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How to cyber-collaborate

Options:     Print Version - How to cyber-collaborate, part 3 Print view

What are the criteria for success?

Talking to Wankel, it's difficult not to draw the conclusion that a major success factor is his enthusiasm. His delight in the project shines through, and he clearly relishes being at the centre of an international community:

"I happen to be a person who's a xenophile. I'm very social, I love working in projects. Even in my home office I have assistants come, I'm very socially facilitated. I also have nerve, I'm willing to go and ask people to join or sign up to projects. I'm less concerned about having 100 per cent certainty of success at the outset, it's the voyage that I'm interested in ... It has been amazing where people have been dropping by my home for a week, say from the University of Northern Iceland. I've always been very international, it has enriched my life by being more a member of a world community."

Each project is unique, and Wankel, who can also be very tough when required, is a one-off, but the above does illustrate the first key requirement of a collaborative project.

The ability to pull in the crowd

Working on a multi-author project, especially one as large as this, is a very social activity. The creation of social communities on the Web, through listservs, networking sites, blogs, etc. means that we can summon up those with like-minded interests at the click of a mouse, rather than having to jet or drive off to a conference.

Wankel pulled in people he had known throughout his career, but he also combed LinkedIn and Facebook for other management professors – a technique known as crowdsourcing (Young, 2008).

Wankel describes himself as:

"... big on social networking. I have, I guess, around 5,000 connections on LinkedIn and I grow my connections based on my need."

Interestingly, it's generally easier to attract people from countries where there isn't a great culture of collaboration – those from typical, first-world countries tend to be a bit blasé, whereas others from less obvious places such as Iran or Grenada or Fiji get very excited at the prospect of working on something with people from 90 countries.

There is more to resourcing a project such as this, however, than just searching social media. You have to know what you want and need; have the self-confidence to approach important people, sometimes out of left field; and to do some nifty negotiating. In that respect, it's probably not a lot different to being a TV producer or a film director.

Wankel is a good lateral thinker. Take, for example, his choice of someone to oversee the process of obtaining video interviews. His initial choice of a management professor didn't work out and, after reflecting that "there are no management professors who have world-class skills in the screening of videos", he decided he should go for a Webby Award-winning video producer; a LinkedIn search came up with around 20 names.

Another difficulty was that there was no budget to pay anyone, so Wankel had to come up with a way of getting collaborators to give something for nothing. He lighted on Sibley Law, who was at first cautious, but when he was offered rights to reuse the material, was on Wankel's doorstep within two hours.

Another inspired piece of casting was pulling in a viral video entertainer in his early 20s, a star of YouTube, who is "honest and bubbly and attractive", as part of his team of interviewers. Here Wankel was being sensitive to the needs of the youth market:

"I'm a 61-year-old guy, I don't have that same connection with 19-year-olds."

He doesn't always depend on these flashes of genius and thinking on one's feet: equally he can, in the best sense, be calculating. For example, he suggested to Jan Kingsley, the Second Life guru, that the two men co-author a book on the subject:

"My motive was to lock him in tighter, as the person running the virtual world part of the Management through Collaboration (MTC) book project" – which he now does.

Image: Cover image of Higher Education in Virtual Worlds.

Cover image of Higher Education in Virtual Worlds

However, most people were hired for their general rather than their specific skills, and with these it was important to develop a system so as to use the expertise in the best possible way and avoid duplication. Jurate Stanaityte, the Swedish-based project director, surveyed all authors using Survey Monkey, from which she obtained not only all the relevant contact information, but also the topics they were interested in and their research. This information was used to organize them into 21 self-organizing chapter teams: people could switch and be in more than one team, and the teams themselves were responsible for decisions about who wrote what.

Communication

Communication is vital with any project, and certainly where more than one author is collaborating over writing a book (memories of co-authors each blaming the other for the lateness of the work come to mind!). A good system of communication, and a management structure that makes it clear who is responsible for what, but yet has the flexibility to take on change, is vital to keep things ticking over smoothly.

Although Wankel does not micromanage each section of the book, the project does have a very clear structure. Jurate Stanaityte provides overall project management, and key individuals such as those mentioned above are responsible for certain aspects: media, Second Life or interview protocol, for example.

Otherwise the book is organized according to chapter teams. Each team contains 40-60 people, who are led by one or two editors. Editors vary in experience: some are doctoral students at the beginning of their careers, others, such as James C. Hayton of Bocconi University, are world-class scholars.

The chapters are developed partly through benchmarking: Wankel sent each of the editors chapters from 12 leading textbooks on their chapter's topic, telling them to take the best topics and citations for writing them up from what they saw, and bring in any new topics which they felt were missing in the competition. There is an agreed template for each chapter with a chapter outline, learning objectives, text, exercises, etc. There is nothing original about this template, which mimics other management textbooks. It's the book's authorship which is unconventional.

