Collaboration needs real pay-offs. Where does tech best fit?

In recent posts I’ve looked at two models for collaborative social innovation: Social Innovation Camp and RSA Networks. In the SI Camp model people pitch project ideas openly, collaborate within newly-formed project teams, then compete against each other. In RSA Networks people pitch ideas, look for collaborators, and may also get some help from RSA staff. Both are, in part, about the use of social technology, but my analysis of them both – compared here – brings home, I hope, that technology is not the key element for success. What’s important is the underlying model for moving from idea to implementation, and reward.

Mike Amos-Simpson highlights that in a comment on the RSA post:

If the network truly exists to instigate action then I think consideration needs to be given to the complete journey people need to go on to get to that stage. From not knowing anyone, to understanding how things work, to becoming more involved in discussions, to gauging likely interest & support to proposing a project etc. etc.

A year ago in the early days of RSA Networks, RSA Fellow Mark Gray made a strong plea for an explicit model on the OpenRSA blog, and went on to make some very positive suggestions which you can read here. These included a responsibility on fellows to meet one-to-one, an annual conference and other ways to disseminate best practice, web casting of seminars, open debates on a central forum, plus a trading place, matching service, and problem-solving surgeries.

Some of these ideas, and others, are now surfacing in the RSA Networks programme – but not, perhaps, as evidently as Mark might have wished. I emailed him to find what he thought about the programme now, and its substantial dependance on a social networking platform. He agreed I could quote from his response. Mark works in knowledge transfer, and I think that what he says is very relevant for anyone thinking about technology-assisted collaborative innovation. Or indeed any collaboration.

The whole RSA networks idea *sounds* fine, very liberal and very ‘open’ (‘open’ being a good word); but as with so much in the world of voluntary action it misses the essence of cooperative behaviour which is that it has to deliver more than just a warm feeling of mutuality. It has to deliver real mutual benefits. I am a liberal through and through (I am even a Liberal Democrat, not that those two things are necessarily identical all of the time!), but I am a realist too. I don’t think that cooperation is facilitated by technology and that the use of it addresses some huge (non-)market failures that prevent us from solving the UKs problems. That isn’t how life works.

There are lessons here to be drawn from the greatest social innovations of the past. While Facebook may be a jolly efficient way of setting up a campaign against HSBC’s overdraft policy, the Paris Commune of 1871 managed to raise mass resistance to Thiers and autocratic government without as much as single laptop, and while blogs may help us to feel we are cooperating in some ethereal way I don’t think the cooperative and international development of quantum physics before the 1950s used a single byte of stored computerised information or a single email. The point is that, if computer-mediated networks are all that stand between Britain and an effective community of social innovators, how do you account for the Salvation Army, extension education, or much else of our civic heritage?

My view is that what stands between Fellows of the RSA and effective collaborative projects is NOT shared space for innovation via (a desultory word) ‘chat’. It is a mix of things – time, conflicting loyalties and interests, and money among them. If Matthew Taylor REALLY wanted to get social innovation going he should read some Mancur Olson. Olson, a brilliant if somewhat jaundiced and instinctively neoclassical economist, was the first to spot the curious phenomenon that collaboration actually works best when the payoffs are evident and external. You don’t join a trades union to ‘feel communal power’ but to get access to support, advice, information and bargaining power. In short, the payoffs have to be REAL.

So, how about the future of the Taylor ‘vision’? If I were him, I’d be scrapping the belief that technology can make people work cooperatively and place more faith in the coercive force of competition. Were the RSA to run a competition for the best social innovation proposed by Fellows, with guaranteed backing for the winner of enough money, external expertise and support as was needed, things would happen. The Oxford University Business Plan competition is one of many examples of exactly how this can happen; the competition this year will have had more entries from social entrepreneurs of real and viable projects than the RSA has received since the RSA Networks project started.

Cooperation can of course be facilitated by web tools – it would be churlish to say otherwise. But at the moment it is only the facilitation of chat and, as they used to say, ‘talk is cheap’.

So – what is the appropriate place for technology in supporting collaboration? Mike had some ideas in a further comment on his experience of SI Camp:

A good online platform could help not only nurture those early ideas but also generate a community that is able to decide itself which ideas are strongest enough to be developed. For example although I was really pleased my idea was selected to be developed at the Social Innovation Camp – the fact that it was selected by a small group of people weakens the process. If instead there’s an online platform made up of people who are experts (as in theory with the RSA) then you should be able to entrust the decisions as to which projects should be developed to that community, rather than the selection by a minority, and then further judging by a minority who expert as they may be in their particular field, can’t possibly be expert in the vast range of possibilities available through something like this. So instead you use the online platform to support ideas, and then entrust the decisions about which ideas should be developed to that online community, and then you use the sicamp model of getting a load of people together to work on them – with one caveat which is that there should be no ‘winners’ – if you’ve got to that stage you should be serious about supporting the development of all the projects involved.

I hope it will be possible to get RSA Networks, SI Camp organisers and others together to discuss this. Meanwhile what do you think?

One comment

  • October 9, 2008 - 10:27 am | Permalink

    I just wanted to extend the thought, above, that networks are not enough to note that my original prescription for the RSA suggested that networks alongside some infrastructure to get over the barriers to effective collaboration (mentioned in the email to David he quotes above) could take us some of the way….but I still remain sceptical that they can take us as far as necessity, or will, or pump-primed initiative. The day that I hear that a disease has been halted by a blog, or an food crisis averted by a wiki, I shall change my tune.

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