Collaboration Tools the Shirky Ladder

This post originally appeared as part of the GTEC 2013 Blog4549099_HiRes

Collaboration is a word you hear a lot these days, and its one of GTEC13’s theme words.  In the Government of Canada (GC) Public Service context, the Chief Information Officer, Clerk of the Privy Council and the President of the Treasury board have all called for increased collaboration between departments in the service of Canadians.  A few years ago when I had the title Senior Director of “Collaborative Tools” I set out to understand the word better. The short form of the definition I came away with was that collaboration is a group of people coming together to solve a problem.

Of course, there is more to it than that.

Three Levels of Collaboration

One of the most cited books on the impact of the Internet on group dynamics is “Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations” by Clay Shirky, 2008.  Shirky describes  three levels of collaboration:  sharing, cooperation and collective action. These levels exist on a ladder of increasing commitment, risk and reward.  Understanding the levels reveals important nuances in meaning that have significant impacts in making the most of collaboration tools.

1. Sharing is Easy

The first level is sharing. Sharing creates few demands on participants. All you have to do is make content available where others can find it. When I tweet a link or update my LinkedIn status I am sharing. Sharing is a happy by-product of working transparently, and can take very little effort but have a profound impact when a connection is made. My criteria for sharing is that the information be safe and potentially useful to others.  Sharing broadly, across departments, is important because it creates a critical mass of information connections that allows for serendipitous discovery and cost-effective re-use of information assets.  Sharing also sets the stage for the more advanced levels of collaboration by establishing some common knowledge and awareness of individual interests and experience.

Responsible sharing is the single most important thing each of us can do to realize the potential of our collective knowledge and begin the journey to a more collaborative culture.

2. Cooperating Means Change

Cooperating is the second level and it is harder than sharing because it means “changing your behavior to synchronize with others who are changing their behavior to synchronize with yours” (Shirky,2008).  When we agree to meet and make the effort to accommodate busy schedules we are cooperating at the simplest level. Co-creating a document is a more advanced form of cooperating. Cooperating creates community, because unlike sharing  you know the individuals you are cooperating with. There is a degree of shared risk and reward.  Conversational skills are important because we need to  understanding  both the shared goal and who is going to do what.  Cooperating means adhering to some mutually agreed upon standards while remaining flexible. Cooperating between departments in particular is a competency that we need to grow if we really want a more agile government.

3. Collective Action is Hard

Collective Action is the third and rarest level of collaboration. Collective Action is when a group of people truly commit themselves to a shared effort, it is an “all in” kind of thing with shared risk, reward and accountability. In an organizational context, (think Westminster silos), shared accountability can be extremely challenging because of the lack of enabling and enforcing mechanisms between departments.  All too often good intentions are lost in a tragedy of the commons as individuals become motivated by personal gain over collective good. Collective Action may be rare but it is a worthy aspirational goal for those that have mastered Sharing and Cooperation.

Different Tools for Different Levels

In the world of IT systems, vendors and advocates for particular solutions sometimes use the word of the day to help sell their product, and “collaboration solution” is a recent example.  When we view collaboration in the light of Shirky’s levels, it makes it easier to understand the value that different tools bring to the equation.

To share widely you need  open enterprise wide tools like GCpedia and GCconnex that can be accessed by everyone in the Public Service.  For formal cooperative projects you may require document  security and management work flows that proprietary  tools provide.  For collective action, we need changes to the mechanics of government before tools can hope to have much impact.

As the GC gears up for more horizontal collaboration, agility and mobility, it is important to remember that collaboration is not a tool—collaboration is an iterative social process. Collaboration is people, (you know the soft squishy things walking around in the office), working together, often in a very dynamic and ad hoc kind of way.

At its most basic, a collaboration tool’s job is to make it easier for a group of people to find each other and come together to solve a problem.  The design paradigm behind the tool can have a profound impact on the types of collaboration that are possible – some are oriented towards sharing, while others are more about control. A single enterprise collaboration solution may be neither practical or desirable, rather an ecosystem of tools, connected by standards, may be the only way to enable the full range of collaborative behaviours the future demands.

The First Step is Simple

Collaboration can be formal and structured or it can be organic and come together in an informal way. Collaboration can mean sharing, cooperating or collective action. Achieving the highest levels of collaboration is hard, but fortunately the first step is pretty easy, simply do what you learned in kindergarten and remember to share.


Shirky, C. (2008). Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin Books.

Image credit: iStockphoto,  Illustration File #4549099, contributor Mightyisland


About Thom Kearney

Change agent, teacher, arts, science, open government, father, mentor, storyteller, husband, dog owner,collaborator, not necessarily in that order.
This entry was posted in Collaboration, Culture, Gov 2.0. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Collaboration Tools the Shirky Ladder

  1. Pingback: The Importance of Open | NuSum

  2. Pingback: The Importance of Open – Canadian Government Executive

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