Will Massive Collaboration Work for You?

It offers ways for governments to tap the wisdom of crowds.
January 28, 2009
Jerry Mechlin
By Jerry Mechling  |  Contributor
A consultant and former faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School

Technology often offers the "next big thing." Since the dot-com crash of 2001, we've seen a reemergence of tech-enabled innovation under the banner of Web 2.0, then Enterprise 2.0, and now Government 2.0. We're evolving from top-down, hierarchical controls to greater reliance on coordination through peer-to-peer communications and negotiation. There's been an explosion of activity in blogs, wikis, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Flickr and YouTube. Web content has moved from institutional production to a stage where 70 percent now comes from individuals.

Enthusiasts believe that collaboration is essential for any enterprise in the 21st century. It follows, then, that "massive collaboration" -- getting many more people to work together both inside and outside an agency, even inside and outside the government -- could be much better. Further, to get started, the new collaboration tools can be applied via simple, inexpensive, bottom-up early steps and projects. Free or low-cost collaboration tools are replacing multimillion-dollar software programs. With the advent of SaaS (software as a service) and cloud computing, government can "buy by the drink" rather than swallow oceans of up-front investments.

But is this really the "next big thing"? Will it work for you?

Some in the field are decidedly skeptical. The technology itself is not very revolutionary: no dramatically new architectures for processing, communications or data are involved. And the applications may be seen as "nice to have" rather than essential. In the view of one practitioner, implementing such technologies is a low priority because the payoff would be minimal, at best.

Others, however, are hugely enthusiastic. Anthony Williams and Don Tapscott, the authors of the influential book "Wikinomics" (based largely on private-sector experience), argue that "massive collaboration changes everything." From this vantage point, they have been working -- in part with my program at Harvard -- to extend their analysis to the public sector.

Recently, we ran a roundtable session to gain public-sector perspective on massive collaboration. We assembled 30 smart people with experience from all levels of government, as well as private-sector and academic environments. We then posed this question to them: What is the potential for massive collaboration?

My answer, after working with this group, is that "it will be huge." As a pragmatist, I'll modify that to "it will be huge, if ..." Massive collaboration offers enormous potential, largely because of its good fit with major emerging "cross-boundary" challenges, such as health care, homeland security, and government transparency and legitimacy. But real progress won't come easily, and we'll need to manage some critical downside risks.

So, just what are the pros and cons of massive collaboration? And, what are the challenges that it can benefit most?

In theory, massive collaboration offers the following benefits and risks:

1. Better solutions through the "wisdom of crowds." If the crowd is large enough and the results are properly interpreted through processes like prediction markets, the solutions produced by massive collaboration consistently outperform those by even the best individual experts. The U.S. Patent Office, for example, is using this insight to clear a huge backlog of patent applications through a crowd-sourced peer-review process.

2. Better implementation by fostering a sense of community. Commitment to a solution typically increases with increased engagement in the problem-solving process. This can be dramatic even when engagement starts with small inputs of time or money. See what happened when the Obama campaign used social networking to mobilize supporters. And President Obama has already vowed to "find new ways of tapping the knowledge and experience of ordinary Americans."

3. More equitable and legitimate governance through greater inclusion in civic decision-making. The idea of democracy is to link decisions to the public interest. Massive collaboration, which allows more diverse and deeper public engagement, provides more transparent and effective signals of what the public interest is. See the "Apps for Technology" contest launched by Washington, D.C., Mayor Adrian M. Fenty and the city's chief technology officer, Vivek Kundra. They released city data and then engaged citizens to find ways to translate it into increased public value.

4. Substantial uncertainty and risk, especially the risk of raising rather than resolving conflicts among subgroups. While groups interacting over computer networks are often more creative than those meeting face-to-face, they are unfortunately harder to move to a conclusive decision. Working online, subgroups find it easier to support each other, often making it harder to gain support for a community-wide decision.

These pros and cons make it clear that collaboration calls for problems that need increased creativity within communities that remain coherent enough for shared solutions. These can be found:

1. Via "next step," bottom-up search. This is the most common and familiar approach. The CIA developed Intellipedia, a wiki tool that allows that intelligence community to share information on a much faster and broader scale. Similarly, social networking for political campaigns makes sense. We need to find more opportunities like these to leverage massive collaboration.

2. Via "strategic," top-down search. A more aggressive and strategic process will also be needed, especially for difficult problem areas such as health care, lifelong education and shared services. For these cross-boundary problems we have barely begun to scratch the surface. The Obama administration, and others taking the reins in these enormously disruptive times, offer obvious places to start.

Web 2.0, and now Government 2.0, are largely about fostering networked relationships to capture the value created by collaboration. The potential benefits are compelling, but they are often hidden by uncertainty and risk.

Threatened as we are now by turbulent demographic, economic and political forces, we clearly need all the ideas, support and legitimacy we can muster. In these times, massive collaboration offers new opportunities that may soon become essential for success.