Collaboration can improve productivity by combining resources and wisdom to obtain a greater amount of data and construct better-reasoned conclusions. However, collaboration is also a potential source of much anxiety, disagreement, and bad feeling. Significant research has looked at collaborative styles in a variety of settings. These can be combined to offer the following tips for people collaborating on family history research.
[This article is based on a lecture given by the author at RootsTech 2014 in Salt Lake City, Utah]
- Give and Take
Collaboration is based on the notion that all parties are providing something of value to the joint endeavor. In any sustained collaboration, it is worthwhile for you to evaluate exactly what it is that you and the other collaborators provide to the project:
Try asking yourself the following questions:
- What information am I offering to my collaborators?
- Do they need or want it?
- How am I communicating this information to the collaborators?
- How much work are my collaborators required to undertake to convert what I am providing into a format that is useful to them?
- What are they offering me?
- How useful is this information, and how useful is the format in which I am receiving this information?
- Is it less work for me to convert the information that they provide into what I need, or is it easier to simply obtain it myself?
- How likely is it that my collaborators would agree with my answers to these questions?
Often it is the method of communicating work product between collaborators, rather than the work itself, that constitutes the fundamental problem that needs to be resolved.
And most of all, remember the golden rule of collaboration: If you do not feel that you are giving more than your share, than you are probably not giving enough.
Models of Collaboration
Should we “divide and conquer” or share “to-do lists”?
The downside to “divide and conquer” strategies is not in the quality or quantity of results. For example, you may hugely benefit when experts on your team contribute that which they do best. However, if you divide off all research on a particular line of research to others, you should expect a reduction in your emotional attachment and interest in that line. If your goal is to love and feel connected to your ancestors, you need to invest your own ‘time and effort researching them, and a shared to do list may be more effective than divide and conquer. That being said, the distinction between shared to-do lists and divide-and-conquer is somewhat fuzzy
We both do and compare. We each double-check every step of one another’s work.
This rarely results in increased speed, but does result in increased quality and hence more of the work done is of value to the participants.
If the criteria by which a better result is determined are not agreed upon (e.g., I value personal stories more than you do) then this model can result in protracted arguments.
Both do on own. You do your thing, I do mine.
This is the non-collaborative model, and it isn’t necessarily a bad one. If disagreements are not yielding to shared reasoning, agreeing not to share the contentious content may be the best way to move past the disagreement and on to more productive territory.
The Research Tools We Use Impacts How We Allocate Tasks
Most research tools implicitly assume a particular model of task allocation. Some tools are based around the idea of a single shared conclusion and do-on-own models are explicitly discouraged. Others are based on each person owning their own conclusions and shared to-do models require extensive work to keep both trees in sync.
Collaboration tools in family history are still in their infancy. Developers are actively redesigning and modifying many aspects of these tools, including decisions that impact the underlying collaboration model assumptions. Don’t be afraid to step away from your current tools if they are getting in your way.
There are many problems that can arise in any collaboration. Here are a few I have seen often in my years teaching teamwork and supervising team projects.
“They just won’t give up on X”. Clearly, neither will you give up on “X” or you wouldn’t care. Once you notice this is a problem you’ve already passed the point of diminishing returns: more arguments, bringing in people to side with you, etc., will just create bad feelings. It’s time to split up or compromise. If you cannot easily each have your own copy of the contested data, try making the shared data fuzzy (e.g., 1854-1857) and add a comment explaining that researchers disagree. (e.g., “might be 1854-05-02 (explanation) or 1857-09-13 (explanation).”
“Their research is of low quality” First off, don’t try to “fix” them. If you think of them as needing fixed, you’ll get into an unhealthy mindset and collaboration is doomed. How is the quality low?
“It‘s wrong, and they ignore evidence to the contrary.” See “They just won’t give up on X” above.
“It’s wrong, and they admit this when I confront them.” In this case, you can basically ignore them as they contribute little and are not impeding your research.
“There are no citations.” Treat them like an unreliable source. Once you find your own citations (for or against), move on.
“They make things up” Braggarts, compulsive liars, manipulative liars, and those with a tenuous grasp on reality do exist. If you happen to meet one, know first that confrontation usually doesn’t work: they’ll just spin more lies. I have not seen effective solutions to liars in family history. In other fields, there are at least three basic approaches:
1. Praise their honesty, act like their lies never happened. This is a long-term practice that can improve honesty, but requires great patience,
2. Ban them from the community (prison, mental hospitals, IP blacklisting, etc.).
3. Ban them from the community without their knowledge (give them their own sandbox to play in).
If your collaboration environment does not support these (many don’t) then you’ll have to just live with it or find a new environment.
“They take but won’t give” See the section “Give More” above. That said, there are people who are “takers” in every community. At some level, this is not entirely a problem. After all, sharing with others is a public good, and don’t we all wish we had a larger audience?
In the end, if the value of what they are providing you is worth more than the resources you invest in the collaboration, that is a net win for you. Be polite and gracious and they might collaborate with you more in the future!
But if you are investing more in sharing with your collaborators then they are investing in you, then before this develops into resentment, consider backing off from the collaboration until you have taken steps to make the relationship more reciprocal.