Government // Mobile & Wireless
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6/18/2012
04:30 PM
Venkatesh Rao
Venkatesh Rao
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A Crowdsourced Definition of Collaboration

Socially speaking, are you most comfortable working in teams, tribes, or co-groups? Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

You're either inside or outside a team, but membership in a collaborating group is a matter of how much you show up. You can be anywhere on the spectrum from completely indifferent to completely invested.

Collaboration Vs. Tribework

Tribes emerge from what anthropologists and sociologists call segmentary societies, which have an internal structure based on segmentary lineages (most commonly family-based). As an Arab saying puts it: me against my brother, me and my brother against my cousin, me and my cousin against the stranger. Such societies are highly autonomous at the lowest level, so the larger groupings aren't necessary for economic survival. There's low dependency among units and a great deal of homogeneity among them.

Tribes come together based on shared identity, for temporary shared objectives (which is nearly always to combat a shared threat), under situational leadership. And then they disband. Crucially, non-zero-sum creativity and economic production occur at the lowest level (individuals and families), with higher-level groupings coming together only for zero-sum purposes such as warfare.

Tribes still exist. Occupy Wall Street is a very large tribe (albeit one whose emergence was catalyzed by a savvy marketing agency).

When sub-tribes band together to fight an enemy, they do so because they have a shared social identity at a certain level (for example, "Arab" vs. "Turk" in the 19th century). The shared experiences are later incorporated into different (and conflicting) narratives after the grouping disbands.

In contrast, participating in a co-group like the "WordPress community" involves little by way of shared identities, but the shared narrative is much stronger and persists at a global level: the community stewards the "story of blogging."

This is probably my most controversial claim: Tribes produce nothing. Only sub-tribal groupings like families produce. Tribes exist either to fight zero-sum battles or to create shared social capital through identity-strengthening experiences. The output of a tribe generally has no value outside the tribe and cannot be exported. So examples used by people who focus on sub-cultural tribes (rock climbing, surfing) at best create videos that the rest of the world may occasionally glance at.

Tribes share behaviors (like surfing or rock climbing or picketing Wall Street). By contrast, members of a co-group do different things that can fit together into an organic whole. Co-group members may violently disagree with one another on ideological matters (both liberals and conservatives use WordPress, for instance).

While co-groups have the deep mutual interdependence that you find within a team (with its rational, top-down division of labor), the dependencies are generally weaker. So the WordPress co-group involves core developers, casual developers, plug-in developers, theme developers, and bloggers themselves. Whereas the work of a team is like a precision-engineered Swiss watch, with many points of system failure. Most failures in co-group work will not crash the system.

So there you have it: teams, tribes and co-groups. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Pick your social poison.

New apps promise to inject social features across entire workflows, raising new problems for IT. In the new, all-digital Social Networking issue of InformationWeek, find out how companies are making social networking part of the way their employees work. Also in this issue: How to better manage your video data. (Free with registration.)

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