An Online Collaboration Handbook: How to get a group working online

Jonathan Eyler-Werve

January 14, 2012

fallingwater house

Fallingwater House. Image by Via Tsuji (CC by/nc/sa)

This essay was written for Global Integrity, as part of the Indaba fieldwork platform site. Original post here. (CC/by)

I’d like to have a conversation about how online collaboration works, based on some things we learned while building the Indaba fieldwork platform, a tool for organizations that use distributed teams to publish data.

Over the last ten years I have used, loved and hated online collaboration tools with teams in more than 100 countries. It’s not magic. Online collaboration is simply getting stuff done over the Internet, and online collaboration tools, all of them, have some means of addressing three functions: relationship management, knowledge management, and project management. Put more simply: keeping people connected, getting them the stuff they need, and sorting out what to do next.

But before I can talk about that, I need to vent a little.

Prologue: Why you hate your online collaboration tools.

This is a picture of Frank Lloyd Wright.

Frank Lloyd Wright headshot

This is a picture of a hammer.


This is a picture of Fallingwater, a landmark in modern architecture.

Falling Water, a house on a wooded stream in modern architecture style

If we want to understand Fallingwater, most scholars would focus on the architect, not the hammer, despite the many technical innovations contained within the house. This is the correct approach because Frank Lloyd Wright is more interesting than a hammer.

Most discussion of online collaboration does exactly the opposite. All hammers, all the time.

As an occasional presenter at tech-for-social change events, I share the blame. The conferences, blogs and training manuals aimed at the social sector too frequently skip discussion of innovative social institutions and organizational models. We frequently avoid the messy, political discussions of people, their ideas, their behaviors and the background institutions that make their work possible. Instead, aspiring non-profiteers will find great enthusiasm for specific technologies (“social media”), usually approached via uncritical hype for specific technology brands. (Actual training workshop: “Why We Love Twitter & You Should Too!”[1]) Along the way, recipients of this wisdom rarely pause to consider the basics: What do we intend to do with any of these tools, how do they fit into our organization’s theory of change, and how will the behaviors enabled by these tools transform our organizational structure and relationships?

I co-organize a Net² discussion group for social sector tech. We sometimes use “What’s your favorite new tool?” as an opening discussion. We have never opened a meeting with “What’s your favorite new organizational behavior?” or “What’s your most effective workflow?” or “How has the technology your organization uses transformed your internal or external relationships?” They are much more difficult questions to answer because we aren’t trained to notice these things. Technology providers are happy to keep it that way because it is easier to sell hammers than facilitate a discussion of how a new technology will transform internal power dynamics, however essential that discussion may be to the success of a project.

The unvisited graveyard of forgotten tech.

As a result, the social sector is tool rich but insight poor. This tunnel vision has real consequences, most visibly in the vast graveyard of technology-for-social-change projects that have produced technology but little to no social change. These usually take the form of discussion forums, user-submitted libraries and easy-to-edit wikis that are not in fact enabling any discussion, user submissions or edits. There are a lot of empty forums, silent social networks and abandoned wikis out there, despite the best intentions of their sponsors. I’ve built a few myself.

If this is surprising to you, here’s why: non-profit grant reporting requirements make it deeply uncomfortable for organizations to talk publicly about failed projects. Grantmakers that learn (at great effort) of the dismal long-term success rates for new nonprofit tech also tend not to publicize it. As a result, we often fail without learning.

Beyond our field’s structural barriers to self-awareness, I believe a key driver of this repeated failure is a lack of understanding of the behavioral implications of new technologies. In this paper, I’ll attempt to create a framework for understanding online collaboration. I write with the hope of encouraging social sector organizations to select appropriate online collaboration tools, and for technology providers to build effective collaboration platforms.

I propose that the best way to understand what a technology “does” is to ignore the technology until you understand the social behaviors it enables. Technology that does not change the pattern of human interactions is unlikely to have significant impact on the social sector, however novel the technical approach. It’s the behaviors that matter. (See the work of Clay Shirky for more exploration of this idea.)

Goals and invitations

A definition: online collaboration is a fancy way of saying “a group of people trying to complete work toward a goal via communications technology.” Any discussion of online collaboration presumes a few important things: a group; a method of work; a goal; and finally, a technology. The social sector’s focus on tools tends to skip over the first three items, particularly when the term “crowd sourcing” comes into play. Do this at your peril. The citizens of the Internet are not your private army, and the excellence of your tools will not save you if you have no workers, unclear goals, or no useful work for them to do.

