Conventions for Virtual Collaboration

I had a discussion this morning that introduced an interesting thought into my head. I assume we all have at least a cursory awareness of Robert’s Rules of Order. If you’re anything like me (and you probably are in this case), you tend to think of them as stuffy, archaic — even antique arbitrary rules about who gets to talk about what and when in a meeting. Procedural, top-down, forced — that’s how I’d look at this normally. I mean, hell — it’s got “rules” in the title, right?

So the thought that occurred to me is… what if we’re not putting it in a proper context? Maybe Robert’s Rules are more about collaboration than we realize at first blush. More on this in a second. Bookmark this idea:

Goal: Conventions are needed in virtual collaborations.

Now this might or might not be very controversial, but I want to try and use a model that most people are familiar with (Robert’s Rules) and apply it to something that for most people is going to be very foreign: Google Wave.

So let me offer a rhetorical question…

If Google Wave is the next big thing in virtual collaboration, what do the collaborations look like?

If you’ve already received an invite and launched Google Wave, you probably went into it the first time a lot more excited than you walked away from it. Why? Because of one of a handful of reasons. My guess that some or all of these apply to you:

  • You had no one to talk to
  • You couldn’t find a public wave to jump into
  • It was generally buggy or crashed a lot
  • You found a Wave to participate in, but over time it’s nothing really new (except for some stuff like real-time typing). Even that is more of a distractor.
  • You started a public Wave and it got so huge as to lose meaning, crash your browser, crash Wave, etc.
  • The playback feature is buggy, or I’m still not following what’s going on.

Whatever the reason is, there’s a lot of people using Wave right now who are noticing that while there’s a lot of potential in the tool, we’re either a) not sure of what that potential really is; or b) it’s got a long way to go to be useful.

I’ve started a few public waves that picked up traffic. Two in particular (launch them as you will, beware that the Waves are big) include the LrnWave, which became more of a playground for #lrnchat people on Wave and their friends (and general public) and the DevLearn 2009 Public Wave, also public, and meant primarily for DevLearn attendees.

The LrnWave, becoming a playground, is perfectly understandable — I mean, everyone needs a place to play that’s safe so we can learn the tool. It’s not exactly spelled out for you on how to use it, much less get started.

The DevLearn Wave kinda started as a playground, also, but there are some useful things emerging. Example, we started listing our arrival times by airport and time, and that may hopefully allow people to figure out how to rideshare to the hotel (especially from San Francisco). That was a useful first collaboration experiment.

Also in the DevLearn Wave, there’s a couple of Yes/No/Maybe polls that demonstrate some utility of the widgets for Wave. In a synchronous exercise, I think it has a lot of use. It’s useful asynchronously too, but it loses a bit of the impact over the longer term.

Now, Google Wave is in an alpha state — an “early preview” and anyone using it is still getting used to it, so there’s a lot of caveats here. There’s not an established community, even if you think of #lrnchat folks rolling into a new tool — it’s a new thing and no one is an expert at it (which is saying something when no one is an “expert” Twitter user either). All that considered, at a second blush, my observation across several public waves is this: where there’s a structure for people to work within, the wave (or parts of a wave) has been pretty useful/productive (given how it’s been employed). Where there’s no identifiable structure or context, the wave is usually a fancier but buggy BBS.

Supporting Question: Why aren’t we collaborating on something bigger?

IMHO there’s a couple of reasons why we’re not all working on climate change, improving health care in the US, curing cancer, revamping our energy system, tackling rampant obesity and replacing ADDIE with a better workflow for Instructional Design (snark intended). Incomplete, my list of reasons why include:

  1. These are big honking issues that no sub-group of us can just fix for the rest of us.
  2. We mere mortals don’t communicate in ways that easily translate across languages, capabilities, geography, contexts, etc.
  3. Our means of talking to (let alone *with*) each other don’t scale.

Google Wave is a step in the right direction. The tools is pretty much a blank slate when it comes to conventions. Most public waves I’ve seen have little to know organizational model; my guess is the participants aren’t thinking about it (so it’s like a chat to them or a BBS — anything but an actual “Wave”) OR they’re waiting for the organizational model to emerge organically from the users who continue to habit a particular Wave. All fine and good.

But if you want to use Wave right now… and by “use” I mean leverage the tool to accomplish something with a group… you need to have common expectations of how you’re going to work together, just like you’d have to have if you were working with people in a conference room, synchronously face-to-face. There are two waves that have been brought to my attention that seek to at least identify standards for moderation of Waves (from a facilitation perspective) and etiquette (what’s expected behavior).

