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Is a Solo-Authored Book on Collaboration an Oxymoron?

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"Social Networking for Business" author Rawn Shah examines why collaboration is important -- and why he wrote a book about collaboration, alone.
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How can you write a book about social computing and online collaboration by yourself? Shouldn't you have collaborated with others to write such a book? I will try my best to answer these and other similar questions I've been asked recently. More importantly, I should explain why writing a book on collaboration, solo is not against the idea of collaboration.

First of all, Social Networking for Business (Wharton School Publishing, 2010) is my sixth published book. It is also my first work that I've attempted to work on by myself from the very beginning. All my previous books have been co-authored with others, so this is new. Working alone on a book takes a lot more determination than with others. Personally, I wanted to grow with that experience.

With co-authors, you have each other to reinforce your collective drive to keep working on a book. In all my work, the book writing is a secondary work aside from a full-time job at IBM, and a secondary volunteer job as a martial arts instructor. Working on a book in off-hours is not particularly my unique endeavor. However, this means that any progress on the manuscript is completely dependant on how much free time you can find. If you loose focus or drive, or worse, if you get too busy to focus on it for weeks on end because of your regular work, then this progress slows down or stops entirely. You need the rigorous discipline and energy to work on a book a few hours every few days, for months or years on end. It depends on how well you keep on schedule. They don't all have to be equally productive hours; some days I can write 20 useful pages of material in one sitting, other days I find it hard to gain any ground on even two.

These personal reasons on why I worked alone on a book about collaboration are only part of the story. First, let's examine the idea of collaboration and why it's important.

Noted newspaper columnist/author Thomas Friedman declared that the world is flat in his best selling book with that same title, describing how globalization allows people to collaborate anywhere across the world. Economist Richard Florida by contrast declares in his book "Who's your City?" that we live in a spiky world where most of the world's productivity and innovation is strongly concentrated in cities and mega-cities, where all the best collaborative opportunities lie. Whether a flat world or a spiky one, the arrow still points to an increasing need to understand how people collaborate with others to produce results.

Businesses have started to take greater notice of the limitations of the traditional hierarchical structure common in most organizations. You'll quite often hear about the need to "break down organizational silos and roadblocks," "increase collaboration," and "strive to innovate." Yet for all the words, most organizations still do not understand the mechanics of how people collaborate when you remove these walls. Some replace the formal organizational barriers with unstated cultural barriers that prevent collaboration: when they create an open group to voice ideas, and yet still need the permission or approval of their manager to agree on anything. In others, the walls are removed locally so small groups can work between each other, but still remain in place for people in remote offices or other cities.

This is where social computing brings new life, by allowing anyone and everyone in the organization regardless of location to collaborate, provided that they are given the freedom to do so. With computers and global networks becoming as essential as the pen and the telephone, social computing creates new opportunities for people to meet and talk to each other to explore ideas and produce results. Social computing is still the mechanism and the mode, but the actual act of collaboration lies in how the organizational culture allows its members to interact with each other, whether in stated policies or by unspoken rules.

The act of collaboration is a mess. Organizational leaders who are used to structured, process-oriented work often balk at the knotted ball of yarn it creates. As someone keenly interested in this, I consider myself lucky to be in a company with hundreds of thousands of active minds spread across the world that has embraced social computing extensively—the more the merrier, I say, since it creates more opportunities to understand the different ways of how people collaborate.

This messy complexity is the essence of creativity. It takes time, effort, and coordination for the magic of serendipity to emerge from the fog of collaboration. While traditional education trains us extensively on how to produce and defend ideas, not everyone receives training of any kind on the different approaches and mechanics of how to collaborate. In some cases, culture also prevents people from speaking their minds or sharing their ideas openly, stifling innovation and creativity.

To be collaborative does not mean that you can't have dissenting voices, or competing ideas. It is quite the opposite, actually; a group needs to face challenges and have a bit of competition to avoid everyone simply falling into a herd mentality. For the creative class, challenging work is interesting work.

To the point of writing a collaboration book solo, my work itself becomes one in competition with others with similar or different views of how collaboration works. In our highly connected world, no book of this nature stands alone. You'll likely find a number of books emerge around social computing, collaboration, and the social Web, some agreeing, some complementary, and others conflicting with each other. It is very much in the spirit of social computing to bring up a wealth of ideas to see which ones people find the most practically useful. It is the act of sharing this knowledge that it becomes collaborative. In the larger sphere of works on collaboration, this book will help shape and drive forward this basic and increasingly important science.

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