Saturday, April 02, 2005

On Collaboration

We encourage our students to work in groups, but what direct knowledge do we have of group work ourselves? I know that I became a faculty member in significant part to pursue the voice in my own head and allow that to be expressed. When my primary job was to write economics research papers, while I did co-author especially as I got a little older, I also developed models and ideas that were mine alone. My efforts toward collaboration happened more in the afternoon workshops where somebody would present and I felt it my duty in the audience to ask questions. I was fairly good at this, with some ability to penetrate somebody else’s idea and provoke them into thinking harder about their work. But this was a closed ended activity in almost all cases. After the workshop was over we might go for a beer to discuss further, but beyond that the idea remained the author’s. The rest of us moved to something else.

Life for me is different now. I am on several committees/groups where the idea is to jointly produce something, typically a white paper or some other document, with the intent that the document will have legs, either to guide the actions of others, to generate funds from other campus sources, or both. Most recently I’ve done this in settings where there are other representatives from my organization, CITES, and representatives from the Library. I’ve always felt somewhat of an outsider in CITES, even if in the org structure I’m a consummate insider. The point here is that in these writing exercises I don’t have a world view that is akin to the other CITES members. The Librarians in the group seem more like minded, but perhaps that is because I’m not sufficiently in tune with their issues and the nuances of those.

It is fairly easy to shirk in these committees, especially since I’m only a member not the designated leader. The main reason to do so is not lack of time per se but rather that while everyone is earnest I don’t have a good sense of how the others come at things and therefore don’t know what would make them receptive to my own efforts and what would make them critical. There is also the “too many cooks” problem. Some of these writing efforts get over managed because everyone wants to chime in.

But the biggest issue for me is how to deal with criticism. The core question is whether I should defend my arguments or cave in. Normally, I like my writing. I like producing ideas and then polishing them sufficiently so I think they are accessible by others. My instinct is to bark at criticism from others and, perhaps it is immature of me, if the other person hasn’t previously earned my trust I’m likely to be skeptical that what the other person has offered up is an improvement over what I’ve done.

Nevertheless, I have learned from my management experience and understand that sometimes a tolerable but inferior solution advances for the good of the order. Here is an example that illustrates the point nicely. The EdTech unit which reports to me developed a browser checker for using WebCT Vista. They did an excellent job (many other campuses used the tool) and developed something that raised the user’s awareness as it helped them get ready to use the Vista software. Ultimately, however, WebCT developed their own browser checker tool. So we abandoned ours, though we thought ours was functionally better, because they had a commitment to sustain their tool and we are scrambling to find resources to do our work. If there is something we don’t have to support that frees up resources for something else.

I bring that worldview to the group work and it encourages me to make my point and then leave the ultimate decision as to what happens to others. But this is an inherently asymmetric approach. I have an opinion. Sometimes I share it. Other times not. Generating consensus is a value that may be more important than “getting it right.” I’m not advocating for mediocrity and if the group product is lousy I feel I have an obligation to speak up. However, groups can produce tolerably good work and then the issue is whether to strive to make the work more perfect or to move on. Moving on can readily be rationalized as optimal in the context of the larger work that has to be done. Yet sometimes I wonder whether I cave in too soon, especially in defense of my own contributions.

No comments: