out on vital difference makers. Ina Blau (2011, p. 26) furthers Shirky’s work from six years prior by substantiating an argument that with the increasing costs that institutions face being met by decreasing sales the traditional hierarchic institution is no longer viable.
Due to the rigidity of institutionalism there are no easy fix solutions to the problems inherent in the weaknesses of institutions. Therefore, it is imperative that we change our philosophies and pursue a new approach, an approach that takes advantage of the technological tools of the digital age. The solution can be found in the networked economy. Kevin Kelly (2003) explains that although the network economy has been founded by the developments in technology that it can only be built on relationships. In this we have the vital philosophical change that is so desperately needed. This is because, as Kelly (2003) educates, ‘the value of a network explodes as its membership increases.’ In addition, Kelly explains that the wealth within the new economy is derived from innovation rather than the optimization of the old. The new economy encourages an organizational and collaborative approach that removes the institutional difficulties and costs granting greater flexibility, takes the problems to the individuals rather than moving individuals to the problem, enables the power-law distribution to work and most of all is inclusive rather than exclusive (Shirky, ibid). Blau (ibid, p. 26) explains that the benefit of this approach enabling the power-law distribution, where eighty per cent of the effects are derived from twenty per cent of the causes, is that it enables participants who would only make the one contribution to play their role whereas they were excluded from being part of an institution. Thus, the new approach facilitates online collaboration and organization in ways that institutions simply could not.
To gain an appreciation of just how successful the marriage between digital technologies and the collaborative organizational approach has been we need look no further than Wikipedia. Wikipedia was established in 2001 by Jimmy Wales who advocated ‘for the value of a universal encyclopedia which is accessible to everyone and which rationally puts forward the basic facts about various arguments and controversies in such a manner that newcomers to an issue can understand what the disagreement is about’ (Wales, 2008). This is in stark contrast to the media institutions throughout the world that only push forward the side of the issue in which they support. Further, Wales (ibid) explains that a vital characteristic of the website is that access to the content is free. Arazy, Morgan and Patterson (2006) explain that Wikipedia has been designed with Wiki technology that enables users to edit a webpage and submit new versions immediately replacing the previous version which becomes archived. Further, the trio find that Wikipedia thrives from the theory of the wisdom of the crowds – where the aggregate knowledge of a large group is superior to the knowledge of one or a few experts – with a consequence of this being that the site has demonstrated the quality similar to the leading print-based encyclopedias. Wales (ibid) points to the technology enabling people to contribute in the manner that they choose to rather than being dictated to as being a vital strength of the platform.
As is the case with Wikipedia it is the user community that contributes the value to the platform. Deepwell and King (2009, p. 12) define a community of practice as normally being a ‘professional, social grouping whose members work actively on a shared interest, solving shared problems, sharing and constructing knowledge over time. However, Wasko (2005, p. 37) informs that a community of practice generally meet face-to-face and are confined by geographical location. However, he posits that a network of practice consisting of ‘a larger, loosely knit, geographically distributed group of individuals engaged in a shared practice, but who may not know each other nor necessarily expect to meet face-to-face… Although individuals connected through a network of practice may never know or meet each other face to face, they are capable of sharing a great deal of knowledge.’ Further, Wasko (ibid, p. 37) explains that through modern technology networks of practice have extended their reach and that an electronic network of practice is a ‘self-organizing, open activity system focused on a shared practice that exists primarily through computer-mediated communication’ and that knowledge contributors have no assurances that they will receive anything in return. However, as Wikipedia and numerous other electronic networks of practice have demonstrated there are a significant number of people who are more than willing to contribute to the network. Therefore the next vital area to ascertain what facilitates effective online collaboration and organization is to understand what motivates members of networks of practice.
As one would expect there are a number of different motivators for people contributing knowledge to networks of practice. Blau (ibid, p. 30) identified two different types of motivators – personal motivation including satisfaction, self-efficacy, and intrinsic drive to acquire knowledge and social motivation including a desire to participate in a collective good, a new for support, and a new for belonging to the group. Wasko (2005, p. 57) found that in electronic networks, members of the community contribute knowledge and help others despite a lack of a personal relationship and the realization of the possibility of free-riding by others. Further, Wasko (ibid, p. 57) found that people contribute when they believe it enhances their professional reputation and because it is enjoyable to help others. These contributions are made, according to Wasko (ibid, p. 57), when people have experience to contribute and when they are structurally embedded in the network. However, Wasko found that contributors were not more committed than non-contributors and that they did not seek help in return.
There is an obvious finding that is made in regards to the motivation behind individuals contributing to electronic networks of practice. Although individuals may not seek direct assistance in return for their contributions they do not do so for naught. Rather, what individuals receive has both intrinsic and extrinsic value. From an intrinsic perspective contributors receive the mental satisfaction that they have contributed something of value – a satisfaction that may be the greatest benefit of all. Extrinsically, the contributor places themselves into the enviable position to become renown, achieving expert status within the community, for the valued contributions that they make. The latter may even bring with it financial reward albeit not necessarily directly from the network itself – for example a career opportunity.
