People collaborating around a laptop.

Defining Collaborgagement

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I coined the term collaborgagement while attending a conference on content strategy. At this conference, John Newton (Alfresco’s CTO) commented that the next generation of enterprise IT tools needs to serve the middle of the enterprise – the domain of the knowledge workers. These tools need to support collaboration, knowledge management, and just-in-time sharing of expertise. Even so, collaboration/knowledge management software doesn’t automatically empower knowledge workers. There must be more than just new tools.

Collaboration is important but it is not enough. What is needed is something that would continue the benefits of collaboration between the collaboration sessions. A way of engaging the person’s thoughts and focusing those thoughts on the collaboration work even when the person is working alone. A process I call collaborgagement. Not just a combination of collaboration and engagement but a synergistic process.

The foundation of collaborgagement is the mental model. The mental model has been variously defined by different fields, but the consensus seems that mental models are “deeply ingrained assumptions, generalizations, or even pictures or images that influence how we understand the world and how we take action” (Wind and Crook, 2005). Individuals have mental models, but so do teams and departments. The purpose of the mental model is to make sense of various aspects of our lives including our work. Mental models take a great deal of effort to build, but the benefit is that once created, they reduce our thinking load.

For example, researchers have found that expert chess players think less than novice chess players because the expert chess player can focus on several pieces at once and perceive patterns of board arrangements. The novice chess player has to concentrate on separate pieces and build the pattern from the individual pieces. The expert chess player has a library of mental models they can consult that makes them better players because they can “lookup” the answer to a chess problem while a novice is still calculating the problem.

The same process can be seen in everyday life. Think of how you learned to drive. Remember all the steps you had to master to start the car, put it in drive, and begin your journey. Repetition and observation helped you build a mental model so that driving almost becomes an automatic process requiring little conscious thinking.

The challenge is that we rely on our mental models so much we strenuously resist changing or discarding our existing models. This goes for team mental models and individual mental models. But our changing world requires that we change our mental models, or they quickly lose their benefit and can even harm us in the new realities we face. We need a process of engaging people’s attention at the level of their mental models and then collaborate to help explore current mental models and modify or even replace these mental models on an individual and team level. This is the purpose of collaborgagement.

There are probably several methods for examining current mental models and altering them, but I like the process Wind and Crook (2005) outline in their book The Power of Impossible Thinking:

  • Understand the power and limits of mental models.
  • Test the relevance of your mental models against the changing environment, generate new models, and develop an integrated portfolio of models.
  • Overcome inhibitors to change by reshaping infrastructure and the thinking of others.
  • Transform your world by acting quickly upon the new models, continuously experimenting, and applying a process for assessing and strengthening your models. (p. xxiv)
Two people collaborating at a white board.

With Wind and Crook’s (2005) process in mind, this is how collaborgagement would work:

  • Before a team meeting, the individual members examine their existing mental models that relate to the topic of the meeting. The team member may want to blog, mind map, or similar tool to help him or her to surface the mental models and produce it in a tangible form.
  • During the team meeting, the individual members display their mental models. Then the team works together to surface the team mental models in a tangible form.
  • The team then examines the new reality of the topic and lists the characteristics. The goal of this phase is to come to a consensus about the new reality.
  • After a consensus has been reached, the team compares the current team mental model to the new reality. Does the team mental model need revising, or is an entirely new team mental model required? The team works to determine the revisions or constructs the new mental model.
  • After the team meeting, the individual members go on their own to reflect on the consensus about the new reality and how their current mental models compare to the new reality. The member then revises their existing mental models or constructs new mental models that reflect both the new reality and the team mental model.
  • What is significant about this process is that it engages people on a deeper level than what usually happens in change efforts. I have been to plenty of meetings where great ideas and energy has been generated, but it quickly dissipates once the meeting is over. For profound and sustainable change to happen, you must engage people at a fundamental level and produce collaboration that carries on ever after the meeting is over. Starting at the mental model level is the best way to create lasting transformative change.

Reference:

Wind, Y., & Crook, C. (2005). The power of impossible thinking: Transform the business of your life and the life of your business. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Wharton School Publishing.