The Structure of Collaboration in Electronic Networks*

Article excerpt


Many electronic networks, such as forums, provide interaction spaces where participants collaborate on complex issues over extended periods of time. However, while inter- and intra-organizational collaboration has been widely studied, collaboration practices in electronic networks need further investigation. Extant research on electronic networks has mainly emphasized availability of expertise, by focusing on factors such as individual resources and participant diversity. We call for a closer examination of the collaboration practices that allow such expertise to be leveraged for successful outcomes. We argue that an examination of collaboration practices in different technology-enabled contexts is essential to the study of knowledge work, which increasingly occurs in electronic networks. Therefore, in this paper, we provide a starting point by investigating the structure of collaboration that enables one group to engage in "deep discussion" and sense-making, develop perspectives, and create knowledge. Specifically, in the context of discussion threads, which are the locus of collaboration in many electronic networks, we explore the structure of interaction that leads to effective collaboration. We propose that two dimensions-initiating dialogue and sustaining dialogue-predict the effectiveness of collaboration in discussion threads. The hypotheses are tested on six months of message data collected from an electronic network focused on methodological issues in the social sciences. We find that the proposed interaction variables contribute to knowledge work over and above the traditional variables that have been studied in the literature such as individual resources and participant diversity.

Keywords: online communities, computer-mediated communication collaboration

1. Introduction

Electronic networks, traditionally called online communities, help users with a variety of purposes and motivations overcome limitations of space and time to gather in virtual spaces (Cummings et al. 2002; Preece 2000; Sproull 2004). Electronic networks represent new ways of collaborating and organizing knowledge work across the boundaries of firms. Researchers have noted that virtual organizing within and across firms creates "forms that are more reconfigurable," "boundaryless," and "flexible" (DeSanctis and Monge 1999) as well as affordances for "visualizing entire work processes" and engaging in "mass collaboration" (Zammuto et al. 2007). But work accomplished in electronic networks, especially those that are practice-based, calls for an extension of these ideas due to the voluntary nature of the work as well as the potential scale and diversity of the participants. For instance, prominent collaborative accomplishments, such as the widely studied development of the Linux operating system, involves loosely coordinated, self-organizing, and voluntary work by thousands of developers from all over the world (Lee and Cole 2003; Moon and Sproull 2000). Examples of other "collaborative work communities" such as the distributed proofreaders project (Sproull 2004) and the creation of online encyclopedias and other collaborative content (Wagner and Majchrzak 2007) also provide interesting case studies. However, beyond the fact that threads play an important organizing role in coordinating work (Yates et al. 2003), we know very little about the structure of collaboration in electronic networks.

In particular, despite the interest in new organizational forms enabled by IT (Fulk and DeSanctis, 1995; McPhee and Poole, 2001), studies on electronic networks have mainly focused on individuallevel motivations, resources, and participant diversity (Constant et al. 1996; Wasko and Faraj 2005). While this research has yielded valuable insights, the underlying assumption in these studies tends to be that the most important predictor of success is locating and motivating individuals with the right expertise and resources to participate. …