Collaboration Type covers three areas: the form of collaboration (e.g. teams vs peer groups vs 1:many training); collaborative activities (creating documents, generating ideas, making decisions); and collaboration size (the differences between small groups and very large ones) 

This is the first in a series of three posts looking at types of collaborative working

When I talk with organisations who want to improve their collaboration systems, most seem surprised when I ask the question ‘what type of collaboration do you want to improve?’ The common response is a shrug and a long-winded description about making it easier for groups to co-ordinate their activities and complete tasks more effectively.

I think it’s important to understand the different types of collaboration because it affects what technologies would be best suited to the project and the design of the solution.

Collaboration Type covers three areas: the form of collaboration (e.g. teams vs peer groups vs 1:many training); collaborative activities (creating documents, generating ideas, making decisions); and collaboration size (the differences between small groups and very large ones)

This post is focused on the first element: collaboration forms. It is not intended to be an exhaustive list of collaboration types and technologies but merely to provoke some thought about what people consider to be collaboration and how technology can improve it (as opposed to hinder it)… Also, it is very much a work in progress (i.e. brain dump) and likely to be updated (i.e. improved) – if you have any comments to contribute, please post them here or send an email.

Collaboration Forms

Team working

The most commonly assumed form of collaboration – improve how a team works together.

One of the most useful technologies to support team working is shared workspaces based around teams or projects, where a team can co-ordinate their activities, assign tasks to individuals (most teams comprise different roles and responsibilities), track progress and share information

Productivity tip: Team meetings could involve projecting the workspace on screen. One person can record the meeting notes and actions direct into the workspace so that everyone is ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’. (Additional individual productivity tip: wait until someone starts writing notes in the meeting, then make the suggestion that they hook up to the workspace…)

Peer Groups

A peer group comprises individuals in similar roles or with similar skills (i.e. likely to share a common knowledge base) who may not work in the same team or even location. People often fail to differentiate between teams and peer groups – a mistake because their activities and priorities can be completely different. For starters, in the typical office environment, the individual is far more likely to be told what team they are in whilst having the option of whether or not to participate in a peer group. That one small difference can have a huge effect on how the individual contributes within the group.

Shared workspaces are also useful for peer groups, but need to be organised differently. They will be created by subject matter or role rather than team or project, and will focus more on providing contact information, and sharing information and experiences. Peer-groups are great environments for generating new ideas and discovering patterns and trends within common activities. Such trends would often go unnoticed within teams because they are relevant to a specific subject (or role) rather than the overall team or project goal. Peer groups are more casual than teams – membership and activities are all optional – but having the choice to participate or not usually leads to stronger relationships and commitment leading to better quality and productivity. Dysfunctional and demotivated teams should take note…

Whilst it is common to have team meetings, organisations should also encourage peer-group meetings. Peer-groups may struggle to meet if individuals are located in different areas, and their priorities and time will be organised around their separate teams. Virtual meeting technologies can bring peer-groups together on a regular basis (but shouldn’t be used as an excuse to replace all physical meetings), and instant messaging tools can help quickly share questions and answers.


The classic 1:1 human-based training tool – assigning newbies to mentors who can pass down their knowledge. The demands on peoples’ time means this is rarely a constant side-by-side process in an office environment.

Social networking tools are finally beginning to appear and can help create a virtual side-by-side relationship to support mentoring. Many portals offer the ability to profile individuals and, ideally, give them a personal site to store information and content. The more advanced ones are able to discover connections, such as listing the reporting hierarchy between individuals, team and peer-group memberships, frequently visited sites and documents downloaded.

Profiles can be great for mentoring – when you can’t contact the master you need, you get to see who (and what) else may be able to help you. The mentor can store references and resources to share with future apprentices.


The 1:many version of master-apprentice, usually completed over a short period of time (e.g. a training class). Not often viewed as collaboration but more than one person is involved and that makes it collaboration in my book 🙂

It is still a mystery to me why more training classes are not at least recorded and made available on an intranet for sharing with others who were unable to attend (as well as being used by attendees to revisit the content and refresh their knowledge). One of the most useful forums for actually seeing what’s going on inside Microsoft at the moment is the Channel 9 network – people being interviewed by camcorder and asked to describe what they do, and the result posted up to the net. Simple and invaluable.

In large classroom environments, instant messaging (managed by a proctor) has proven useful as a Q&A medium and helps involve more introverted individuals who are normally reluctant to speak up. In conference environments, chat ‘back channels’ have had mixed results – sometimes being a useful addition to the presentation, making it more discussion focused, and sometimes creating a bit of a storm in a teacup.

Closing Note

The key to improving collaboration is to first understand the different forms of collaboration that exist (or need to) within your organisation and identify in what ways they could be improved.

Part 2 will look at the different types of collaboration activity.

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