However, within this loose structure, teams are very much free to operate as they wish. So, things such as responsibility for editing (for example, does it lie with the writers or the editors?); deadlines (is there a tight schedule?); or contribution (does each writer have a set number of pages or paragraphs?), varies according to team.

One of the most important things in a collaborative project such as this is to build a sense of community, to make everyone feel that he or she has an important role. It would certainly be easy with so many authors for this not to be the case, but Wankel tries to give the personal touch:

"The secret of a project like this is something akin to what Dell does with computers. Dell will customize the computer exactly for you, although it is making tens of millions of computers, each person sees it as something made exactly for them. And my job is always to have the personal, one-on-one with them."

However, the logistics of having so many people to contact inevitably mean that it's the ones who shout who get noticed:

"Sometimes if somebody isn't waving their hand or grabbing me by the collar, I'm letting those people who are active move ahead and others stand on the sidelines for the time being because I have to prioritize. But when I contacted this woman in Lebanon she was so excited she started contacting me regularly contributing video interviews and editing text, but that was just because she came on Skype and I responded."

Quality control

A reliable quality check is important for any publication, and quality control procedures should be decided at the outset of any collaborative publication. For example, who is responsible for vetting copy and what is to be checked for, and who has final say if the editing is open, are all things that need to be established.

In this respect, it is interesting to compare Wankel's quality control procedures with that of Wikipedia: Wankel's are very much under the authority of his chapter editors and himself, with Wankel being prepared to overrule if necessary, whereas Wikipedia's rely on the sheer quantity of editors who read and revise material.

The quality and reliability of Wikipedia has been disputed from the outset. Wikipedia itself points out that some of its newer articles may contain misinformation, bias or vandalism. On the other hand, because it is constantly updated, unlike a paper publication, older articles tend to be more balanced, accurate, and up to date.

Wikipedia's currentness and its ability to respond to significant events, is one of its major advantages. A poignant example is the way a long article about the 2010 Haitian earthquake http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Haiti_earthquake, with around 200 references, appeared within a couple of weeks of its occurrence.

The quality control procedure of Wikipedia is based, not on a rigid structure, but on the self-monitoring of a group of editors. This is how founder Jimmy Wales, in an interview elsewhere on this site, puts it:

"We police the community by having the community police itself, rather in the same way that the academic community polices itself. Our editors are a group of peers who really care passionately about quality, and if somebody comes in and does something wrong they'll be very quickly educated, supported, or kicked out if they don't behave themselves. It's a peer review kind of thing where people are free to be different, but everything's visible so you're always accountable and you can get blocked from editing if you are too bad."

It could be claimed that academic peer review is more structured, and in any case, Wikipedia can only make a partial claim to reliability. A textbook, on the other hand, needs to be wholly reliable, in terms not only of content coverage, but also of suitability to its audience. Wankel may approach his project in a collegial manner, drawing in people and letting them get on with it, but equally he can be like a film director determined to put his stamp on things. He reads all the finished chapters and is concerned not only about accuracy, but also that people have a correct approach to the market:

"I worry that some people might crib from Wikipedia or other books, and other people might write without citation, like an encyclopedia article. And other people might write like a scholarly article where each sentence has seven citations. And to a certain extent, there are the customs and traditions of scholarship, or lack thereof, in their country. Some people are just plain green and others want to write a book on a very specialized topic rather than a general chapter aimed at 19-year-old undergraduates."

He is quite prepared to take tough decisions in the interests of the project –

" ... even though I look so sweet and nice, I'm actually as tough as nails."

He is quite prepared to confront experts. His willingness to do so comes from his own expertise as a textbook writer, with some insight into the world of 19-year-olds. For example, in the history chapter, the Venetians were removed in favour of the railroads, the latter being a more appropriate illustration of modern management and more suitable to the interests of 19-year-olds; while the inappropriate, an ode to the King of Saudi Arabia posing as a case study, was summarily removed.

In areas where he does not have expertise, but which are vital to the success of the project, Wankel delegates leadership to others, such as Sibley Law as director of media and Jan Kingsley as Second Life facilitator, as well as Yvonne Catino as director of case study development.

All these people promote quality through mentoring: Sibley Law is developing a series of tutorials explaining to the hundreds of authors the technicalities of how to shoot, edit and upload videos, and Catino has developed a protocol to help people solicit useful information. The latter includes such questions as:

  • What is the most important decision you've had to make?
  • How did you make it?
  • What were the issues?
  • What's the most exciting thing that happened to you in business?
  • What is the biggest hazard you've faced?
  • The biggest opportunity that you addressed and so on?
  • How would you do things differently?
  • What do you plan to do in the future?
  • Could you take me on a walk through your operations?

References

Wankel, C. and Kingsley, J. (2009), Higher Education in Virtual Worlds, Emerald Group Publishing Limited, UK.

Young, J.R. (2008), "Management professor uses 'crowdsourcing' to write textbook", The Chronicle of Higher Education, 15 August.