People who collaborate in our digitally connected 21st century society require a new combination of strategic, cross-cultural, team and technical skills. Incorporating electronic communications within and across fields is a requirement, not a choice, for many contemporary collaborative efforts. Scholarly researchers are challenged to study the complex changes associated with technological innovation and to illuminate impacts of these changes, evaluate effective approaches, and address related needs of organizations and individuals. This book presents a collection of empirical work that examines techniques, strategies and effects of electronic collaboration across disciplines and sectors.
Examples of online collaboration in practice are evident across the World Wide Web. People write collaboratively on wikis, even creating an encyclopedia. They collaborate to design, implement, test and improve on open source software. They collaborate to contribute to the blogosphere, build virtual environments in Second Life and organize events for the people who visit those environments. Immediate two-way communication through email, instant messaging, voice over Internet, online conferencing, virtual environments, mobile devices and other modes has changed the way organizations operate by opening the door for dialogue where monologue had been the norm. The early Internet supported text-only exchanges between scientists and government researchers. Today, increased access to the Internet and wide availability of sophisticated software enable colleagues and partners, teachers and students, businesses and customers to easily use audio, visual and text to communicate, regardless of geographic location.
Business writers point out that "mass collaboration on the Internet is shaking up business. The economic role of social behavior is increasing” (Hof, 2005 p. 1). Peer-to-peer exchange is moving from entertainment to other industries including finance, publishing and energy (McGonigal, 2008; Stalnaker, 2008; Tapscott & Williams, 2008). Work is shifting toward greater interdependence among individuals to create collective and synergistic products and services using advanced technology. Companies, social sector agencies and individuals are collaborating to solve complex problems (Clark, 2008; Cooper, 2007; Easton, 2003 p. 87). Others are brought to electronic collaboration out of necessity because of geographically dispersed teams, budgets that no longer support travel for face-to-face meetings or to access a specific member or expert. Governmental agencies relate to other agencies and to citizens across the Internet (Makia, 2006). Online education—which typically requires learners to discuss and exchange ideas electronically—is a growth industry at all levels, from K-12 to Ph.D. (Seaman, 2007).
As technology has enabled more people in more places to work online, the expectations placed on electronic collaborations have multiplied, sometimes in advance of the social, technological or administrative structures to appropriately support them. New approaches to education and training benefit those in any field who will lead, manage and work collaboratively. Some managers and educators perceive these shifts, and are purposefully using assignments and projects that require online collaboration to encourage development of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills.
In this changing environment one point is evident: to succeed in any field, scholars and practitioners must cross boundaries between disciplines and cultures. Peter Senge, a leading thinker in organizational systems theory, observes: "it’s no longer possible to create positive results in isolation" (Senge, 2003 p. 3). The Handbook of Research on Electronic Collaboration and Organizational is designed to introduce readers to important examples across sectors broadly categorized as education, business and government/social sector. Electronic collaboration is very different in each sector, allowing readers to explore potentially transferrable approaches and methodologies.
Exploring Electronic Collaboration in Education, Business and Government/Social Sectors
The Handbook of Research on Electronic Collaboration and Organizational Synergy is divided into three sections. Each section includes chapters concerning collaboration between entities (Inter-Organizational Collaboration), as well as collaboration within entities (Intra-Organizational Collaboration). While the term “organization” is used, collaborative partners may be individual learners, writers, consultants or enrepreneurs.
Education, for the purpose of this book, refers to schools, academic institutions and higher education. Inter-Organizational Collaboration includes partnerships between educational institutions, between those institutions and other types of organizations, or working relationships between researchers at different institutions. Intra-Organizational Collaboration in this context focuses on pedagogy for collaborative e-learning and team learning in the classroom or mentoring between peer learners or instructors and learners. Intra-Organizational Collaboration additionally includes professional development or administrative practices between individuals or departments of the institution.
Business, for the purpose of this book, refers broadly to the private sector. Inter-Organizational Collaboration describes partnerships, alliances or exchanges between businesses, businesses and other entities or businesses and customers. Intra-Organizational Collaboration in this context describes collective efforts by virtual work groups or teams within a single organization; it could also describe the technologies or systems used to facilitate such collaboration.
Government/Social Sector, for the purpose of this book, refers primarily to the public sector. This broad category encompasses governmental bodies or agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and non-profit organizations. Inter-Organizational Collaboration describes partnerships, alliances or exchanges between entities including governments and citizens. These collaborations serve policy formation, implementation or service delivery. Intra-Organizational Collaboration in this context describes collective efforts by virtual work groups within an organization or community.
