thinking about collaborations

A lot of academic work is collaborative. It’s a fine irony then that academics are generally managed, promoted and audited as individuals. Citation measures like google scholar are a prime example – publications are seen as solo affairs, even when most of the work that is represented in an H index is the result of team work.

But teams are often organised hierarchically. Pyramid team structures can lead to a load of issues, not least of which is who takes credit for ideas, who gets acknowledged in publications, and how authorship is managed. Yes, there are principles and guides for how to manage collaboration, but you only have to read social media for a few days to know that those at the top of team trees don’t always abide by the authoring/recognition rules.

I’ve been wondering what would happen if we regularly thought out loud about team work and collaboration. If we had some shared concepts and terms for collaborative work, would it help us to discuss difficult team issues? Perhaps not. But maybe talking out loud about teams and collaboration would at least suggest it isn’t something that we all just know how to do.

To that end I’ve been revisiting some research into collaborative work. So this post is just a bit of me thinking aloud. No tips and tricks here. Just some musings. 

I’ve just re-read a text about creative collaboration written by the late Vera John-Steiner. Among a load of interesting material, she proposed four patterns of creative collaboration:

  • Distributed collaboration. John-Steiner describes distributed collaboration as the result of conversation between people – conversation that is unplanned and informal. Distributed collaboration happens when people pool ideas, when they spark off each other, to the point that no single person can take credit for the idea. The idea was developed from exchange. From dialogue. I’m sure you will recognise and may well have experienced DC – it’s how a lot of projects and papers actually start off. And ideas can be generated in just this way in team meetings. It’s one of the best things about collaborative work. Perhaps it would be good to recognise at the time when something is not any one person’s idea, but has been collectively developed.
  • Complementary collaboration. CC is actually, according to John-Steiner, how most teams operate. Everyone has their role in the team. They do what they are expected to do and do not stray into areas that belong to someone else. CC teams need to be coordinated and managed well to maximise the synergy between the various parts of the whole. But it’s CC’s role-divided model which gets into most trouble with allocating and taking credit for work done and with ensuring that everyone has a fair chance at authoring. And if there are occasions when team meetings generated an idea via distributed collaboration, the idea often gets subsumed into the hierarchical structure. Attributed to the top dog. When collaboration is complementary it might be helpful to take note of ideas and approaches that are developed via other modes. And for there to be regular discussions about how equitable the role structure is.
  • Family collaboration. John-Steiner discusses teams where people swap roles, with different members taking the lead at different moments and for different tasks. Family collaborations most often occur in teams that have been together for a long time, and where there are shared values, high levels of trust and people care about and are committed to working with each other. Family collaborations don’t magically happen. They are, as the name suggests, often places where people can grow from being “new” to “expert” – there is an expectation and processes in place to support change. Teams that begin as complementary can evolve to become family. But this doesn’t happen automatically, but the result complementary collaboration team members efforts. People need to want and work for a more family mode of operation. It usually takes designated CC team leaders to set up opportunities for different forms of collaboration, including co-construction; they are able to step aside to allow others to take responsibility.
  • Integrative collaboration. John-Steiner claims that some teams go beyond family to become a one. Integrative teams occur when and where the goal is to transform existing ways of thinking, knowing and doing things. The IC collectively stands for an alternative view and approach. Of course, a lot of family and complementary teams also want change. However their processes often get in the way. It is only when the team is able to operate openly, recognising and respecting each other’s differences as well as strengths, that integrative collaboration occurs.

I suspect that many people expect complementary teams to operate more like families. They’d love to get to integrative. But they generally don’t. The crunch comes when some team members expect the team to operate as a family, but it actually works as a complementary, perhaps badly. Then there could well be a lot of frustration and resentment about lack of opportunities, about lack of initiative, about decisions made from the top.

What if the nature of the team and its organisation is on the teams agenda, and what if there is regular thinking how career advancing and authoring opportunities are be shared out among the team, rather than leaving things to chance and convention? Would John-Steiner’s categories help?

John-Steiner says that many collaborations may exist in one dominant mode, but there can also be times when they operate in other ways. This perspective seems helpful to me, as it recognises the potential for movement from one mode to another, the possibilities for becoming more equal, for opening up avenues for different people at different times. The moveable team notion might be a positive.

More on all this to come.

Photo by “My Life Through A Lens” on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in collaboration, complementary collaboration, distributed collaboration, family collaboration, teams and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to thinking about collaborations

  1. ALawlessLog says:

    Thanks Pat. Have had a number of rich conversations recently about team work and their positive and sometimes toxic nature.


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