Collaboration: Are More Heads Better?
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Rick Dove, Paradigm Shift International,,

My wife still comments when she catches me talking to myself - though I don’t do it like I used to. In my pre-teen and teen-age years I would have raging debates with myself - when nobody was around, of course. It would start civilly enough: One voice would propose a newly surmised truth and another would question its validity. Typically it would escalate into an impassioned argument between a thoughtful, logical view and an emotional, political view. I remember these ending usually with some intense feeling of accomplishment and pride, reason having vanquished emotion, or at least understanding the many facets of a different view. Sometimes the emotional voice won, smirking as it helped the reasoning side tie itself into a knot of contradictions.
   It’s so much easier to think out loud, why does it carry such a social stigma? That’s not the question we’ll pursue here; we just observe that thinking is a lot like collaborating with yourself, or maybe with an imagined second party.
   I’ve always thought it was easier to collaborate with myself than with others: Committees design camels, meetings waste a lot of time, others don’t see things in the same light, and it’s hard to help them value what you know if they haven’t fought the same demons. My engineering education reinforces these feelings - give me the requirements and the handbooks and creating a solution is a pretty efficient solitary process.
   Different engineers do, however, come up with different designs. Maybe some have better handbooks than others, or maybe they have better conversations with themselves - somehow some are more innovative than others. When you consider the innovation factor engineering isn’t so straight forward after all.
   This is true for all knowledge work, not just engineering. Any group of professionals has its pecking order. When your ability to solve a problem or explain an effect or respond to a situation is based on the knowledge you have, more knowledge generates more value.

Good collaboration is not
compromise and consensus;
it is an amplified learning activity.

It’s been some time since I’ve practiced engineering. The problems I wrestle with today don’t have the handbooks and formulas and clear knowledge that engineering relies upon - things like strategies and plans, organizational and human productivity, methods for changing a corporate culture - things that are impacted by the complexity and dynamics of the business environment.
   Under these conditions my feelings about collaboration are very different. I’ve found that I can learn and innovate much better in collaboration with others when the knowledge we collectively explore and create is not so linear and unequivocal. Working toward a common objective with a bunch of people who think and learn and know differently still has its tear-your-hair-out moments, but that’s the price of unparalleled results.
   With this realization I’ve become curious about the mechanisms and conditions that promote efficient and productive collaborative thought and learning, and about the types of applications that benefit from collaboration. There are still many projects I’d rather do alone; though now I know many of those would be better with at least some collaboration - even the straight forward engineering jobs.
   That phrase straight forward is the fallacy. New knowledge is being developed at such a furious pace in virtually every field that complexity and change dynamics are the reality everywhere - the handbook and the past knowledge is necessary but no longer sufficient.
   Remember when listening to the voice of the customer became the politically correct thing for product designers? This pays big dividends when it is a true collaborative learning activity. Unfortunately, collaborative skills and methodologies did not come as part of the package for most, and the result was a one-way communication with poor results and occasional outright disaster.
   Let’s not make collaboration politically correct. Simply deciding to collaborate with others on a certain objective doesn’t mean it will be productive. There are times when collaborative learning is more efficient and more innovative, and times when it is not.
   Pierre Dillenbourg and Daniel Schneider at the University of Geneva’s School of Psychology and Education have investigated the mechanisms that are at work during collaborative learning. The accompanying table is my simplified adaptation of the eight mechanisms they review. A little reflection on these helps my reasoning voice debate my emotional voice when I consider collaborating with someone.

Adapted from Collaborative Learning and the Internet, Dillenbourg and Schneider, ICCIA, 1995

1. Disagreement. Collaboration is a social activity between two or more people, and governed very much by the culture and language the participants have in common. When people come together to pursue a common objective it is likely that they will disagree at some point. Social factors swing into gear and prevent them from ignoring the conflict. This is as true for slight differences in viewpoint as it is for clearly opposing views.

2. Alternative. Bring together different people and you will bring together different viewpoints and conclusions. Most of us tend to define our problems in terms of solutions we can understand. Another viewpoint my not disagree or conflict with ours, but it may offer an alternative interpretation of the same data. Hearing alternatives helps us abandon less reasoned or less sensible conclusions that otherwise go unquestioned. These first two mechanisms are strong arguments for diversity in collaborative group makeup.

