What facilitates effective online collaboration and organisation?

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Online collaboration is the process where individuals engage within a group using Web 2.0 technologies to achieve a common goal (Blau, 2011, pp. 22-23).

Participants within these online collaborative groups expand upon each other’s contributions through tools available via the Internet. To facilitate effective use of online collaboration and organisation, institutions and groups need to have an understanding of the tools and language used within the collaboration, social capital, satisfied active contributors, personal motives and most of all it should have trust among the collaborative community. This essay attempts to show what facilitates effective online collaboration and organisation with theories explored by Ina Blau (2011), and Molly Wasko and Samer Faraj (2005), as well as using examples from the case studies Twitter and Political Protest and Wikipedia. This post will also explore why participants in collaborative communities choose to share in online collaborations and what their expected reciprocated reward is for participating.

Wasko and Faraj hypothesises on knowledge contribution emphasises on the reasons why people choose to participate in online collaborative communities. These include reputation, individual motivations, structural capital, cognitive capital, and relational capital (Wasko & Faraj, 2005, p. 40). Blau’s theories add to Wasko and Faraj knowledge contribution theories and also highlights that online collaboration is effective with reasons to participate such as social capital and personal motive factors including personal satisfaction, self-efficacy, and drive to acquire knowledge (Blau, 2011, pp. 27, 29, 30).

Blau’s theory on social capital is about what can be obtained from knowing others, for example knowledge. It’s about being apart of a social network, being known and having a good reputation amongst the group (Blau, 2011, p. 27). “Reputation is an important asset that an individual can leverage to achieve and maintain status within a collective” (Wasko & Faraj, 2005, p. 39). Building up a good reputation is a great motivator for members of an online collaboration to have as it encourages them to participate and share more knowledge with others. Individual users perceive that if they participate, it will enhance their reputation in their profession and are more likely to contribute and respond within the collaborative group (Wasko & Faraj, 2005, p. 40). Many individuals alleviate their fears of the risks involved in sharing information by choosing to share in environments that maximise their reputation benefits (Di Gangi, Wasko, & Tang, 2012, p. 372). Social capital also includes credibility, trust, relationships, loyalty, value and word of mouth communication, which social networks are built around (Attia, Nergis, & Mahdy, 2011).

Social capital is particularly important amongst Wikipedia members, known as Wikipedians. The better the reputation a Wikipedian has amongst their community, the better chance they have in moving up the ranks into an administrator role, and the more they are trusted by other Wikipedians that their contributions are credible. “If a participant wants to accrue more credibility, one way to do so is by participating in multiple channels; this requires a substantial time commitment” (Forte & Bruckman, 2005, p. 6). An example Andrea Forte and Amy Bruckman (2005) provide refers to a wikipedian who may never cause any trouble and creates and contributes a massive amount of quality content, but no body would know who they are. But there are Wikipedians that brag about their contributions, create a complete user page filled with their all accomplishments, and are actively acquiring creditability within the Wikipedia community. These are the individuals who get voted in as administrators (Forte & Bruckman, 2005, p. 4). Wikipedians choose topics that they believe will build upon their reputation in their chosen profession. To build their reputation in the Wikipedia community they contribute and respond more with other members within the group. Building a good reputation is a great motivator and does help facilitate an effective online collaboration and organisation, especially in the case of Wikipedia.

Another example of the social capital theory is the Egyptian “Revolution 2.0” of 2011. This is believed to be the direct impact of protesters using social networks, in particular Twitter. “Social networks supply people with opportunities to be apart of international communities that enable them to communicate their shared thoughts, information, and recommendations” (Attia, Nergis, & Mahdy, 2011, p. 370). The perception of trust, relationships, loyalty and value are likely to affect individual’s behaviour and their use of Twitter towards political change (Attia, Nergis, & Mahdy, 2011, p. 372). This is particularly important in the Egyptian “Revolution 2.0” as the people of Egypt could trust the words of others who were calling for the uprising. This trust reduced social ambiguity amongst Egyptians and the information provided by others on Twitter was viewed as credible and trustworthy (Attia, Nergis, & Mahdy, 2011, p. 372). This builds upon individual users reputation as a trustworthy source of information thus making Twitter an effective online collaborative tool to use in the case of Egypt’s Revolution 2.0.

