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10 lessons in distributed collaboration

Ravenna Nuaimy Barker
May, 2020


Distributed collaboration is collaboration that happens across geographic distance, including working virtually. While we have been supporting distributed collaboration for years, never before COVID-19 have all parts of all processes been held in online and virtual spaces. Working exclusively in virtual and online spaces over the last two months has generated rich learning for us. Here are some of the things we’ve learned.

Some things are better when done through distributed collaboration

1) Getting geographically disparate groups together quickly and affordably

Getting individuals from distant places together for a 2 or 3 day workshop requires a great deal of time, coordination, planning, and money. Organizing that same group for sessions that do not require travel can be accomplished in a few days. It can also be easier for stakeholders to commit to shorter, dispersed sessions over time, rather than dedicating a block of multiple days.

2) Keeping momentum

With multiple, shorter sessions spread out over a period of time, distributed collaboration can maintain momentum over an extended time frame and avoid the lull that may happen between face-to-face events.

3) Making thinking visual

When used well, digital whiteboard technologies can be highly effective in helping people make their thoughts visual. This technology can make it easier to document thinking and decisions in real time, see where there is agreement and disagreement, and ultimately increase understanding of one another’s perspectives.

4) Sharing information and ideas

Chat functions on most video calling platforms allow participants to share information and ideas simultaneously. Rather than needing to wait for each person to speak, or breaking into small groups, participants can share links, descriptions, thoughts, and ideas inspired by or responding to the conversation that is happening. At the end of the call, the ideas and links are documented and made available to the participants.

One thing that can be better or worse

5) Safety

The process of convening in person can be transformative, but sometimes physically getting together can be a barrier. In the case of hot conflicts it can be very challenging for participants to enter a physical space as some may fear for their safety while others are incarcerated, in hiding, or unable to safely move. In these cases, distributed dialogue can make a process safe and possible. In fact, our first experience with distributed collaboration was in 1996 when guerillas dialed in to a scenario process in Colombia via speakerphone.

Meanwhile, fears or discomfort with being recorded can be heightened in distributed collaboration, making it important to be clear when confidentiality is required and to take every precaution to ensure it. Sometimes, when it is significant enough, the need for confidentiality can make distributed collaboration impossible.

Challenges to distributed collaboration

6) Power dynamics are different when working in virtual spaces

Virtual spaces introduce new dynamics into social systems. Different people will experience varying levels of comfort and participate in different ways in these spaces. Process designers and facilitators need to understand how power dynamics are likely to affect a convening and design to ensure all voices can be fully heard.

7) Not everyone has equal access to collaboration-supporting technology

Not all stakeholders have high-speed internet or devices that support video calls and digital whiteboards. Prior to beginning, it is important to assess the technologies stakeholders have access to, and to address any gaps. Options for filling gaps and adapting might include supplying participants with modems or computers or in some cases holding the process via conference calls.

Further, there are groups and individuals for whom collaborating in virtual spaces can be challenging. For example, people with visual or audio impairment or certain neurological differences may need additional supports to enable their engagement in virtual collaboration. Sometimes virtual spaces may not be suitable for everyone. It is important to work with all potential participants to ensure that the technological environment being created will support everyone’s participation.

8) Learning and using new technology can be distracting and stressful

Telecommunication technology, digital whiteboards, and document sharing systems can make distributed collaboration processes engaging, participatory, and effective. However, if participants are unfamiliar with these technologies, they may find that, rather than supporting engagement, these technologies distract.

Prior to beginning distributed collaboration processes, we provide participants with time and space to learn and explore the new technologies. We have also learned to keep our processes as simple as possible, only asking participants to use new tools when they provide significant value.

9) Sometimes technology fails

Electricity, internet, and devices sometimes fail to work. Whether it’s spilling a cup of coffee on a computer, a temporary electricity blackout, or an internet outage--unexpected incidents can undermine participants’ ability to engage in distributed collaboration. While not every incident can be anticipated, participants and facilitators alike can have backup plans that may mitigate these incidents. For example, having devices charged prior to an event and knowing how to access calls and tools through more than one device can help participants to remain engaged, even when the unexpected happens.

10) People cannot spend as much time in video calls as in face-to-face meetings

Our face-to-face processes often include workshops of multiple consecutive days. Spending full days on video calls, while not impossible, is draining for most people. We are now hosting workshops in 2-4 hour sessions across several days. We are also learning to focus on the most fundamental group activities during video calls, while assigning other work outside of the group whenever possible. Outside of the event, participants may work on documents in their own time, or go on dialogue walks with another participant via an audio call.

Moving forward

Over the past two months, we have been positively impressed by the level of energy, connection, creativity, and partnership that is achieved in distributed collaboration. Far more is possible than we realized. But something is still missing – the informal connections, the warmth of being with other humans, the depth of mutual understanding and empathy that comes from engaging face-to-face. Because of this, we look forward to supporting face-to-face processes going forward. However, given what we’ve learned, the “next normal” for our work even after the crisis subsides, will undoubtedly incorporate more distributed collaboration. It will reduce our carbon footprint, and sometimes, it may simply be a better approach to reach desired outcomes.

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