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Trust is at the heart of collaboration

Dave » 12 years 8 weeks ago

That’s how Jim Ware over at the Future of Work Weblog put it, and I couldn’t agree more. He pointed to the most recent Wikipedia gaffe, where people swarmed in to edit an article with fictitious information, as indicative of “the dark side of collaborative technology”, and of “the dangers of remote collaboration with strangers”.

First, I’d be wary of calling it “the dark side of collaborative technology”. After all, it’s not collaborative technology that is the problem, but anonymous collaboration itself. I do agree that the nature of anonymous, remote collaboration creates opportunities for abuse. Indeed, there’s less of a deterrent against abuse when you don’t think anyone will know it was you. That’s a real-world concept widely applied.

But Jim ultimately gets it right when he says:

[T]rust is at the heart of collaboration. It’s all well and good to communicate with strangers in cyberspace, but trust that produces genuine learning and new knowledge is a fragile thing. It takes time and common experiences to build trust - and that is a major reason why we don’t advocate distributed work as a panacea. Even globally distributed teams need some “face time” at key points in their life cycle. After all, it’s knowing who your colleagues/teammates are, what they know, and how they work, that enables teams to work well even when their members are dispersed across the globe.

So don’t ever think that collaborative technologies can replace face-to-face presence, or even short-cut the path to trust.

Agreed. Trust is a critical component of effective collaboration. Wikipedia could eliminate some of that problem by requiring everyone to have an account, but it wants to make it easy and quick for people to contribute. Imagine if anyone that visited Wikipedia was easily and surely identified, something that’s not accurate now with the current (and widespread) method of using IP addresses to identify a visitor. Imagine if there was an Internet-wide ID of sorts (those things are being worked on), complete with a rating based on your history and any past abuses — if you abused Wikipedia, the next site you visited might choose to be wary of you. You bet abuse would drop significantly, if not be eliminated altogether.

It’s all about reputation, and thus about a single identity for that reputation to be attached to. There’s implicit trust when you live amongst a community where people know your name, as well as where you might work and live. If you say or do something bad, word might get around and it’ll come back to haunt you. That scenario creates a natural deterrent in the real world.

It’s also about what I call the human element — “face-to-face presence” as Jim calls it. Being physically present is supreme, but even when that’s not possible there are still ways to cultivate a human element. Have everyone post a picture of themselves, share a non-work-related bit about themselves, meet in real-time (voice, video, or chat) to share on a personal level as often as possible.

Identity, reputation, and the human element — combined with effective knowledge-sharing tools — serve to foster an effective remote collaboration environment.

The key is learning from the real world. Rather, it’s about not divorcing technology from the real world (one reason I don’t take to the term “cyberspace”), at least when we’re trying to do real-world things. Indeed, most large-scale web-based services include identity and reputation systems at their core.

At Woven, we’re exploring important areas like this as we work to create environments that support effective remote collaboration and distributed work.

Updated for clarity.