MIT Center for Collective Intelligence – 4/23 – The developmental arc of massive collaboration

Yesterday’s session of the Center for Collective Intelligence addressed the issue of massive voluntary collaboration (MVC), how and why it works and what motivates people to participate. Kevin Crowston, a professor of information studies at Syracuse University, presented some early ideas on the topic.

The work he and his colleagues are doing seeks to answer two questions:

    What practices make some distributed work teams more effective than others?
    What dynamics help self-organizing distributed teams work effectively?

To consider these issues, they are looking primarily at participation in open source software development projects, as well as at Wikipedia (though less intensively).

One thing I wondered about was the fact that both of these require relatively intensive participation and, in the case of software development, a set of requisite technical skills. These would seem to limit the number of participants and so could unintentionally influence the research.

They want to understand why people contribute to these types of communities in the hope of providing insights for creating more effective ones and to be able to estimate the likelihood for success of a massively collaborative project.

Open source software is a good community to consider in part because there is some much data about the data (and the process behind the data). The same is true for Wikipedia.

An earlier CCI event focused on considering the data behind Wikipedia. You can find my summary here.

People’s motivation for contributing to an activity has, in the past, often been considered solely from an economic model (benefits exceed cost). In the case of MVC, the presumed benefits are things like future job opportunities, ego gratification, etc. In most cases, the only cost is time.

When Crowston and his team looked into the motivators, they found that self-determination and human capital (the ability to develop ones-self) were at the top of the list. When they looked at why people were spending time working on specific MVC projects they found that in many cases the reasons for spending time did not match up with the stated motivations. It was this disconnect that lead to the desire for a better model for understanding motivation.

[Crowston presented a series of detailed slides on these finding which were broken down by salaried participants, participants paid directly for their work and students. I don’t have access to these slides but trust me, the picture they provided was interesting.]

Past research on peoples motivation for participation also didn’t take into account their role in a given project – which could also play a role. Crowston breaks participants in open source software development into six categories – passive users, active users, co-developers, core developers, release coordinators and initiators. Each of these, he suspects, is motivated by different things. (This structure differs from that of Wikipedia. Another difference is that about 40 percent of open source software contributors are compensated.)

In order to understand motivation to participate in a project, it is also important to understand the philosophy of the organization behind the project and the status of a project – whether it is its initial stages, is growing, or is mature.

An effective model for understanding participation in MVC projects would provide a better understanding of how the core job activities, psychological states of participants and expected work output for the project motivate people. Such a model would need to be dynamic because of the dynamic nature of these types of activities – and peoples involvement – over time.

The dynamic aspect of this understanding is important because people move through different stages or participation and are motivated by different things at each stage.

The three stages are:

Initial curiosity – which requires that a project be visible enough to attract attention and that the curiosity/interest it engenders exceeds the perceived cost in time of participation.

Volunteering/ongoing contribution – as contributors receive feedback for initial contributions they are encouraged to do more, with more substantive contributions receiving more positive feedback resulting in a virtuous cycle that helps people to become active participants.

Sustained contributors – while in the early stages of a project contributors may be motivated by the idea of “helping behavior”; in the later stages of a project, participants – particularly sustained contributors – often view their involvement as being akin to joining a social movement.

These sustained contributors – or meta-contributors – (of which there are very few), are frequently no longer doing the core work of a project. Their focus is often on making what exists more usable, essentially become stewards for the project. Their work often enables others to continue to contribute to the core project.

As is the case in virtually every endeavor, in MVC projects a small percentage of participants are the most active contributors.

Crowtson and his colleagues are particularly interested in the factors that sustain MVC projects as they evolve from the early curiosity stage to active and sustained participation. They believe that the feedback loop to contributors is a critical factor.

The practical insights and applications of the early thinking on this topics include the following.

For projects at an early stage:

    Make the project visible
    Reduce barriers to participation
    Provide positive feedback

To cultivate ongoing contributions:

    Provide continual opportunities to contribute
    Ensure tasks remain meaningful
    Articulate shared values

To sustain meta-contributors:

    Reward sustained contributions with increased responsibility and deeper involvement/participation with the project organization or foundation

Some of the general implications of the initial thinking are:

    Consideration of the role of participants
    Consideration the developmental stage of the project
    Maintaining focus on the small number of people that does most of the work
    Providing recognize the contributions of the long tale contributors
    Recognizing the different roles of contributors and meta-contributors

Aside from further development of the motivational model he presented, Crowston and his team also hope to understand why so few women appear to participate in MVC projects and at what point they drop out. They also plan to study the process of socialization that shapes group identification in these types of projects, the growth of project for evidence of the role of feedback and evaluate the limits of their model by testing it in other environments (games for example).

There was an interesting conversation on the role of negative contributions to MVC projects and how that participation should be viewed. This was discussed in the context of Wikipedia as a political tool. The vague consensus in the room seemed to be that negative contributions remained valid forms or participation.

All-in-all, although the ideas and research are still at a very early stage, it was an interesting topic. I have had several conversations with people in the past few weeks about encouraging participation in large projects and this event has helped develop my own thinking on the issue.

[tags]MIT, CCI, collaborative intelligence, massive voluntary collaboration, Kevin Crowston, open source, Wikipedia, motivation[/tags]

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