There are many reasons why individuals choose to contribute and share within a collaborative group. Blau (2011) created a list of personal motivation factors that need to be considered, including individual satisfaction, self-efficacy, belief in how their own actions can make an effect, and intrinsic drive to acquire knowledge. (Blau, 2011, p. 30) There are also social motivation factors to consider, which include a desire to participate in producing a collective good, a need for support, and a need for belonging to the group (Blau, 2011, p. 30). When individual users believe that they are making a difference, they participate regardless of what other members are contributing (Blau, 2011, p. 31). Individual’s personal belief motivates them to contribute knowledge, even in the absence of reciprocity reward and personal social connection (Wasko & Faraj, 2005, p. 39).

Twitter is an excellent online tool that is used during many political protests in recent times. Before the era of social media, individuals might have felt alone in having concerns about the political unjust around the world. Social networks, such as Twitter, have allowed protesters to band together and find other individuals that share similar concerns and start organising ways of making a difference (Hayes, 2012, p. 2). During the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2009, Elliot Madison used Twitter as a way to inform other protesters where police blockages were being set up so the protestors could find ways to get to the Summit (Ems, 2009, p. 3). Madison believed that his actions had made a difference, despite his arrest. Madison is an example of using personal and social motivations to contribute to an online collaboration.

According to Andrea Ciffolilli (2003), the factors behind why individuals participate within Wikipedia voluntarily are because of personal and social motivations. The most active Wikipedians are pushed by strong incentives from the projects they contribute to, and their motivations are not related directly to monetary reward (Ciffolilli, 2003). The idea of the need for belonging and support within the community and the passion and desire to take part in the production of a collective good are all motivators to why Wikipedians choose to share their knowledge on the free online encyclopaedia (Ciffolilli, 2003).

In addition to personal and social motivations to why individuals participate in online collaboration and organisation is structural capital (centrality). Structural capital is the tie that links individuals within the group and is created during social interactions (Wasko & Faraj, 2005, p. 41). It can be divided up into three categories. Firstly, degree centrality, which is the number of ties that a member has. Secondly, closeness centrality, which is the inverse of the average distance between members. Thirdly, betweenness centrality, which is the importance of a member in bridging social connections, information transmission and behaviour contagion. These three different categories of structural capital indicate the different role-taking behaviours that members of a collaborative group would undertake (Wang & Zhang, 2012, pp. 4516-4518). Members within the collaboration that have a high number of direct ties to other members are more likely to develop a habit of cooperation and participation. They are most likely to act in accordance with the normalities of the group and are more willing to contribute their knowledge within the online collaboration (Wasko & Faraj, 2005, p. 41).

Chong Wang and Xiaoquan Zhang’s (2012) case study on Chinese Wikipedia investigates structural capital theories within the online collaborative group between October 2002 and February 2007 (Wang & Zhang, 2012, p. 4518). They particularly look at degree centrality, closeness centrality and betweenness centrality. Their research reviews Wikipedia contributor behaviour within the collaborative network. Wang and Zhang’s findings show that there is an increase in degree centrality when contributors decrease their effort levels, an increase in closeness centrality when both effort and focus is reduced, and betweenness centrality increases effort and focus (Wang & Zhang, 2012, p. 4521). Their case study of the structural capital in Chinese Wikipedia shows that there are varying levels of centrality over time from contributors. Different aspects of the structural capital theory have different implications on effort and devotion over time (Wang & Zhang, 2012, p. 4521). Therefore different aspects of structural capital at different times help to facilitate in effective online collaboration.

