Knowledge-Sharing In Collaboration Across Organizational Boundaries
Susan Gasson, the iSchool at Drexel
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Knowledge-sharing in collaborative design is problematic, because it involves the merging of a variety of stakeholder perspectives to achieve a collective “vision” of what needs to be changed: the task objectives, the task goals and – even – the problem being addressed. We tend to assume that groups develop a common perspective on collaborative tasks over time, but there is quite a bit of research that demonstrates otherwise.
The problem of collaboration is exacerbated when the collaboration spans organizational boundaries, such as groups that comprise members from different functions or divisions. People who work in different functional units not only tend to have diverse ways of defining organizational problems, that are related to their disciplinary and professional backgrounds, but also define problems and their solutions according to the local conventions of their department or function. So we have the typical situation shown in Figure 1. This diagram illustrates how a diverse group of stakeholders, who are collaborating to define the business process and IT requirements for a new information system, find that they have very little shared understanding of organizational problems or how to resolve them. Each stakeholder defines the problems in a different way, depending on their experience of these problems and of the situation in which they occur (Gasson, 2004).
Figure 1 also shows that different subgroups of stakeholders may have shared understandings, that encompass a subset of the problem definition. These subsets often form the basis for political alliances, that emphasize specific aspects of the organizational problem-situation. But knowledge about the actual problem, represented in Figure 1 by the union of the various perspectives (the bold outline), is difficult to represent and therefore to debate. Each stakeholder sees a different part of the problem, with different emphases and priorities, that are filtered through a different interpretation, based on their educational and work experience. So sharing knowledge – about how things work and what should or could be done – is difficult.
This is not an issue for simple, well-structured problems, that are easy to define. For example, if a group of stakeholders is designing a solution to the problem of reporting on what hours different employees work on different projects to which they are assigned, the problem is fairly easy to define and the solution follows from this problem definition. While there may be some “softer” aspects of the problem that need clarification (for example, how a “project” is defined, how employees can be expected to record the hours that they work, or cultural constraints of reporting on what various people work on), most aspects of the problem are straightforward and therefore easy to structure into a clear, consensus problem-definition. Over a period of working together, different stakeholders share their knowledge about a well-defined problem, to reach a clearly-defined domain of action. The degree of shared understanding is therefore very high.
Figure 2: Knowledge Convergence In Collaborative Work
Not so for problems that are complex and ill-defined. A group of stakeholders who work together over time may be able to define the rationale for change and the context of the problem in a consensual way, but each member of the group will conceive of the problem and appropriate solutions in very different ways. The degree of shared knowledge possessed about the problem to be solved may not increase much from that shown in Figure 1. This is because organizational problems are “wicked” problems (Rittel, 1972). Wicked problems, according to Rittel and Webber (Rittel and Webber, 1973) have ten specific characteristics:
As a consequence, problem-solving and design groups tend to diverge, as much as they converge over time, in defining the problem that they are resolving. Design tends to proceed via a series of “breakdowns”, in which the current group consensus falls apart and a new consensus is formed around a mobilizing vision, that provides a good-enough definition of the problem to mediate negotiation and constructive argumentation (Gasson, Under Review).
We need new methods and approaches to manage IS design and collaborative problem-solving/innovation groups. Most current approaches are based on an individual model of problem-solving, that views problems as ill-structured (Simon, 1973). Ill-structured problems, while being ill-defined are capable of being structured, once a suitable problem-boundary and set of constraints have been agreed. But as I argued above, organizational problems are wicked problems and are therefore not amenable to objective definition or structuring. Approaches to wicked problem resolution  require techniques for surfacing people’s implicit assumptions, so that everyone is talking about the same elements of the problem. They require ways of managing multiple perspectives at once: recording constraints and solution requirements at multiple levels of decomposition, so that understanding of the problem is not “lost” when the group changes focus. They require ways for allocating responsibility for different parts of the problem to those familiar with those parts and for building trust so that these different views of a solution can be aligned, even if they are not shared. My research is about how these things can be achieved.
I am investigating methods and processes for (a) sharing distributed information and knowledge, and (b) managing collaborative problem-solving and design activities in groups where knowledge-sharing is not feasible because the context and the problem are so diverse and “wicked”. Some of the issues that have arisen from this program of research so far are:
Alexander, C. "The origins of pattern theory: The future of the theory and the generation of a living world," IEEE Software (16:5), Sept-Oct. 1999 1999, pp 71-82.
Gasson, S. "A Framework For Behavioral Studies of Social Cognition In Information Systems," ISOneWorld: Engaging Executive Information Systems Practice, Information Institute, Las Vegas, NV, 2004.
Gasson, S. "Framing Situated Design: The Co-Design of Business and IT Systems," [under review].
Rittel, H.W.J. "Second Generation Design Methods," Reprinted in N. Cross (ed.), Developments in Design Methodology, J. Wiley & Sons, Chichester, 1984, pp. 317-327., Interview in: Design Methods Group 5th Anniversary Report, DMG Occasional Paper, 1, pp. 5-10.
Rittel, H.W.J., and Webber, M.M. "Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning," Policy Sciences (4:155-169) 1973.
Simon, H.A. "The Structure of Ill-Structured Problems," Artificial Intelligence (4 1973, pp 145-180.
 This is quite distinct from Simon’s perspective, that there is an “optimal” solution, that can be selected from a range of alternatives according to a set of definable criteria. Wicked problems do not possess any clearly-definable definition, so a single set of criteria for a solution cannot be defined.
 Alexander, incidentally, was the initial proponent of hierarchical decomposition – the model that underlies the waterfall model of design and the traditional systems development life-cycle.
 Although actually, the sad truth is that this is exactly what tends to happen … which explains why so many people are disenchanted with their IS development group.
 Note that I do not use the term “problem-solving” here. One can only solve a problem that is amenable to definition. According to Rittel (1972), a wicked problem can only be understood through designing a solution. This is a high-risk activity and should not be treated in the same way as “solving” a well-defined problem.