It is in the crowd constituting the Bit Torrent network that we can best understand how motivation works to facilitate effective online collaboration and organization. First, despite the well-known use of the application being utilized for the exchange of illegally pirated documents it is important to recognize that there are many legitimate uses for this type of software – companies use it to distribute content, musicians use it to distribute their music and governments have utilized it to distribute information (Kent, 2011, p. 92). It is also significant to note that users of the software are reduced to one of a number of ‘peers’, ‘seeds’, or ‘leeches’ in the swarm as identities are stripped back to a bare minimum (Kent, ibid, p. 93). However, rather from eliminating individual motivation for contributing to the network it exacerbates the motivational factors for doing so. Sirivianos, Park, Chen and Yang (2007, p. 1) explain that Bit Torrent employs a system where those who upload files to other users are rewarded with improved download speeds which is an important motivating factor while Howe (2005, online) discovered that whomever transferred the most files to the most sites in the shortest amount of time won and increased their reputation within the community.
Though being a valued contributor to the platform is no doubt important it is from the legalities aspect that the collective motivation behind the usage of Bit Torrent stands tall. Bill Thompson (2009, online) explains that members of the Bit Torrent community include scores of websites including The Pirate Bay, isoHunt whose self-appointed task is to provide an index for torrents to other members of the community who want to find torrents without actually storing any of the actual content themselves. Many of these websites have become notorious to the point where copyright holders and their supporters attempt to have them shut down. Members of the Swedish Pirate Party, many of whom are members of The Pirate Bay team are simply motivated by working together in solidarity towards a complete reform of global copyright laws and putting an end to patents – a practice that they consider to be ancient and obsolete in the digital age.
As the Bit Torrent network attests to given their ongoing court battles against copyright holders’ a third component in what facilitates effective online collaboration and organization is the interaction between the digital and material world. The cultures and practices that have become accepted into the cultures of the world have also influenced how people access and utilize the technologies that they have available at their disposal. Sassen (2002, p. 366) argues that there is no purely digital economy and no completely virtual corporation or community as digital networks are embedded not only in their technical features and standards of the hardware and software but also in actual societal structures and power dynamics. Further, Sassen (ibid, p. 368) believes that digital space is embedded to the larger societal, cultural, subjective, economic, imaginary structurations of lived experience and the systems within which we exist and operate. That this occurs amplifies and mediates cultures and ultimately destabilizes older hierarchies of scale with the introduction of hypermobility.
Hypermobility, according to Sassen (ibid, p. 372-380), has been pivotal to strengthening the importance of central coordination for firms and markets, has increased the locational options ‘insofar as they [firms and organizations] can maintain system integration no matter where they are located’ and have had a dramatic effect on the spatial correlates of centrality by contributing to the production of counter-geographies of globalization. Sassen (ibid p. 382) believes ‘social activists can use digital networks for global or non-local transactions and they can use them for strengthening local communications inside a city or rural community.’
The movement of collaboration and disaster management is a primary example of the significance of the interaction between the digital and material worlds to the point where it is important not to view them as two individual worlds but as one complete world. One expert in this field is Leysia Palen (2008, p. 76-78) who explains that information and dissemination activities are now performed across all forms of social media – which includes blogs, social networking environments, person-to-person and broadcast messaging, and other Web 2.0 applications – enabling people who choose to participate to connect with one another in new and exciting ways given the limitation of geographical access. In particular, the work of Palen and her associates at the University of Colorado’s Natural Hazards Center enables them to become activists for policy changes, to aid the design of innovative technology and to support new theory about social interaction in disaster events.
Andy Bloxham (2008) reported that some of the research led by Palen found that blogging, maps, photo sites and instant messaging systems were far more effective than traditional sources at providing warnings, assistance and lists of how individuals were affected. The solidified finding in the report compiled and produced by Vieweg, Palen, Liu, Hughes and Sutton (2008) found that rather than rumor-mongering the online collaboration of people who had networked together in the aftermath of the shooting at Virginia Tech worked towards socially-produced accuracy. Thus, the team was of the joint belief that civic participation has the means of playing an important role in disaster response and that it was important that activities based around establishing policy, practice and new technological development are vital.
This essay first found that due to the skyrocketing costs involved in the establishment and ongoing costs of maintaining an institution the institutional model has become outdated and is no longer viable. This essay then identified that an entirely viable alternative to the institutional model moving forward was the organizational and cooperative approach as it resolves the institutional difficulties and costs granting improved flexibility but also takes the problems to the individuals who can solve them rather than moving them to the problem, it enables the power-law distribution to work and it is inclusive rather than exclusive. This essay then argued that a second component of effective online collaboration and organization is the concept of the electronic networks of practice in which motivated members are able to work together both individually and collectively in order to complete goals – in the case of Swedish Pirate Party to affect change in governmental reform. Finally, this essay makes the argument that a vital third component is the interaction between the digital and the material world and the hypermobility generated from this. Further, as collaboration and disaster management has demonstrated these two worlds must not be considered as two separate entities but rather as one whole with the sum being greater than its parts. It is through the elimination of the institutional model combined with the concepts of organizational and cooperative approach, electronic networks of practice as well as motivated members and the hypermobility created through the interaction of the digital and the material that enables effective online collaboration and organization.
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