Collaboration Networks: Bringing Together a Team to Accomplish Your Projects

Smartsheet Contributor Becky Simon on Sep 07, 2017 (Last modified on Aug 10, 2021)

If you have ever had a problem at work that you couldn’t solve on your own, you have felt the pull of putting together a collaboration network. Think back to a time when you had coworkers or someone whom you considered an expert step in and help you find a solution to a difficult issue, or when you attended a professional association meeting and came back full of ideas to push your work even further. This is collaboration. Nowadays, you can even put your sticky issues online, and professionals from all over the world can weigh in with their own solutions and lessons learned. This takes collaboration out of your building or company and makes it global. 

Collaboration networks push your business to new heights. Today, you will hear increasingly about the success of collaboration networks and how you should develop your own. There are now companies that reach out to their network rather than hire an expert to solve a problem. Often, a collection of smaller companies, rather than one large one, develops products and services. 

This article is your guide to collaboration networks: what they are, the benefits and challenges, and how they differ from social networks. Next, we review the different types of collaboration networks and how different industries use them. Then, we examine collaboration network tools and the regulation and discipline of the field itself. Finally, we let our experts weigh in with their experiences and offer advice on how best to set up your network. 


What Is a Collaboration Network?

A collaboration network (CN) is a partnership of autonomous people and organizations, supported by a computer network, that collaborate to share resources, such as data and connectivity. The people and organizations may be in different geographic locations as well as from very different professional environments. CNs distribute power. Enterprises develop collaboration networks with complementary organizations or professionals in order to be competitive regarding certain businesses, markets, or scientific innovations. They are not only the result of advances in technology, but also of progress made in international research. 

The figure below represents a collaboration network within a company. This network encompasses the marketing, sales, and finance departments. As you can see from the diagram, there are different communication flows between people and between different departments. Some people communicate with others in one direction, and some give and receive information. In your chart, you can also assign a name to each figure to symbolize each person in a department. Each of these figures can also represent different companies or priorities within a project. For your communication network diagram, you should be able to see the players, relationships, and the communication flow. Obviously, this is a simple diagram. In reality, your diagram will look more complex, involving many businesses and hundreds of people. If you mapped collaboration in large organizations, you would see clusters of people who collaborate often and bridges of employees who collaborate a lot. In addition, you would see that people seek different types of information from each other. 

 

What Collaboration Network Is

Some features of collaboration networks include:

  • Size of the Network: The number of people to whom you are networked.
  • Network Strength: The strength of the ties in your network.
  • Network Range: Other departments or groups to whom you are connected. 
  • Network Density: How connected are your contacts to each other? This factor determines the flow of information and the amount of trust your group possesses.
  • Network Centrality: Who in your network is most central and gets the information first? You can measure and track this factor.

Organizational networks are informal networks of people within a company who actually interact with each other. An organizational network diagram looks a bit different from your normal organizational chart. An organizational chart in your agency shows the hierarchy and who reports to whom. An organizational network reveals the nature of the relationships within your hierarchy (we’re referring to how your organization really works together). Types of organizational networks include:

  • Collaboration networks
  • Communication networks
  • Friendship networks
  • Advice networks
  • Trust networks

Experts agree that the position of firms within interorganizational collaboration networks has an impact on how those firms behave and how well they innovate while gaining social capital. Social capital is the gain you make because of who you know and who you have relationships with. In a study by Gautam Ahuja, three specific aspects of your firm determine your innovation success: direct ties, indirect ties, and structural holes. In collaboration projects, direct ties are the firms that directly share knowledge and work with each other; the resulting knowledge is available to all partners. However, the direct ties that you have come at a cost — you must maintain this resource, which takes time and money. Indirect ties are the firms that interface with the firms you deal with - you do not have direct access to their resources, but your partners can fill you in. Structural holes are those holes that exist because you have not developed the relationships or ties with specific firms. These holes decrease your company’s ability to innovate. Experts recommend assessing your company’s relationships and social capital before starting a project that requires collaboration in order to locate your shortfalls and determine the balance between developing direct ties and indirect ties. 

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The Benefits and Challenges of a Collaboration Network

Companies can leverage collaboration so that they have a competitive advantage in the marketplace. Start by setting up your network of experts, partners, customers, and suppliers. This way, you acquire a variety of benefits, including co-creating goods and services, shifting to the shared value and culture of collaboration, moving your industry toward its goals, creating flexibility in your workplace, making use of technology and cultivating a tech-savvy workforce, creating sustainable businesses, and getting employees trained quickly. As millennials and Gen Z take over the workplace, there will be a greater shift toward this collaborative type of thinking. 

However, even as the world becomes more collaborative, significant challenges remain. Industries are still seeking ways to govern how they collaborate and set up networks, and security — maintaining your company secrets — is still a struggle. Furthermore, making collaboration strategic can be difficult. Many companies grapple with getting the right partners, not just the one that is available. 