For an online collaboration and organisation to be effective it needs to have cognitive capital. It is the resources that make it possible for interpretations to be shared with a group (Wasko & Faraj, 2005, p. 41). “Cognitive capital contains both individual expertise, or mastery of the language within the practice, as well as experience with applying the expertise” (Wasko & Faraj, 2005, p. 41). This expertise particularly includes mastering the technology used by the collaborative group. Cognitive capital helps collaborative groups to communicate efficiently and effectively as members are speaking the same language, so to say, and are using similar knowledge structures. “High levels of cognitive capital enable teams that communicate through digital networks to integrate knowledge at levels similar to those of face-to-face environments” (Robert, Dennis, & Ahuja, 2008, p. 328). Individuals within the collaborative group with long tenure in the shared practice are more likely to understand how their expertise is relevant and are better at sharing their knowledge with the group (Wasko & Faraj, 2005, p. 42).

Governments around the world have started to pay attention to social media networks, such as Twitter, and are becoming familiar with its cognitive capital. In the case of the 2009 Iran protests, governments found Twitter to be a useful tool for monitoring protesters, gathering data, and even tracking protesters down (Grossman, 2009). The US Government in 2009 saw the value in Twitter and even asked the service to delay server upgrades during the Iran protests. “US diplomats and other public officials were monitoring Twitter use originating from Iran, and were using this ‘chatter’ on Iran’s domestic political situation as an important source of public source intelligence” (Burns & Eltham, 2009, p. 299). The US State Department had also launched an official Twitter page to communicate their views to international audiences earlier that year. It was the first time a US Government agency had acknowledged the potential role that social media plays in international events (Burns & Eltham, 2009, p. 299). The US Government are using Twitter as a tool in monitoring other countries, such as Iran in 2009, to help build future foreign policies. They are learning to master the cognitive capital of Twitter and become experts in the communications between foreign governments and their people.

Finally, to facilitate an effective online collaboration and organisation, there is a need for relational capital. This includes individuals of the online collaborative having a strong identification with the group, trust, a perceived obligation to participate, and to behave within the collaborations norms. Individuals feel the need to help out others, including strangers, and have an urge to give back to the collaboration (Wasko & Faraj, 2005, p. 42). “When there is a strong norm of reciprocity in the collective, individuals trust that their knowledge contribution efforts will be reciprocated, thereby rewarding the individual efforts and ensuring ongoing contribution” (Wasko & Faraj, 2005, p. 43).

Wikipedia is a perfect example of relational capital at it’s finest in online collaboration. Wikipedian’s seek to collaborate and publish true facts about the world. They are highly productive individuals who collaborate authorship where they contribute to an open-content encyclopaedia by adding to or revising other Wikipedian contributions (Forte & Bruckman, 2005, p. 1). This behaviour is a reciprocation of others who would contribute to their own topics, which they have created. Wikipedian’s feel like it is their duty to keep the content published on Wikipedia free from “graffiti” and to maintain high quality content (Ciffolilli, 2003). This reinforces that Wikipedian’s have strong identifications with the content being collaborated throughout the website, ensuring it’s reputation and credibility as a reliable knowledge resource.

This essay has attempted to demonstrate what facilitates effective online collaboration and organisation. The theories presented by Wasko and Faraj, and Blau have shown that there are many varying factors that contribute to the effectiveness of an online collaborative group. Their theories have been proven with examples from the case studies of Twitter and Political Protest and Wikipedia. Individuals have many reasons to participate in a online collaboration that range from personal and social motivations, to building credibility and a reputation, not only online but in their profession, to wanting to make connections with others who have the same beliefs and passions as they do. An online collaboration also needs to have strong ties between members of the group, a desire for participation from members in the form of reciprocation, meaning individuals contribute not only on their own input but on other contributions too, and developing expertise with the tools used in the collaborative group. But for a online collaboration and organisation to be effective there needs to be trust between individuals of the online group. Without trust there would be no collaboration.


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