If you looked through dozens of job descriptions - across industries, job types, levels - you'd find in virtually all of them a reference to being collaborative. When I think about what it means to be collaborative, it feels hard to define. Of course, we all work with others. Some of us are more personable, some of us more tolerant, some of us leaders while others are better at following instructions. They're all working with others. But are they all collaborative?
A number of years ago I had my kitchen renovated. Over the course of (too many) months, I hosted plumbers, electricians, carpenters, drywall guys, gas guys, tile guys, paint guys. (Yes, they were all guys.) These people didn't know each other, but they worked on behalf of a blueprint aimed at a defined goal. A project based on a plan.
Yes, they worked with each other. You could even say they were a team. But what they were doing was not something I’d describe as “collaboration”.
Except for the drywall guys. This was something different. These two men, perched on stilts, covered in dust, armed with screw guns and trowels and sandpaper, did more than work together. They danced.
I sat outside one night and watched through the glass door. I couldn’t hear them, but I could see the music – the rhythm of their coordinated movements, a kind of symphonic interaction with visible harmonics. One would reach and the other was there to meet. One would move left and the other, without looking, moved right. It wasn’t just that two made more than their sum. It was that each fed off the other, acquiring a new and greater power, a rhythmic force – like a concrete and steel bridge oscillating in a breeze.
Now this was collaboration. A synchronizing of independent activities and skills and even personalities resulting in the creation of something not only new, but magical, a magic that seemed to have been made possible by the rhythm of their bodies and experiences. Collaboration as dancing.
Or as playing music. In a study published in 2009 in BMC Neuroscience titled "Brains swinging in concert: cortical phase synchronization while playing guitar", Ulman Lindenberger et. al. examined the brain waves of musicians. What they discovered, was that the frequency of neuronal waves in several regions of the brain became synchronized when two guitarists played parts of the same song together.
In describing this neuronal coming-together, Lindenberger offered what could well be a definition of collaboration: "A substantial part of these (body-world) interactions consists in synchronized goal-directed actions involving two or more individuals. In everyday life, people often need to coordinate their actions with that of others. Some common examples are walking with someone at a set pace, playing collective sports or fighting, dancing, playing music in a duet or group, and a wide range of social bonding behaviors (e.g., eye-gaze coordination between mother and infant or between partners).”
Collaboration as a kind of “interbrain synchronization”, a “working together” that results in the generation of a rhythmic power. It’s a power that ultimately resides in the frequencies of brain waves, essentially allowing brains to harmonize and form rhythms.
Does physical proximity matter for this kind of collaboration to occur? And if so, what does it tell us about online collaboration, where there is no physical proximity?
The Lindenberger study suggests that physical presence does matter. "Based on this evidence, we contend that the observed degree of between-brain synchronization cannot be reduced to processing similarities induced by attending to identical external stimuli, but also reflects the outcome of dynamic behavioural interactions between the two guitarists… Interbrain synchronization as a mechanism for interpersonal action coordination crucially depends on the presence of shared percepts, including the perception of the other person’s actions (e.g., gesturing), or the perception of the product of these actions (e.g., sounds)."
This would suggest that virtual collaboration would be hampered by the absence of percepts - sensed physical cues (gestures, sounds, etc.) that carry meaning.
Consider then applications that enable people to play music together over the Internet. If these works, then Lindenberger’s conclusion would be incorrect, or at least partly incorrect.
Ninjam is one of such application. In its explanation of its product, Ninjam notes that the problem of online music collaboration is that there’s a time delay over the Internet. Ninjam address this by recording and streaming intervals of music and then distributing those interval packets simultaneously to all other players. “When you play through an interval, you’re playing along with the previous interval of everybody else, and they’re playing along with your previous interval.”
So, in the case of music, the problem of lack of percepts - in this case the time delay that happens when two people play music but aren't in the same room - can be addressed by removing that delay, in effect simulating the experience of co-location. Of course, there are equivalent measures that can be taken in all forms of online collaboration that compensate for the inability to perceive other people’s actions and the product of those actions. But more importantly, it suggests that collaboration requires more than sharing documents, expressing views electronically, chatting online. It suggests that to truly collaborate, people need to either truly or in a simulated form feed off the vibrations of each other's mental and physical cues. They need to dance together. Like the drywall guys.