There is much excitement around distributed projects, sometimes known as crowd sourcing. This enthusiasm is justified; however, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. A great many poorly informed ideas end with the phrase “…just like Wikipedia did.” The lesson that should be learned from successful crowd sourcing is that online collaboration can dramatically lower transaction costs and accelerate iteration among contributors, particularly at large scale. The lesson that is incorrectly learned from crowd sourcing is that on the Internet, people will work for free. Good luck with that.

There is much to say about how to organize people and how to invite participation that respects the varied motivations of all involved; we should also discuss licenses, contracts and ownership arrangements of collaborative work. That’s not the topic of this paper. But I want highlight the importance of this. Online collaboration tools must be aimed at a specific problem for an identified, invested group of people. If you can clearly identify the work you are trying to do, if you have your workers in mind (volunteer or otherwise), and if you need help managing the flowing scrum of activity that this work creates, then we are finally ready to talk about online collaboration tools and what they can do for you.

A framework for understanding online collaboration

Online collaboration platforms, all of them, have some means of addressing three functions: relationship management, knowledge management, and project management. Or put more simply: every collaboration platform must keep people connected, get them the stuff they need, and sort out what to do next.

By applying this conceptual framework to a collaboration tool, a potential user can start asking the important questions of how does a given tool accomplish these objectives. If these approaches fit your organization’s preferred working style, then it is a good tool. If the tools solves these problems in ways that do not work for your organization, or if the tool has no identifiable solution to these issues, then you might consider using something else.

Let’s get started…

Relationship management

To the tech savvy, the term relationship management calls to mind a specific suite of tools like or CiviCRM. In this framework, we’re using it more generally to address all of the ways an online collaboration platform connects people to the folks they are working with.

Every online collaboration tool will have a way of letting people find each other, and enable some form of communication about the work.

Key relationship management functions that a collaboration platform should address:

  • Who am I working with?
  • How can I connect with those people?
  • Who else should know about what I’m doing? How do I notify them?
  • What mode of communication is preferred by the person I’m trying to reach?
  • Are notifications machine generated? If so, how much control does a manager have over the content of these messages?

A collaboration platform may include messaging systems like sitemail or chat, but it doesn’t have to. The platform may simply enable the transition from an online space to an off-platform discussion over phone, chat or email. For example, the Basecamp collaboration service has no built in peer-to-peer messaging, but does have a “Who’s talking about this message?” column, which lists the photo, name, email address and phone number of everyone who’s participating in a discussion thread. Direct connection with peers is enabled without a lot of technology in the way. It’s easy to use, and it’s also easy to build.

All of the relationship management tools in a collaboration platform are intended to lower the friction between individuals, while retaining appropriate privacy.

The relative openness of a system should be dictated by user needs, not by the tool. Privacy expectations are usually built into a tool; the tool selected needs to match the expectations of the group using it. A peer-to-peer support group for abuse victims may have very different expectations about sharing photos or phone numbers than co-workers who share an office. If you haven’t talked to your users about this, I recommend it.

The current status quo for relationship management in social sector organizations is the email inbox. Your email program remembers who you’ve messaged, it stores that for later (we hope), and you use it to connect with people. Maybe you store emails in a folder, so you can find people again. This may be paired with a pile of Post It notes, a spreadsheet entitled “Contact List” or perhaps a full-on relationship management system (in practice, a big database) like or CiviCRM.

We like email because it is simple, universal and flexible. However, the ease of use comes with “technology debt,” or deferred costs brought on by avoiding planning and structure. Nothing is stored centrally. Nothing is moderated or visible to managers. Project messages arrive in a cesspool of spam and unrelated email.

All of this creates friction: distraction, delays, confusion and stress. A collaboration space can and should relieve some of this burden. Good tools can help, but less is more: the relationship tools in the most successful online collaboration platforms are usually featherweight and respect pre-existing modes of communication.

Knowledge management

All online workers are, in the words of Robert Reich, “symbolic analysts”. The work we do involves manipulating digital stuff: writing, databases, images or other files. So doing work online requires that you have access to this digital stuff, but only the stuff you want, and none of the stuff you aren’t allowed to see. You may also benefit from documents and databases created by your peers that tell you how to do your work. This process of getting stuff out of people’s heads, notebooks and cameras and into something more permanent is called knowledge management.

There’s a lot of crucial project knowledge that exists only in people’s heads. One of the best things you can do to improve knowledge management in long-running projects is to encourage people to get information out of their heads and onto something more permanent. This also tends to make those people happier workers (see David Allen’s Getting Things Done). Having a framework to store and share these new documents will encourage people to create them. This is where your online collaboration tools come in.

