Saturday, October 17, 2009

Taoism and COINs

The principles of the Chinese philosophy of Taoism have many parallels with the ways how COINs operate.

The way is the goal - Tao means “way”, and “way” is the cornerstone of Taoism. This is very different from Western philosophies, where the “being” and “truth” are in the center. In Taoism, on the other hand, “the way is the goal”, this means it’s not the solution, which is important, but the way to get to the solution. COINs achieve their big vision in many small incremental steps along the way. It is the way, the joy of completing small incremental steps together, which are the main motivators for COIN members. Working extremely hard in the company of likeminded people and reaching a goal together is immensely rewarding. This way of working under positive stress is similar to the concept of “flow” defined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. According to Csikszentmihalyi, people are most happy when they are in the state of flow – a state of complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. Csíkszentmihályi describes flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.”

Let go – one of the core principles of Taoism is “wu-wei” or “non-action”. The main point is that one has to know when NOT to act. The underlying concept is that things basically will take care of themselves, if they only get the chance. For the individual, applying this principle is quite hard, as it means letting things go, and let them take their own way. We need to achieve a high level of self-assuredness and self-awareness to apply this principle. If we have reached this level, we will feel a sense of inner tranquility and self-emptiness that will allow us to let go. On the highest level, we will get rid of our own ego - becoming one with our activity - and do things for the sake of things, and not to further our own ego, reaching the state of flow. Among Linux opensource developers, Linus Torvalds, is famous for non-action and just “letting things taking care of themselves”. For individual COIN members it means that they are ready to let go of their individual idea and let the team take it over and bring it to completion. Because COIN members participate out of their own will – and not external pressure - they get the liberty to do whatever they think is right, and not what the boss or the company tells them to do.

Ethics – the three jewels of the Tao are compassion, moderation, and humility. The first one, compassion, also means kindness, and undemanding love like the love of a parent for her/his child. The second one, moderation and frugality, frees us from being driven by desires. If we are happy with what we have, and do not always want more, this will liberate us. The third one, humility, will help us recognize and be grateful for the contribution of others. In a well-functioning COIN, all three concepts come together. COIN members treat each other with respect, and respect the contribution of each member. They take care of each other, and through their focus on reaching their goal first and obtaining external recognition second, they are quite frugal in their demands. The last principle, humility, is the hardest to follow. This was already recognized by Benjamin Franklin in his autobiography, when he confessed how hard it was to acquire it “I cannot boast of much success in acquiring the reality of this virtue, but I had a good deal with regard to the appearance of it.” He then goes on to describe how much easier it became to convince others when he presented his ideas in a humble way. The same should be true for COIN members, who respect the opinion of others and are grateful for the contribution of each member.
The principles of Taoism give us a great framework of how to work together in a COIN for the highest benefit of both the COIN and the individual members.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Reflections on COINs2009 - Towards a Science of Collaboration

I am writing this blog post on my way back from the first Conference on Collaborative Innovation Networks COINs2009. It was a cool event, taking place Oct. 8-11 2009 at SCAD, the Savannah College of Art and Design. SCAD was a fitting place and perfect host for this conference, with its mascot the bee, paragon of collaborative swarms. The themes of the COINs conference cover a wide range of interdisciplinary fields such as social network analysis, group dynamics, design and visualization, information systems and the psychology and sociality of collaboration. Thinking about these topics in the plane on the trip back to Boston, it dawned on me that the time has come to put these topics into a solid scientific framework.

While it has been scientifically recognized that swarms of bees are better thought of as one big superorganism, it is only now that similar insights are coming up for the human superorganism. Slowly this human superorganism is starting to become self aware with the indivuum seeing its identity defined not in isolation, but through its connections. We therefore need a new science of collaboration, recognizing that each human is not just an individual, but a product of his and her connections to other humans.

Why is the Science of Collaboration relevant now? For thousands of years people have collaborated, from the first tribal bands hunting for large game to the feudal states in the middle ages to the large multinational companies of today. But only now with the emergence of the Internet and the Web do we have the means to solve tasks collaboratively at a large scale, with anybody, about anything, at anytime, and anywhere. Anybody planning a totally crazy project has the chance now to find the few other people on the world who care about the same topic with the same passion, and form the COIN, the Collaborative Innovation Network, to tackle the issue and collaboratively develop a solution.

While at the COINs2009 conference we got some great examples of co-located teams working on the same task, most of these collaborative tasks happen long-distance. Whether it’s designing a new piece of furniture, collaboratively writing an article, or authoring a flash movie, COINs pop up all around the globe, creatively collaborating over the Internet to solve their task.

Collaboration Science has many facets, ranging from analyzing and measuring collaboration by dynamic social network analysis, through making teams more collaborative by applying principles of group dynamics, to developing new Internet-based software tools and methods for collaboration. The COINs2009 call for papers lists the following subjects as parts of collaboration science:
• Dynamic Social Network Analysis
• Semantic Social Network Analysis
• Social System Design and Architectures
• Social Behavior Modeling
• Social Intelligence and Social Cognition
• Emotional Intelligence, Cultural Dynamics, Opinion Representation, Influence Process
• Trust, Privacy, Risk, Transparency and Security in social contexts
• Virtual Communication and Collaboration
• Measuring the performance of COINs
• Patterns of swarm creativity
• Collaborative Leadership
• Design and visualization in interdisciplinary collaboration
• Group dynamics and global teaming in virtual collaboration
• Organizational optimization in COINs
• The psychology and sociality of collaboration

Collaboration Science therefore includes principles and methods from many fields such as Network Science, Coordination Science and Web Science. The strongest contrast for me however is between Collaboration and Competition, i.e. using the power of the swarm for the egoistic benefit on one single individual. While people collaborate for egoistic goals, for me collaboration includes an altruistic element. While free markets are based on utilitarian principles, i.e. everybody being in it for his or her individual benefit, members of collaborative innovation networks are in it not just for themselves, but for the benefits of their community, knowing that if they do good to the community, the community will pay it back, leaving everybody much better off in the end.

Dustin Larimer, a conference participant from SCAD, allowed me to share the following three tag clouds. The clouds reflect feedback from conference participants after the first conference day, where three different workshops on the subject were offered, very cool: