Creating Collaborative Environments

Through all of my experiences as an artist I am still in awe of the collective intelligence of collaboration and the unexpected results it can bring.  Working collaboratively is a standard artistic practice and artists have a deep wealth of knowledge in this field, navigating project deadlines while remaining open to the potential, risk and inspiration that collaboration can bring.  As companies seek creative innovation (and profits), this knowledge can be applied to innovate and creatively solve problems not only in product and marketing, but also in traditional business departments such as finance and operations.  The growing conversation around the future of work techniques such as developing an organisation’s internal collective intelligence and collaborative practices to include the input of customers, suppliers and even competitors are now vital to remain competitive.

collaborative environment

One strategy towards nurturing a collaborative culture is the creation of collaborative work environments.  Beyond assisting adoption of new work practices, as the new environment is a constant reminder of the culture change, collaborative environments also have unique and measurable benefits for organisational problems such as crippling communication overheads, managing large-scale collaboration and staff ownership of tasks and workflows.

In an early stage of developing his PhD, ‘Stigmergic Collaboration: A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration’, Mark Elliot founder of collabforge, poses the question: “Could a collective creative process become a medium in its own right, subject to the design interests of a ‘composer’?”[1]   From his wealth of knowledge in artistic collaboration, Elliot develops this exploration into the mechanics of the collaborative process and how it scales.  As opposed to the traditional form of collaboration (that we have all experienced) which involves social negotiation to reach consensus, the core concept explored is stigmergic collaboration.  That is, the “indirect communication between agents which is coordinated through interactions with their local environment”[2]; originally observed in termite mounds among other swarm phenomena as the method of collaboration.

The problem is that traditional collaboration in a group of much more than 5 people the negotiation starts quickly absorbing time just to communicate goals, make sure everyone is up to date and have the materials they require. Described as communication overhead, it is so consuming that it puts a cap on effective traditional collaboration in groups of more than 25 [3].  But by creating a stimergic collaborative environment where the conversation can be recorded directly reduces the reliance on social negotiation and breaks through this upper collaboration limit opening the potential of mass collaboration.

The ability to record the collaboration in a space externally Elliot explains, “material encoding of collaborative contribution enables participants to ‘see what they think’, providing them with enhanced capacity to remember review and reflect upon their shared contributions, both individually and collectively”[4].  Specifically this has the benefit of “distributing the cognitive load as well as optimising for the specific skills and resources that individual members posses (i.e. leveraging the division of labour)”[5].  In the online environment this ability to share, edit and collectively create is most often seen in the wiki format. The most famous of these being Wikipedia whose community of thousands of writers and editors have generated millions of articles, with surprising accuracy.  Other examples of collaboration platforms include open source software platforms such as SourceForge and Apache.org, political activism platform echo.to and of course Google docs.

Another online solution that contains these core functionalities is the work platform Podio.  Through the use of customizable ‘workspaces’ all the files, conversations and documentation for a project or team are in one online location ready to go.  The social, real time collaboration platform organises your work by context (yay GTD!) and attempts to save you from inbox-of-doom. Transparency here is the key to efficient collaboration as everyone in your organisation can see and edit just about anything in the ‘workspaces’ they are included.  This level of trust is vital to opening your team up to the potential of new connections and the freedom for collective intelligence to form, that pushes innovation in new and interesting ways.

In my role as a Podio super-user at work, I spoke with Gabriel Escalona at Podio’s Future of Work Berlin Meet-up about the implementation of the system and some of the results achieved.   The most noticeable was the time saved being able to set ‘tasks’ rather than send endless emails chasing things up, and being the productivity nerd that I am setting myself tasks too!   We also came up with some apps that automised authorisation processes in operations, helped share images and ideas across the company and gave everyone easy access to current documentation.  Since the tool is so simple to manipulate, creating workspace applications specifically for your workflow also empowered engagement and opened the conversation on how core business functions could be optimised.  I am not sure how metrics of time saved are generated but one company has quoted they have saved 20% on their communication overhead by having client conversations in one place.

Culture change can be tough, but when you and your team spend 8+ hours at work a day ignoring how to create engaging structures and environments will soon see your top performers finding new environments to thrive in!   Implementing a company wide online work solution is also a massive project see: 5 mistakes to avoid when implementing an internal collaboration tool, but a quick rethink of the layout of your office is relatively simple and still to great effect.  Keith Sawyer’s Creativity and Innovation Blog recently referenced a number of examples of the architecture of collaboration and new thinking on office design. These free-roaming office spaces such as The Melinda and Bill Gate Foundation hq by nbbj Architects and co-working spaces (check out: Betahaus and 3rd Ward) are designed around the concept that according to the type of work, particular project or energy required staff can up-root to be in the right environment.   Huge benefits include the increase in productivity when staff are autonomous and fresh perspectives and shared leaning to old problems with interactions outside of regular company hierarchies.

betahaus breakfastbetahaus workspace

Betahaus Berlin by Ian Kath; Flickr

The emphasis in these new types of offices tends to be on open spaces and freedom to participate in what is essentially hot-desking.   So I was glad to see that the New York Times article Please, Just Give Me Some Space: In New Office Designs, Room to Roam and to Think included Susan Cain’s (TED talk: The Power of Introverts) argument against the constant use of open-office environments.  Her concern is that deep creative work also needs quiet spaces where individuals can also be free from distraction.   This matches my experience of running workshops using the technique of individual brainstorming, followed by group discussion in repetition produces far more creative and varied solutions than group discussion alone.   Extrapolate this to an organisational level to develop spaces for both kind of activities, not only in the headphones bubble, that most of us currently rely on to indicate ‘do not disturb’

It can be as simple as a quick rearrange of office furniture to create more communal working and casual spaces rather than raising a Seattle city block to rebuild your hq!

  • Place images and objects in the space that exemplify the vision or are part of the narrative of the organisation; motivational posters of mountains or eagles do not count.
  • Install lots of white or blackboards where messages, doodles or mind-maps can be drawn up and edited by everyone.
  • Make one meeting room really different, whether colour (apparently blue has been proven to be good for creativity) or fit-balls for chairs or a swing.
  • Instruct mangers to lead by example and use the new spaces.  If a hot-desking like policy is going to be implemented it should be for everyone. Not everyone dreams of being a digital nomad, not having your own space a work can also be demoralising and can make staff feel dispensable and transient.

And if you don’t have the authority to create a new culture at work…  hack it. Start with the spaces you do have control over and work you way out, soon enough you will get the attention of a happy team, cool innovations and great results anyway.

What practical tips do you have for creating collaborative environments?

 Update: on the 25.05.2012 I presented this post at Ignite Berlin.  The Ignite format is 20 slides in 5 mins, automatically moving forward every 15 seconds – quite a challenge!


[1] Elliot, Stigmergic Collaboration: A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration, PhD dissertation, The University of Melbourne, 2007. p.3

[2] Ibid. p.8

[3] Lipnack & Stamps (2000). Virtual Teams. Canada: John Wiley & Sons.

[4] Ibid [1]. p.110

[5] Ibid

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