Accept no substitutes

Social vs Collaborative

At the NSF Information Seeking workshop this morning, some one (all names and affiliations must be hidden) briefly mentioned that collaboration and being social were not the same. This got me to thinking.

Collaboration is, and I do my best to recall help me if you were there and took notes, several people working together on the same predefined problem or set of problems each depending on each other and each contributing in some specific way.

Social however is much looser and more ad hoc. The intention is less predetermined or predefined, more haphazard perhaps. In fact, social has more to do with Dunbar-ian stroking and grooming than with getting any specific job done. Social interactions may give rise to incidental help and even to collaboration, but that’s not the main intent.

Collaboration can be mandated, but social cannot. You can pick your friends — as the saying goes — but picking your co-workers and collaborators may be done by others — your boss, manager or the dreaded human resources department.

An ideal work environment for some people would have a very strong overlap between social and collaboration — all kinds of team building tries to shade us over to this overlap. But we still resist. Some people we accept for their talents, respect for their contributions, etc, but we’d rather not spend a week at the beach with them.

And we have great friends who we could never work with for very long. Whose friendship we cherish, but whose skills we’d rather not have to depend on.

This points out the weaknesses of social networks versus networks for collaboration. When using say, I want collaborators for much of my research and teaching and work. But when it comes to say, I want my friends who share and enlighten me about music. People using FaceBook for work can see right away what I’m getting at. I do feel close to many of my coworkers and they keep me in touch with a lot of things I’d otherwise miss, but I don’t use FaceBook as a work resource — except for those times I need incidental or ad hoc help. I think that LinkedIn is defining itself less of a social space and more of a collaboration space. Not so much for active collaboration in any constant way but in a kind of punctuated temporary way that is slightly ad hoc but more about information exchange — I see Bill is in your network and he seems to have the skills we need in my office. Could you recommend him?

Both ends of a spectrum between the purely social and the purely collaborative build and activate social capital, but each seems to me to be of a different type. Types which are not exactly the same valence say.

Still thinking on this.


  1. jkd

    Maybe a good way of fleshing out the differences between collaboration and sociability is by trying to figure out what the desired end-state is of a given process.

    (i) What’s the desired end-state from a social interaction? Pleasure derived; social capital built; promise of future pleasure and possibilities for social-capital-building. [and…?]

    (ii) And for collaboration? Project completed; localized [within work environment or field] social capital built; possibilities for future collaboration investigated.

    And yes, the social capital is different. I’m still thinking about the ways in which it is, but – in (i) it’s more along the lines of “I like hanging out with this guy, would like to again, you should to” with the possibility that the “you” here would be a future social or possibly professional asset; in (ii) it’s more a case of “this guy does good work, you should want to work with him” with you being a more specifically professional relationship. So maybe it’s a question of scope – sociability by remaining more general affords more kinds of long-term social-capital-building (at one or several removes) but is less specifically devoted to a particular task; collaboration is more zoomed-in but as a consequence of focusing on a particular task [working together in a professional setting] allows fewer other kinds of social-capital building over the long term and at fewer removes.

    Still a lot to think about, though…

  2. Mr Brown

    As usual, i can offer little practical advice. But I do provide an example. I work for a teeny-tiny consulting firm that is VERY collaborative, and always has been, born in the (cough) sanctified halls of acadaemia. For many years we all worked in the same building, sometimes the same room, and the level of sociability stayed fairly low. Just a bunch of pre-occupied geeks in their own private universes.

    Then we ‘down sized’, and the remaining members of the club work from home or where ever the hell that one guy is. And one in Europe. The collaboration and socialization are approximately the same (except for that one guy whom I hate), using the standard kit: email, telephone and a internets chatter-thingy. we have some shared screen real-estate using vnc as well, but sometimes the lack of physical proximity slows things down too much. Sometimes you just can’t think of the answer with a plug in your ear. So some problems, both the physical as well as the more esoteric, can sometimes be solved by collaborating more sociably, ie, by getting in the car and driving over.

    This is related to “The Sysadmin Effect”, where by going through the (social) process of calling the sysadmin to your side and spelling out what the problem is, the problem magically vanishes.

    Further, Joey and Johnny Ramone de-fckn-spized each other, never spoke directly, and toured and wrote songs for many years. (Who is your favorite Ramone? Joey.) Say what you will about the quality, they had a collaboration.

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