Collaborative Networks

I am at the IEEE Workshop on the Future of Information at the National Academy of Engineering in Washington, DC.  The purpose of the workshop is to consider how engineers and scientists will access and use information in 2020, including what types and sources of information they will seek and find available.

Yesterday was the first of three days.  The four speakers all focused on the nature of collaboration to a much greater extent that the nature of information.  Computer and communications technologies are rapidly changing the ways we work, as well as how we connect with people personally.

Many discussions lately have revolved around the formation and management of collaborative networks for the purpose of business, research, education, and so on.  The purposeful design of collaborative networks is not as straightforward as we tend to assume.  Beyond group membership and how work gets done, there are issues of financing network formation and operations, as well as incentivizing people to commit to the network’s purpose and fully participate.

My experiences at several universities are that we assume “sweat equity” will be sufficient for financing networks and we totally ignore the incentives issue.  One idea is for universities to take a percentage of their budgets “off the top” to finance cross-disciplinary collaborative networks.  This would, of course, result in budget decreases for traditional colleges, schools, and departments.  In these tight economic times, I would expect immense push back on this idea.

Yet, this would force the traditional organizational entities to compete for the fenced off funds with creative proposals for collaboration.  Foundations and industry might substantially increase these funds if these cross-disciplinary initiatives related to appealing problems and opportunities such as health, energy, and future media.  In this way, the overall university budget might significantly increase.

This possibility brings us back to how best to form and manage collaborative networks.  If universities became frequent networkers, across institutions as well as disciplines, those who became really good at it might become the top universities of the future.  Other institutions would mimic them and, over time, we would all become excellent networkers and cross-disciplinary collaborative networks would become the norm.


  1. Troy Camplin says:

    It seems to me that the best way to organize such networks would be around interdisciplinarians/writers who can integrate the work of others. Discussion would eventually merge onto an idea-attractor or set of such attractors which could be integrated by the interdisciplinarian who would, in turn, ensure accuracy from the disciplinarians in the network. The integrationist interdisciplinarian would I think necessarily be central to any such endeavor. Of course, as someone with a B.A. in recombinant gene technology and chemistry, a M.A. in English, and a Ph.D in the humanities, who publishes on spontaneous social orders, I may be somewhat biased. Of course, in all seriousness, I cannot imagine that such netowrk collaboration could work any other way.

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