Last time, I looked at the essential stages of collaboration, and I promised to fill things out with an example. I found one in my hometown newspaper with a front-page story about a natural gas pipeline proposal. Unsurprisingly, there are concerns about the business needs and jobs on the one side and the environment, property values, and health issues on the other. Since the proposed route passes two km from my house, I dug into the issue. I found it provides the possibility for a medium-sized collaboration of medium-sized complexity – so it has benefits as an example to help in understanding facilitated collaboration.
The five stages of collaboration from last time are Fact-Finding, Proposals and Options, Decisions, Action, and Evaluation. I consider each in turn. This post will focus on the first, with others dealt with in future posts.
Fact-Finding–In this case, many facts are still unknown since the pipeline company has not publicized its proposal. Nevertheless, issues have been raised regarding the pathway, right of ways, legal requirements for environmental studies, risks of explosions, day-to-day processes (such as cleaning the line), alerts and evacuation plans, costs, liabilities, risk assessments, governance, health concerns, appeal processes, government responsibilities, inspections, and more.
Stakeholders range from homeowners to environmental groups to the pipeline company to regulators to health authorities to natural gas producers. How do the pieces come together so important facts are raised, questions are answered, false rumors are squelched and the vital interests of all parties are heard?
One tool I’ve used is the IBM Jam. This might be thought of as a delimited, specialized social network to explore an issue or opportunity. It provides mechanisms to orient and inform, create discussion among diverse groups on the dimensions of the issue/opportunity, and sort and categorize topics by a combination of text analysis and processing by experts. To an extent, proposals may be offered as well, but, in the instances I’ve seen, full and integrated proposals are developed after the Jam by traditional means.
For a Jam, Preparation is key to success.
- Orientation is built in, with references, video, and discussion of the scope and intent of the jam. Discussions have leaders, with statements and bios as part of the process. Expectations are set with regard to what the Jam cannot achieve. Moving further: One thing that might be considered if part of the collaboration is face-to-face is using something like Google Glass to provide real-time information on the backgrounds of participants and, perhaps, the augmented reality approach can extend detection of stress to audio advice on how to keep discussions civil. Given the heat of online discussion on the pipeline, such automated facilitation keeps a team of rivals working together without undo animosity.
- Jam governance is explicit. This includes rules of discussion and etiquette, and the Jam structure facilitates finding facts and opinions, as well as asking experts questions. Moving further: Face-to-face meetings have adopted rules such as Robert’s Rules of Order to organize directed discussions. Such conventions might be modularized and made available, perhaps even as mash-ups to fit a need, and this could be facilitated by automated assignment of, say, speaking turns.
- Determination of topic areas is done by experts (in jamming and the subject matter). In my opinion, this helped with focus, but cramped discussion. Moving further: As an alternative, it might be useful to create a sort of Issue Wikipedia. Let the different interest groups set up the topics that matter to them ahead of the real discussion so all dimensions of the issue are presented.
- Text analysis and active intervention by experts help to focus attention and direct discussions, but my experiences were not good in the Jam. All too often, posts by individuals did not reflect what had already been said, leading to a lack of progress and limited building on the best ideas. Moving further: Better orientation might help. It might be interesting to move to gaming to teach people the rules, provide a foundation on the issues at hand, and make them aware of what resources are available. An added benefit of a well-designed game would be building trust between parties, qualifying the skill levels of participants, and helping people to find the roles that will maximize their contributions. It would be wonderful if some people, for instance, were dedicated to adding to ideas or connecting them.
Eventually, it would be helpful to have automated fact-checking, alerts on logical fallacies. Posts (or sections of posts) might be coded according to whether they are facts, opinions, or ideas. Violations of etiquette might lead to time-outs and education. Awareness might be facilitated by having the system profile reading and participation and making “if you liked this” suggestions like Amazon.
Overall, the best sort of facilitation could be modeled after the work of expert facilitators, who encourage new ideas, guide discussions, ensure fairness, and focus on making discussion productive.
In the case of collaboration around a sensitive area like a new pipeline, the goal would be to share facts, illuminate interests, raise concerns, and answer questions while building mutual trust and understanding. Of course, a clear and rational discussion is in the interest of the community, but not necessarily all the stakeholders. Technology can do many things, but regulating social power and politics may be too great a challenge.