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An Introduction to Collaborative Technologies Great for Beginners

Bibliographic Details:

Sandy Heierbacher. National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD), 2004.


Collaborative technology can create an interactive learning environment involving people who are hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Businesses are far more savvy with the more sophisticated packages of high-tech tools available than we are in the dialogue and deliberation community, and the prohibitive cost of many of the tools, software and services primarily marketed to businesses is the most obvious reason for that.

Many businesses with dispersed offices, workstations and factories have found that collaborative technology is clearly worth the expense. As projects get more and more complex, the need for employees and business partners to communicate and collaborate effectively via technology has increased, and the technology developed for such work has become more and more flexible, responsive, user-friendly, integrated and multifaceted. Business have found that collaborative technology offsets the expense and time required to bring people together across distances, streamlining their workflow and increasing their profits.

Collaborative Tools for Distributed or Virtual Teams

Forming and facilitating a workgroup made up of members working in different locations has many challenges. Many gaps exist between the people, the applications they are working with, and the organizations they are affiliated with.

The collaborative technology that exists today addresses these challenges in many different ways. Much of the collaborative software being marketed allows users to share and store files and attachments, create instant polls, check calendars and to communicate, brainstorm and make decisions in "real time." Some software enables collaboration on such things as invoicing, expense reporting, project management and purchasing. Most of the software available helps increase the visibility of dispersed offices and employees, and increases productivity and access to information.

These new collaborative technology solutions improve on their earlier and more widespread brethren - the phone, the fax machine and email - by keeping track of the flow of information, discussion and decisions made over time and finding ways to integrate the new groups and ideas that are continually being generated.

Collaborative tools that the dialogue and deliberation community should consider using - to foster communication and collaboration either within our community or within the groups we work with - include: listservs, threaded discussion boards, blogs (web logs), wikis, document sharing, instant messaging and web conferencing tools. Most of these tools are available individually at very low cost, but some require more web programming know-how than others. Having all of these features integrated into one interconnected system is where the greatest expense lies.

In this high-tech world, collaborative tools are continually being developed and improved with efficiency and quality of teamwork in mind. Each new generation of collaborative applications is better equipped to foster improved relationship-building, decision-making and knowledge building. Like dialogue and deliberation, high-tech collaborative tools can enable people to listen to other perspectives, ensure that their own voice is heard, increase their knowledge of a subject, and make more informed decisions.

Some groups - like Web Lab, and Information Renaissance - have found ways to allow collaborative technology to help people engage in meaningful conversations about public issues, moving the technology beyond the workplace and into the public realm (and into the dialogue & deliberation community). AmericaSpeaks is a pioneer in using collaborative technology to enhance and connect face-to-face deliberations involving large numbers of people.

But the dialogue and deliberation community, for the most part, is still unaware of the ways in which collaborative technology can be used to help them reach out to new participants, move into the online world, manage the information generated by large programs and add pizzazz to their meetings. In fact, many people leading face-to-face dialogue and deliberation programs are wary of the idea of utilizing technology in their efforts.

Regardless of the dialogue and deliberation community's overall readiness and interest in high-tech collaboration tools, the fact is that more and more tools and venues for online conversation and decision-making are being created every day. People have innumerable opportunities to participate in online discussions. Some of these discussions emphasize civil interactions, but most do not. Some are designed to promote thoughtful deliberation, although most do not. And some even foster ongoing small-group dialogic interactions, although the vast majority do not. On these pages, we emphasize the programs and tools that do allow higher-quality discussion to occur.

In addition to creating forums for online dialogue, deliberation and discussion, high-tech collaboration tools can be used to enhance face-to-face dialogue and deliberation in a number of ways:

  • by enabling groups to vote quickly on options or opinions
  • by mapping out a discussion visually for all to see
  • by enabling facilitators of large groups to gather and share demographic and other factual information quickly with the group, enabling participants in large-scale programs to feel more connected to others in the room
  • by more effectively gathering the notes, themes and decisions made by each small group in large-scale programs
  • by giving participants an added sense of importance or "officialness" (having their discussion and outcomes immediately submitted elsewhere can create an increased sense of value for the discussion)
  • or, if face-to-face dialogue happens either before or after an online component, the tools can enhance the process by providing participants with another means of expressing themselves and by allowing people with busy or conflicting schedules to interact for a longer period of time.

We encourage you to look over the resources on these pages to get a better sense of the range of tools and products that can be used by dialogue and deliberation practitioners who want to utilize modern technology in their activities - both online and off.  And please use the glossary of terms for high-tech collaboration that we've put together!

4/07 Brief Addendum on Social Software...

Much has happened on the "internets" since I wrote this text a few years ago. In particular, social software has taken the net by storm. By social software, I am referring to a whole cluster of things: social networking sites (Cyworld, MySpace, orkut, Facebook), contemporary online dating services (Friendster, Spring Street Personals,, blogging services (LiveJournal, Xanga, Blogger), tagging tools (, Digg) and media sharing sites (YouTube, Flickr). The common features of these and hundreds of other diverse sites include: a user-generated profile, visible linkages between users, public communication forums (such as message boards or comments), and persistent traces of user behavior.

Suggest additions/changes to this listing or discuss this and other resources in the Thataway Forum.

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