I won’t repeat what’s on those waves. If you have an account you can go yourself. What I’d point out is that a very high level, if you moderate a group in the real world with rational, exptected behaviors and you’re working with any real community (maybe we’re talking about your colleagues at work, peers at a conference, #lrnchat folks, etc) where there are social mores and customs — there are conventions for how you behave in those communities, whether you readily acknowledge them or not.

#lrnchat does it all the time in terms of etiquette. The rules shared at the beginning of every session include the litany:

  1. Introduce yourself. (We do this again at the end). Location? Focus? Fave topics?
  2. [try to] stay on the #lrnchat topic. A new question will be asked every 20 min or so. If you can, include Q# in related responses.
  3. When writing, complete thoughts help followers outside chat learn from you.
  4. on #lrnchat we aim to play nice. Sarcasm, welcome tho.
  5. Periodically RT questions so others outside #lrnchat know what you’re talking about so they can chime in.
  6. Remember to include the #lrnchat in all posts. http://tweetchat.com, http://tweetgrid.com & http://twubs.com/lrnchat work well.
  7. 10 min before end, tell us if you need anything from the other #lrnchat participants. Time to reintroduce yourself, too. Links welcome.
  8. Please RT important points and vital questions asked for clarification, so we don’t miss them amid the lively and fast-paced #lrnchat

The format of every #lrnchat follows a model, or pattern that is predictable, so the community can immediately conduct itself even in absence of some of the facilitators. The model for #lrnchat, as an example, is:

Introductions -> Deep Question -> Practical Question -> Out-of-the-box Question -> Reintroduce & Cleanup

Pretty much every #lrnchat follows this model. The simple, predictable structure is, I’m convinced, a major reason why it is gaining in strength instead of devolution. Even in an open medium like Twitter, to accomplish certain types of collaborative goals, there must be an adopted structure that the community accepts: an “order” if you will.

Hence the tie-in to Robert’s Rules of Order. They’re adopted by a community (be they legislators in government, executive boards, community groups, 4H, whatever) so that groups that convene regularly to accomplish something can get things done in ways that are acceptable and desireable by the community. From the history of Robert’s Rules itself…

“Henry Martyn Robert was an engineering officer in the regular Army. Without warning he was asked to preside over a public meeting being held in a church in his community and realized that he did not know how. He tried anyway and his embarrassment was supreme. This event, which may seem familiar to many readers, left him determined never to attend another meeting until he knew something of parliamentary law.”

Why would he need to preside over a meeting in his community? Anyone? My guess is that the group that was meeting didn’t know how to get anything done, and even with his own set of assumptions, he couldn’t get the group to adopt any framework to have a productive discussion without a model that everyone could understand. It’s my guess. If you actually geek out on this stuff and know more, please share in the comments below.

Anyway, if you can accept that shared adopted models for collaboration help (not necessarily agree or subscribe to that idea), here’s another

Supporting Question: What models might work for virtual collaborations to build/share learning?

Let’s take a look at the meta of this post. Because, in fact, I’ve been modeling a model for you already.

Up towards the top, there’s an H1 to define our Goal. This could be our theme, focus, idea, whatever — it’s the way in which we’re going to categorize our shared conversations and collaborations. It’s what we’re working toward; what we’re talking about.

Now to meet a Goal, we need to generate as much focused discussion as we can WITHOUT telling ourselves what to say. What we want to do is create channels for discussion. I’m using H2 Questions (only one here so far) to help define some context with plenty of room for discussion, debate, disagreement and hopefully new perspectives.

These bigger questions, however, are likely too big in and of themselves to draw meaningful, actionable takeaways in a group. That’s why we need H3 Supporting Questions. They might help draw out some granular points of discussion that might be actionable.

This model I’m using in this post is just an idea. I’m trying to organize a public Wave discussion that I’d facilitate using this model. I’m also planning on using it in my session at DevLearn so that people who join in virtually might be able to follow better in real-time and after the event. Rather than just one linear flow of information (like a presentation), I want to have a discussion and try and maintain it both in the physical space and time we’ll share at DevLearn AND virtual, synchronously and then structured for asynchronously post-game.

Anyway, I know this is a long post. I hope this engages you and I hope you’ll comment with your own goals and questions for us to continue this discussion.