3. Explanation. When we verbalizes or write down a thought sequence or procedure for the first few times we learn while transforming tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge. We’ve all experienced teaching something we know to someone else, and learning new things about it in the course of making it understandable to a different mind. Thus, collaborative partners who know more about the subject than others learn and benefit from the interaction as well.

4. Internalization. This is the act of integrating new concepts into your internal reasoning that are conveyed during interactive conversation with a more knowledgeable person. Two conditions must be met for this to occur: 1) you must be an active participant in the joint problem solution, and 2) the concepts conveyed by the more knowledgeable person must be close enough to what you already know to integrate readily.

5. Appropriation. Similar to internalization but more overt, appropriation is the active reinterpretation of a concept based on how it is incorporated into a larger schema by a more knowledgeable person. This is the primary mechanism at work in apprenticeship learning - where actions are modified by the learner based on how the results are appropriated and integrated by the more skilled of the two.

6. Shared load. This is not a division of labor by chopping a learning or development task into different parts and then assembling a solution later; but rather a unique collective ability to monitor different levels of conceptual development simultaneously. Sort of like one person thinking at the tree level, another at the forest level, and a third at the ecological level while all wrestle together with a problem about wood farming. Each takes responsibility for integrating consistency at their level of focus. It is very difficult for a single individual to operate at multiple meta-levels simultaneously - so this division of labor is natural in that it is efficient for the group to work this way.

7. Regulation. Members of a collaborative group often have to justify why the thought is proceeding in a certain direction. This justification activity makes the strategic knowledge explicit, and has a mutual regulatory effect, which tends to keep the development on solid ground.

8. Synchronicity. Collaborators attempt to keep each synchronized with the same level of understanding. Each monitors the developing understandings in others, and attempts to correct any mis-conveyed or misunderstood communication. People are not talking at each other but with each other.

Good collaboration is not compromise and consensus; it is an amplified learning activity. A good collaboration will, however, produce a result that looks comfortably familiar to all participants - it is not one person’s design or strategy or discovery with a few other ideas thrown in. The collaboration process helps everyone understand the total concept to the depth of ownership - even if some of the ideas don’t get published exactly the way you would have resolved them, you at least understand why they are resolved the way they are. Collaboration does not remove the need for individual judgement. What each of us learns is private and individual.
   Collaborative efforts also produce a collective learning that occurs outside of any individual, and manifests itself in the way the group collectively behaves and deals with the result. This learning emerges from the interactions of all of the different individual learning’s as they play out the organizational operating dance. More on this later.

1998 RKDove - Attributed Copies Permitted
Essay #047 - Originally Published 11/98 at

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From:  (Sarah Graff) Date: Sun, 3 Feb 2002
I would love to see if there are any additional articles or opinions on the negative effects of collaborative learning.

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From:   (Rick Dove) Date: Tue, 5 Feb 2002
Sarah - I hadn't looked upon this essay as exposing the negative effects of collaborative learning - but rather as voicing the inner feelings of many people who shun the collaborative process. Your interpretation has caused me to look at what was said in a new light.

I believe I read in a book about Communities of Practice (perhaps that was even the title), coauthored by John Seely Brown, the observation that communities of practice, really collaborative bodies, can just as easily be the cause and source of insular and unhealthy thoughts as they can the opposite. I'm sure the book is referring to business situations, but such is true regardless.

To recall one very extreme case, there was the story of Jim Jones of the People's Temple, in Jonestown, Guyana during the mid-70's. After killing a congressman and four others who came to investigate their activities: "Fearing retribution, the project members discuss their options. They reach a consensus to commit group suicide. 638 of his adult followers and 276 children died."

Now that's negative. Though perhaps not what you think of as a typical collaborative learning environment, it was nevertheless a consensus reached by a large group of people who I can only believe convinced each other over time (moths/years) that their strange way of thinking was valid, especially their thinking that Jim Jones was someone to take seriously.

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