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Collaboration Personas - A Novel Perspective on User-Centric Collaboration

As well as working as an intranet consultant, I am very proud of the fact that for almost ten years I have been a visiting professor at the iSchool, University of Sheffield, so this month’s column has a slightly academic twist to it, but with some important practical implications.

Over the last few years many organizations have used personas to help in the development of intranets and websites. The experience has perhaps been mixed, with some organizations gaining no benefit, and others finding that the personas have transformed the user experience. Most of the published books and papers on persona development have focused on website use, and there is comparatively little written on their use for intranets. However, the common feature between web and intranet use is that the personas focus on the needs of an individual.

As organizations move from social media to social business, the benefits of collaboration are often used as the core business case for investment in technology. A great deal of research and practical experience has been reported on how to create collaborative teams, but until recently there has been no work on how the concept of personas can be translated to collaborative working. Now Tara Matthews, Steve Whittaker, Thomas Moran and Sandra Yuen, all based at IBM Research, Almaden, have undertaken the initial steps in this translation.

As an outcome of a research project in a large company, the research team discovered that not only were there very different collaboration types, but it was also obvious that people had different but complementary roles within each collaboration type. In contrast to traditional personas where user types are independent, they discovered the importance of groups where the interrelations between people were critical. Individual personas focus very much on goals, but in a collaboration setting what exactly are the goals?

The lesson the IBM team learned was that it is necessary to focus on the collective goals of individual members of the team and then define individual goals that lead to the achievement of the collective goal. A sort of “top down-bottom up” approach.

Six Collaboration Types

From their research, the authors suggest that there are six collaboration types:

  1. Dynamic project team. A group of people where some members stay the same, but most members come and go during the life of the project, working closely together toward a common deliverable that is a job related focus for its members.
  2. Stable project team. A group of people where most members stay the same, working closely together toward a common deliverable that is a job related focus for its members.
  3. Committee. A group of people working closely together toward a common deliverable that is secondary to most members’ main job focus.
  4. Client-supplier relationship group. A stable group of people from both client and supplier who communicate on an on-going basis to ensure the supplier meets the needs of the client.
  5. Community. A group of people, with similar job functions or a shared interest, who come together to exchange knowledge, information, best practices, and possibly to spark new collaborations.
  6. Professional relationships. A professional relationship focused on communication between two individuals, typically with minimal formality or structure. Common purposes for professional relationships include mentoring, finding collaborators, building one’s reputation, and/or getting answers and feedback.

These are distinguished from each other by the relative balance of four attributes: goals, personnel, work style and leadership style.

Further Reading

The IBM work was presented at the 2011 ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, but the paper itself is not easily accessible unless you are a member of the ACM. Fortunately an earlier version of the paper can be downloaded here, together with an excellent PowerPoint presentation. I would also recommend looking at a paper From Individual to Collective Personas by Alain Giboin, which elegantly describes the outcomes of a substantial amount of research on community and collaboration personas that has been published over the last five years.

I have to declare a personal bias in the work that I have described above, as Steve Whittaker, one of the members of the IBM research team, was a highly-respected Professor at the Sheffield iSchool for a number of years.


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