What Is a Social Network?

A social network is less formal than a collaborative network. Many people are familiar and comfortable with social networks because they use social networking technology in their personal lives to connect to family and friends. You can engage personally on social networks to discuss your interests, share your life, learn things, and connect with new people. Some popular social network sites are Facebook, Google+, and Twitter, and they are a relatively simple way to stay connected with people who are not geographically close to you. In some ways, these social networks are clubs. However, in the professional sphere, they have become networking groups and marketing opportunities. 

Many people have contended with separating their personal from their professional lives on social media, as unfortunate personal social media posts can derail careers prospects, and because many managers screen potential candidates by looking them up on social media. Moreover, professionals plan their marketing campaigns around social media now, so there is overlap between the personal and business arenas. 

The difference between collaboration networks and social networks can be difficult to understand because you can certainly collaborate on social networks. Additionally, the platforms that support both social networks and collaboration networks can overlap: both can have blog capacity, forums, groups, file sharing, Wikis, and instant messaging. 

The real difference between the networks, and even the software that supports the networks, is intent. For many people, it is difficult to stem the flow between their work life and their personal life, and they must consciously work to keep the two separate. Collaboration networks exist to further your professional goals and projects. Collaboration network tools focus on the elements you need to advance your work life. There are many distractions on social media and on social networks. For example, in theory you can start a Facebook group to discuss and use that network productively. However, at the same time, your mother may see you available on Facebook Messenger and want to discuss your cousin’s impending wedding. Collaboration networks and their associated tools help to properly channel your group’s work energy. However, turning your enterprise collaboration software into a social site with blogs and Wikis does not necessarily tailor that software to the optimum level of social networking. 

Another type of collaboration network is the scientific collaboration network (SCN), also known as a scholarly collaboration network or social sharing network. Scientists first used this type of collaboration network to share research and publications with one another. Academics also used them as social networking sites. Within the last few years, however, scientists have been able to organize international collaborations to further research progress. One example of a scientific collaboration network is ResearchGate, a free site with over 11 million users mostly in the medical and biology fields. This site requires that its members are researchers or scientists and have an email address that attests to that fact. Academia.edu is another free site for this type of collaboration. It has about 36 million users, but it does not have as strict a joining criteria as ResearchGate. 

One of the biggest concerns about these groups and their existence is the article sharing that occurs within them. Publishers may miss some of the profit associated with publishing original research if their authors are sharing their materials free of charge. Although sharing academic and scientific research has always been common practice, publishers’ main concern is that, through these types of collaboration, sharing is far more widespread. The International Association of Scientific, Technical, and Medical Publishers (STM), which is the trade association that regulates scholarly publishing, is currently trying to decide how to handle this issue. Although there is pressure to make materials open access (where everyone has free access), STM says that it is not currently feasible. 

STM’s stance on scientific collaboration networks is that they are great for professional networking and sharing materials. SCNs connect researchers and move them toward their common goals. However, STM sees their challenges as trying to determine how much article sharing is occurring and trying to figure out how to make metadata in an article searchable in the SCNs. Interestingly, STM is currently using a participatory model to get feedback from SCN users on these issues. They call this a consultative process — a collaboration about the collaboration.


The Different Types of Collaboration Networks

Collaborative networks come in many different forms and can be quite complex. Due to the availability of social media tools and as a response to the overwhelming amount of accessible information, these networks have evolved considerably. Some forms of collaboration networks include:

  • Virtual Organization (VO): This type of company does not have a physical infrastructure, uses technology to collaborate, and is a loose alliance of professionals or companies. By its virtual nature, it relies heavily on telecommunications.
  • Virtual Enterprise (VE): A VE is a special instance of a VO. It is a collection of legally distinct entities that come together to solve a problem based on their unique skills. There is usually minimal investment and overhead, and they disperse once they have completed their project.
  • Dynamic Virtual Organization (DVO): This short-term VO is in response to an opportunity with a short turnaround time. DVOs often disperse when they meet their goal. 
  • Extended Enterprise: A type of VE, an extended enterprise expands their business to incorporate suppliers or other partner relations. There remains a dominant enterprise, however, that either purchases or enters into a contract with other entities to provide a service or product. 
  • VO Breeding Environment (VBE): These organizations make themselves available for opportunities. Acting as a broker, one member chooses which businesses make sense for the project and then contracts them. Upon entry to the VBE, members set up the infrastructure and agreements.
  • Professional Virtual Community (PVC): PVCs represent both professional and virtual communities. Acting as an environment for collaboration and sharing, they provide a sense of community for professionals who are spread across the globe. 
  • E-Science: This type of community is specific to science, enabling resource sharing between professionals and institutions. 
  • Virtual Laboratory: This type of e-Science environment assists geographically distributed scientists and researchers in working together and sharing resources, such as information and tools. 
  • Agile Shop Floor: In the manufacturing industry, the agile shop floor is a collaboration network that enables rapid change. Different cells of the shop floor involved in the manufacturing process make themselves readily available by contract. 
  • Business Ecosystem: A business ecosystem is the network of businesses that are involved in delivering a product or service. This network can consist of suppliers, customers, and regulatory agencies. In some ways, this ecosystem served as the original network for business collaboration. 
  • Virtual Manufacturing Network (VMN): Using information and communications technology (ICT), a VMN brings together different suppliers and partners. The VMN manages the configuration, management, and monitoring of the manufacturing process through technology. 

