A New Way to Collaborate

Researchers hope a new Web-based platform will enable better deliberation on complex problems.

The Internet does a great job of facilitating knowledge sharing through tools such as wikis and forums. But these tools have their limitations. For example, on controversial topics, wikis can be subject to “edit wars” between people of opposing views, and it can be hard to efficiently sift through the volume of information posted on forums — especially because that information may vary greatly in quality. Could there be better Internet tools for fostering group deliberation on complex issues?

That’s a question researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Naples (Italy) have been exploring — with the aim of promoting collaboration about addressing climate change. In December 2007, Mark Klein of the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT, Luca Iandoli of the Department of Business and Managerial Engineering at the University of Naples Federico II and Giuseppe Zollo of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Naples Federico II conducted the first field test of a new Internet-based collaboration platform that Klein calls a “Collaboratorium.” The researchers discuss their findings in a December 2007 working paper, “Can We Exploit Collective Intelligence for Collaborative Deliberation? The Case of the Climate Change Collaboratorium”; Klein also authored a related working paper in December 2007, “The MIT Collaboratorium: Enabling Effective Large-Scale Deliberation for Complex Problems.”

In the “Collaboratorium” structure, postings are organized into a logical “argument map” that can be displayed like an outline, so that visitors to the online community can more easily identify the main issues related to a topic. Users also can rate ideas and arguments. The theory is that, for a complex topic like climate change, an argument-based structure may help collective intelligence emerge more effectively than a more free-form posting structure such as a wiki or forum.

The first field test of the Collaboratorium — involving 220 engineering graduate students at the University of Naples—yielded some interesting results. The researchers reported that, given the task of collective deliberation about the future of biofuels in Italy, the students were, over a three-week period, able to create a map of the debate on biofuels that was “remarkably comprehensive.” The researchers also found that moderators in the Collaboratorium, whose tasks included rejecting potential postings that were not on the topic and helping determine where each new posting should be placed in the argument map, played a critical role in maintaining an argument map that was logical.

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