Some of the chapters on inter-organizational collaboration cross sectors. Contributions represent twenty countries and half of the chapters that deal with inter-organizational collaborations describe work that crosses cultures and national boundaries. Intra-organizational collaborations may still cross functions or departments. Take together, these chapters offer a diverse picture of the possibilities for e-collaboration.
The word collaborate has its origins in the Latin word collaborare, "to work together" (OED, 2005). Theorists and researchers have expanded on this basic definition.
The working definition for this book is: collaboration is an interactive process that engages two or more participants who work together to achieve outcomes they could not accomplish independently. The particular interest of this book is electronic collaboration, where the “interactive process” is conducted using information and communications technologies (ICT). Since participants typically work in an organizational context, other enabling or obstructing factors may exist. Those are explored through the study of organizational synergy, which is defined for this book as: an open, integrated process (strategic, operational, procedural and cultural) that fosters collaboration and encourages participants to expand connections beyond typical boundaries and achieve innovative outcomes.
Building on these definitions, the editors have developed a model with roots in multiple disciplines. The Collaborative Integration Paradigm offers a conceptual framework for investigating and classifying inter- and intra-organizational processes. It is presented in the chapter “Analysis and Recommendations for Future Research” to aid readers who want to analyze the dimensions of collaboration described in this Handbook.
Handbook of Research on Electronic Collaboration and Organizational Synergy:
A Contribution to the Literature
How are scholars studying these phenomena and what are they adding to the knowledge of online collaboration, and the organizational practices that support it? The Handbook is designed to address three major gaps evident in contemporary scholarly work:
1. Need for new theories and models that focus on organizational practices necessary for successful online collaboration. Few studies specifically examine communication processes, organizational or leadership practices that encourage or hinder the development of working relationships needed to build and sustain online collaboration. Studies from public-private sector management and education disciplines lack adequate focus on the structure, organization and developmental process of collaborationor degrees of collaboration.
Much of the literature and most of the theories were conceived prior to the advent of the Internet forvery different purposes and realities than those present today. Without theoretical models that explain such distinctions, research cannot address questions of how to match different types of collaboration to different circumstances.
2. Need for interdisciplinary exchange of findings. Electronic collaboration is being used and studied in different fields, but the findings are typically shared in journals or at conferences within disciplinary boundaries.
For example, the literature shows commonalities between public and private sector management and education disciplines with regard to the relationship between collaboration and learning. Whether it entails transfer of knowledge, exchange of expertise or creative problem solving, learning occurs through collaborative experiences whether in the workplace or the classroom. Analyzing research from both fields shows where the findings reinforce each other. At the same time, the literature points to ways through which cross-pollination between education, the social and private sectors could be mutually beneficial by improving understanding of successful instructional design or teaching practices. Researchers looking at collaboration and learning might be able to address common problems more comprehensively by working together. Yet, as Chris Huxham points out:
Little attempt has been made to clarify the ways in which the [collaboration] literature inter-relates…There is little cross-referencing of material from one discipline to another and many authors appear oblivious to any other relevant research (Hibbert & Huxham, 2005 p. 1).
Huxham observes similar issues among practitioners, in which people found it difficult to "communicate across different professional and natural languages and different organizational and professional cultures" (Huxham, 2003 p. 406). Few conduits exist for communicating theories, research methods or findings across disciplines. As a result, advances in one field are rarely transferred to others.
3. Need to consider potential impact of electronic communications. Many researchers use electronic tools to communicate with research associates, or may explore situations in which research subjects use electronic tools to communicate. However, they rarely collect data or analyze the effects of those online communications on the success of the project. They do not consider added factors involved when the interaction occurs through written, rather than verbal communication. Studies typically lack empirical exploration of factors such as cost-effectiveness, inclusion and participation in collaborative projects that use electronic technologies.
In this book, contributing authors begin to address these needs using diverse models and examples that demonstrate scholarly exploration of online collaboration. They examine the process of collaboration and, in many cases they exemplify collaborative processes in their own co-authorship. By presenting studies from education, business and the social sectors side by side, it is hoped that the book can open up new opportunities for cross-disciplinary exchange.
Readers who explore methods and theories from their own and other disciplines may find that they can use the Handbook of Research as a platform for new and innovative discoveries about electronic collaboration. Whether you are in a classroom, research institution, corporate office, laboratory or social service agency, we invite you to be active in the study and practice and contribute to the future research in this evolving field.