Collaboration Networks in Different Industries

Different industries do things differently, which makes sense because each industry has different needs and requirements. Some are regulated, some perform more research and development than others, and some perform research jointly. How companies perform collaboration shapes industry as a whole, however. Further, the way that each industry has developed their collaboration networks tends to stay that way.

Maxim Sytch, a researcher with the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, found that industries with more dynamic technology (that which evolves faster) have more open networks. These open networks are dependent on companies that form research and development agreements with unconnected partners that hail from different geographies or different areas of industry. These more technologically dynamic industries include biotechnology and microelectronics. These open networks may be less secure with company secrets, but they push a field along quickly, and make constant developments. In the chemical, pharmaceutical, and automotive industries, for instance, companies generally enter into collaborations only with known partners or ones recommended by known partners. This practice helps keep the company secrets secure, although more closed networks limit overall progress. 


What Are Collaboration Network Tools?

Collaboration solutions have been around for a long time. However, most of them have only been accessible by large businesses who could spend a lot of money and had the capacity to support back-end management and investment. Nowadays, there is a wealth of options on the market to support global communication so that you can collaborate with anyone at any time. Many of these options are low cost or even free. They can be as complex as project management software and as simple as email. These tools include one-to-one video chat platforms, group video chat platforms, one-to-one screen sharing platforms, group screen sharing platforms, document collaboration platforms, group cloud storage, messaging apps, online whiteboards, and programs that integrate your programs. 

Collaboration network applications or collaborative software are software packages designed to support people who are involved in intentional groups. There are real-time and version control platforms. Real-time platforms allow multiple users to edit a single file live and at the same time. Version control platforms allow multiple users to make parallel edits as variants of the original file that may be combined later. Some functions of collaborative software include the following:

  • Search: This function allows users to find data or content.
  • Employee Driven: Employees can take control of the content and input it as needed.
  • Data integration: The software integrates enterprise data into the system.
  • Dashboards and Monitoring: Dashboards and tools help you measure how well your projects are doing.
  • User Follow: In a collaborative network, you can follow the users and their content.
  • Content Integration: The system continuously links content.
  • Governance: The software controls access to the content.

The Regulation and Discipline of Collaboration Networks

There has been much discussion about the ideal way to form and regulate collaboration networks. More collaboration and more populated collaborations are not always better. Strategic collaboration is best because it forces you to define your business goals and consider your corporate culture before getting involved with anyone else. Next, you must determine how deeply you should embed a collaboration in your processes and what sort of content to involve. Finally, you can consider tools to help. 

Internationally, there is not a lot of regulation concerning collaboration networks. There are organizations that are looking to perform research and help develop collaboration networks using best practices and lessons learned. The International Federation for Information Processing (IFIP) is an organization under the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) that does research, develops standards, and promotes sharing information in the field of ICT. This international organization hosts about 500,000 professionals. One of their focuses is to help regulate virtual enterprises. Another group is the Society of Collaborative Networks (SOCOLNET). This nonprofit also promotes the exchange of ideas and information.

Conferences are another medium for the exchange of ideas and information on collaboration networks. The Working Conference on Virtual Enterprises (PRO-VE) is an annual conference that acts as a forum to discuss trends, experiences, challenges, and innovation. The conference also reviews collaboration-related business topics, tools, and ICT. 

In the 1990s, Mark Newman conducted a study in which he analyzed an actual collaboration network from a mathematical perspective. He looked at the databases that host large volumes of peer-reviewed research as well as the explicit researcher connections and mapped them out. He performed this exercise across several disciplines and coined the term small worlds to describe the short path between scientists and their collaborative, linked peers. He also found that scientists are more likely to collaborate when they have a peer in common than when they are chosen at random.

To develop the field further, researchers Camarinha-Matos et al. developed A Reference model for Collaborative Networks (ARCON). This model is a set of concepts that dictates and quantifies interactions in networks. Through a bottom-up approach and the use of cells, the researchers have attempted to relate this model to all of the different types of CN. Statistically, there are other types of probabilistic models specifically for the field of scientific collaboration. These models include static and dynamic concepts. Researchers view a static model as a moment in time. Researchers view a dynamic model as an evolution. 

