Glacial Erratics

Collaboration Requires Goals

September 30, 2003

A coworker asked why I think FreeLinks are a bad idea on Wikis. The following is what I created in response. Most of it is something I need to get off my chest about the nature of collaboration that I felt was important context for my thoughts on SharedLanguage.    (ME)

Responding to a query from Joe about why I don't like FreeLinks: To explain that I first need to cover SharedLanguage. This is a rough draft of some stuff I've been thinking about for a while. It could be much better. I use the first three quarters to grind an axe.    (MF)

There is, to me, on ongoing misconception amongst some of the collaborative scholars with whom I've interacted. It's centered around the question of whether a SharedGoal? is a prerequisite of collaborative action (SharedAction?) or a SharedGoal? might emerge from collaborative activity.    (MG)

From another perspective this is a question asking whether collaboration occurs to accomplish something (a something which is a pre-existing condition of some kind), thus is emergent from known need or can happen by fiat or construction.    (MH)

In my opinion, successful collaboration occurs when there is a SharedGoal? that exists and is known by at least some major portion of a group that gathers in some space to work on it (use of the term work is not meant to suggest lack of fun: people do work (spend energy) when having fun together). Effective collaboration does not emerge from people getting together to do unspecified stuff because they think it might be nice.    (MI)

A SharedGoal? can be something straightforward like painting a fence, or start from an abstract (but articulated) idea such as a wish for sustainable lifestyles.    (MJ)

The SharedGoal? provides focus (or gravity to use CollaborationPhysics) for a group, an answer to the questions "Why are we here?" and "What are we supposed to be doing?" The answers may be concrete or abstract, but they exist, at least in the sense that anything exists.    (MK)

Abstract shared goals are hard to act upon until they have been clarified to one or more concrete goals. In some situations concrete goals may crystallize into individual goals, in other situations a concrete SharedGoal? is created ("We are going to make a low cost solar generator for homes.").    (ML)

Crystallization of goals occurs through discussion, through the evolution of understanding and knowledge. Awareness of concrete goals can, in good circumstances, lead to action. SharedAction? is created out of SharedUnderstanding?.    (MM)

For SharedUnderstanding? to exist amongst a group of people, they must have or develop SharedLanguage. SharedLanguage is the collection of concepts and terms used to encapsulate the information shared between members of a group. Jargon exists in many disciplines to encapsulate large concepts in shortened form to ease the flow of ideas that lead to SharedUnderstanding? and eventually SharedAction?.    (MN)

A common thought (at least I've heard it a lot) about collaboration is that when people get together they may develop SharedLanguage, and thus the SharedUnderstanding? that leads to SharedAction?. That is, the simple act of getting together is the crucial catalyst. I do not think this is true: the crucial catalyst is the SharedGoal? that is brought to the space and has some existence in the minds of the participants prior to gathering. If the SharedGoal? does not exist, or is not held in common trust, then the activity in which the group engages is not collaboration but is instead a game of "who can I convince to think in tandem with me" played by whichever participants are most fluent in the fledgling language of the group.    (MO)

It is possible for a group to transform from people who need to be convinced to a collaborating group. This usually happens through leadership: someone or something takes the lead and converts the participants to belief in a goal that is now a SharedGoal? and was once a (lowercase) goal brought to the group.    (MP)

SharedGoals?, once they are acknowledge to exist, need to be clarified. SharedLanguage, therefore, needs to emerge. As many of the concepts under discussion are incomplete or complex, shorthand is helpful.    (MQ)

This is where WikiWords come in as a helpful tool. In asynchronous modes of communication the eyebrow raise, hand waving, tone of voice or trenchant gaze that indicate an important concept are not present. Something else is needed to indicate a sense of "this is important" and perhaps more importantly "I think this might be important". For a group that has trained into the behavior WikiWords do this very well. The smashed camel case says: there's something here and it is more than a simple hypertextual link: it is a Word, a Name, a Label, an Identifier of something that matters or will matter soon.    (MR)

FreeLinks and other styles of wiki linking which obscure the canonical page name muddy the conceptual waters: both the waters that contain wiki words and also the significance of WikiWords themselves. When using the WikiWords we want them to be special identifiers that have the robust sureness of reference and power that a name provides.    (MS)

When we use the nicknames that FreeLinks and similar methods provide we lose the power of naming and the sureness of reference. It may be convenient to call something by another name, but then we loosen our possibilities of learning. Searches become harder, backlinks are lost, the chance for informative collisions amongst WikiWords is lessened.    (MT)

[To be tuned at another time.]    (MU)

Update: Eric has pointed out that I had left FreeLinks rather undefined. I've since added a page to the wiki to explain it.    (N4)