When it comes to documents, storing digital stuff is easy. Finding it again is the hard part. In online collaboration, all knowledge management comes down to being able to find what you’re looking for. At one point, organizations used filenames in folders, and finding things was a matter of knowing which branch of the folder tree to look in, and drilling down until you found the right filename. This is simple and durable, but lacks ways to add description and context to a document beyond the filename, which usually looks something like this:


The other popular file repository is the email inbox: everything you could ever need, as long as it happened in the last few weeks. The two represent the two major modes of storage: stable, and contextual. Contextual interfaces are often driven by algorithms that help filter out things you haven’t been working on (Google Reader allows you to sort by name, sort by date or “Sort by magic”). These algorithms work well, except when they don’t, and then they fail completely. Really good storage systems allow users to switch between contextual interfaces (“whatever’s most relevant”) and stable interfaces (“everything in its place”) for organizing information. Good search engines are one way to provide a “stable” lookup in a otherwise highly contextual tool.

These days, there are a number of ways organizations store information, some of which are chosen quite accidentally: no one intends a Google Group to become a knowledge repository until you need a phone number someone mentioned three months ago. Forums, wikis, FAQs, websites and ticketing systems are all working alternatives to the giant shared hard drive.

Contextual interfaces have a natural working scale. Get too big or too small, and forums, file systems or wikis stop working effectively. A quick workaround is to hive off an overgrown knowledge base into two or more smaller working groups. However, in general, the less hierarchy the better, and transparency across hives should still be possible.

A good knowledge management system will…

  • Help people find what they want.
  • Help people know what help or documentation is available.
  • Control access to documents.
  • Control versioning of documents.
  • Attach metadata to documents like datestamps, revision history, or ownership data.
  • Allow discussion of documents to travel with the document.

Regardless of what form of knowledge management you use, a few habits can make things go better. If your online collaboration tool doesn’t allow and encourage these habits, that’s a problem.

  • Write down and broadcast your system, whatever it is. People want structure.
  • Love and empower your librarians: the people who relabel files, merge threads, delete chatter, and otherwise keep things tidy.
  • Labels are very, very important. Search is only as good as your labels.
  • “Tagging” or “attaching” documents, discussion threads, and other narrowly focused objects to more general categories of objects is useful.

Project management

Project management is the most common function of online collaboration tools, but it’s perhaps the least well implemented. While an ocean of task lists, Gantt charts and other features are available to you, all project management boils down to a few questions:

  • Who’s doing what?
  • How’s that going?
  • What should I do next?

In online collaboration, project management is the process by which accountability for outcomes happens. Accountability is largely a question of habits and transparency. To make it work, your team needs the following:

  • Clear expectations on what people are invited to do.
  • Clean boundaries on what a unit of “work” is: until I say it’s done, or until you say it’s done?
  • A report-back system that lets people record progress on work.
  • A dashboard of some kind that lets managers or other users see those progress reports and use that to make decisions.

This can either be highly automated, like a task list or ticketing system that is assigned out to people, or it can be more fluid, like a scrum meeting on Monday to divide up work, and another on Friday to report back on progress. In the latter scenario, a chat room and a scribe posting notes to a message thread are all the technology you need to do this really well. It comes down to matching the technology to the working style of your people. In some cases, your working style might be bad, and then no technology will fix it. You have to fix your organization first.

If your working style is good, maybe the best technology is a very minimal solution with very few bells and whistles. But beware the vendor who tells you that with the right technology platform, people will suddenly abandon their anti-social behaviors and work in harmony. I mean, have you seen the Internet? It doesn’t do harmony.

Putting it all together

These three concepts functions that any online collaboration space must fulfill. While there are many possible correct answers to the questions of managing relationships, knowledge and accountability in a group, there are also very clearly wrong answers. You should put some thought into each of these before attempting to get work done online.

I wish you luck in your ventures, current and future. I gratefully invite your critical feedback on this paper in comments below.

You are welcome to adapt or distribute this paper, with attribution (CC/by). It was created with gratitude to the Aspiration Manifesto, and the Nonprofit Software Development Summit 2010 and Chicago COUNTS participants, who contributed essential concepts to this paper.

The author, Jonathan Eyler-Werve, is a product designer who builds tools for public benefit organizations.

This essay was written for Global Integrity, as part of the Indaba fieldwork platform site. Original post here. (CC/by)