Albert-László Barabási and other researchers performed another important study in collaboration models. This team looked at the networks in math and neuroscience using a dynamic model of evolving networks. According to this model, people work not only with one person or group of people, but evolve based on their own work and the work they do with new people as the opportunity arises. Further, their evolution is based on preference, called preferential attachment. Preferential attachment is not only about preferring to work with one person over another. In fact, the concept similar to the phrase, “The rich get richer.” This means that if you already have many studies to your credit, and professionals want to work with you, the trend will continue and snowball. For new projects, peers seek out scientists for their esteem and renown in the scientific community. 

The last model of collaborative network design we’ll discuss here is the Drucker design. This model helps design and develop collaboration network organization. The principles of this model are as follows:

  • People collaborate when the benefit outweighs the effort.
  • The purpose of the project should dictate the fit of the collaboration network.
  • Every network has a choreographer.
  • Governance should be the framework to manage the collaboration.
  • Innovation in design requires management innovation.

Experts on Collaboration Networks

Our experts discuss their experiences with collaboration networks, what they see as the difference between social networks and collaboration networks, some challenges and pitfalls with collaboration networks, and offer advice to get your collaboration network rolling.

 

Joshua Jarvis

Joshua Jarvis, SEO and Leadership Consultant, Jarvis Team Realty, says: 

“Based on the definition of collaboration networks, I have limited in-company experience. However, I have worked with ‘mastermind’ groups on Slack. The biggest difference between social networks and collaboration networks is it is not minor segmentation like a Facebook group; it is completely segregated to just like-minded people. This fosters deeper conversations around the subject matter and it is free of the noise and clutter that comes from a social media. Yes, there can be ads but there is no fight against spammers so the content and conversations exchanged are higher quality and even when they are not, there is a layer of safeness. Because the network is not public, there is actually collaboration that can happen vs. the competition. 

Without question, the biggest challenge is adoption. I introduced this to a company and when no one joined, it was hard to implement. The app is easy, the usage is straightforward, but it requires training your people to create a new habit. Instead of posting on a closed group on Facebook or through email or text, you have to encourage them to post through the channel or network that you have set up to support the group.

I started putting valuable documents and ‘tips’ on our network, which worked well (to encourage adoption). For leaders, my advice is that if you use the network your people will follow. For like-minded groups you have to have valuable content that people want. For example, I am in a SEO mastermind group. We openly share tactics and strategies because we feel safe. We would not do this on social media.”

 

Roger Wolkoff

Roger Wolkoff, Professional Speaker, Coach, Trainer, and Founder/Owner, All About Authenticity, says:

“As a project manager, I brought many teams together across departments and companies. On paper, my role was simple — ensure everyone works toward the project objectives and communicates. Over the last 15 years, technology has changed both to speed up and broaden our access to information.

I worked with IT, marketing, communications, product, E and C-Level, as well as others. The goals were always the same: Get everyone on the same page as quickly as possible so they understand our common project goals and they know their roles and other’s dependencies on them. The proven approach to do that is to get everyone to trust quickly.
 
Getting to trust quickly means listening and assessing everyone’s starting points. It also means understanding everyone’s continued commitment.
 
Social networks are broadcast pushes and blasts with the hope that the information sticks and is resonant. They are typically an unrestrained approach to sharing and communicating content, regardless of who receives the message. From the standpoint of where the communication originates, they are self-centered, self-interested communications. Community may be cohesive.
 
Collaborative networks encourage the team to work as a whole, toward a group-interested goal. Communication and information are targeted and are consumed with the intent of specific response and action. Community is meant to be cohesive.
 
Some of the challenges and pitfalls I see with collaborative networks include:

  • Communication will always be a challenge, especially if we continue to rely on electronic written/typed communications. Building trust over great distances can be tough. Technology continues to make that easier. I prefer a world where we communicate in person or via phone.
  • Set ground rules regarding roles and expectations.
  • Document decisions. Keep a central access point where all can access decisions. Having to repeat and circle back on points and research you have already covered is not efficient.

The advice I would give people new to collaborative networks includes:

  • Sharing information is not the same as communicating information. Meet in person as often as you can. Second, choose video conferencing. Watch people’s expressions and body language. Listen not only to what they say but how they say it. Voice conferencing should be your third choice.
  • Not clear about a written communication? Establish a rule of two and call. If you cannot resolve a conflict or misunderstanding in two email exchanges, call or meet face to face. 
  • Check in early and often. Make sure you are on the same page as your colleagues, and everyone is up to speed on the latest assumptions.
  • Verify and clarify. Just because you publish shared information does not mean everyone reads it.”

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