The Internet and related digital networking platforms facilitate searches for information and the sharing of information and expertise among individuals. In recent years, these behaviours evolved from focusing on information retrieval and sharing to include facilitation and coordination of collaborative problem-solving efforts and distributed co-creation of services and products. Such collaborations, supported by digital networks, often extend beyond the traditional boundaries of organizations and institutions, the social networks of small groups, the subjects of specific disciplines, and the geographic borders of nations. Consequently, they raise concerns over how to best manage networked individuals and realize the potential utility of their activities. This chapter builds on the findings of a series of case studies designed to explore such questions. From the results of these case studies the authors propose a framework for categorizing ‘Collaborative Network Organizations’ (CNOs); one that suggests that value emerges as a result of cultivating particular kinds of relationships and activities within these networks. The authors employ the term ‘cultivation’, instead of management, as the case studies indicated that such efforts often fail if managed too precisely or too restrictively in a “top-down” fashion. Instead, the provision of greater latitude and “bottom-up” autonomy to the individuals involved characterized the more successful CNOs we studied. In addition, the success of CNOs depended on how such efforts reconfigured information and communication flows in ways that supported distributed sharing, generation, or co-creation of content within a wide variety of collaborative contexts, ranging from the conduct of scientific research to problem-solving in business and everyday life. Directly attempting to manage or control CNOs can undermine these networks, whereas indirectly influencing and cultivating desired behaviours and activities can encourage the expansion of productive networking. The authors offer this theoretical framework as a means for better capturing the mechanisms governing collaborative behaviour.
Historical Precedents For Collaborative Network Organizations
The emergence of CNOs represents the latest stage in a forty-year thread of initiatives using computer-based systems to harness distributed expertise. For example, the RAND Corporation developed Delphi techniques in the 1960s to reduce the bias created by influential individuals in the social dynamics of co-located face-to-face groups of experts. Difficulties in soliciting thoughtful responses from experts undermined the perceived value of such techniques, but they remain in use in a variety of contexts.
The potential for computer-based communication networks to enable the sharing of expertise accelerated the drive towards distributed collaboration in the 1970s, to include computer conferencing (Hiltz and Turoff 1978), group decision-support systems, and later initiatives around computer-supported cooperative work (CSCW). The diffusion of personal computers across organizations also led to conceptions of ‘groupware’, computer-supported collaborative work and other digital applications to network individuals and personal computers within and across organizations in the 1980s and 1990s (Johansen 1988; Grudin 1995; and Sproull and Kiesler 1995).