Please find below one of the sections of the document “Collaborability: a theory on Human Collaborability” I am working on. Consider it a sneak peak opportunity for all those visitors that have been following Red Planet Dust and the revolving theme on Collaborability. JWM
Introduction / Section 3 Methodology
While revisiting my cupboard’s shelf with former study books to find a tidbit of knowledge on something specific about political economy in relation to the balance between society and individuals – being a major element in the collaborability model – I stumbled upon a little textbook by John Hicks “A theory of Economic History” (Oxford University Press 1969). It was one of my favorite textbooks during my masters in business economics now over 25 years ago.
John Hicks is one of the great economic theorists of the previous century (Nobel prize winner for economics in 1972) and postulated the key role of the rise of markets and the exchange economy in the development of our society through history. My heart rejoiced when I started rereading what he himself calls:
“A small book on a large subject – an enormously large subject”
There are two reasons – content-wise and methodology-wise – why this small book is highly relevant for my inquiries into collaborability:
1) Content: “Markets” are one of the main collaborability mechanisms identified in the collaborability model.
In a sense I have a similar topic at hand as Hicks did some 40 years ago, albeit even bigger for it focuses in on many more mechanisms then ‘markets’ alone and these mechanisms on their part are only a part of the full model. My reasoning towards markets goes as follows: (1) the essence of man is collaboration, (2) the ability to collaborate (“collaborability”) is fueling specialisation, (3) specialisation is based on exchange, (4) exchange is based on collaborability mechanisms, (5) one of these mechanisms is “markets”. Markets are both contributing to the collaborative space while at the same time markets are based on the very same collaborative space and the other collaborability mechanisms.
Following Hicks own drift:
“There is a transformation which is antecedent to Marx’s Rise of Capitalism, and which, in terms of more recent economics, looks like being even more fundamental. This is the rise of the Market, the rise of the Exchange Economy”
Hicks’ theory on economic history is an important piece of the puzzle of collaborability, but a single piece all the same. So I would, maybe a little bit presumptuously, like to paraphrase Hicks this way:
“There is a transformation which is antecedent to Hicks Rise of the Market, and which, in terms of recent insights from various sciences, looks like being even more fundamental. This is the rise of our ability to collaborate, the rise of Collaborability”
Hicks’ contribution on markets as a mechanism and facilitator of societal change, even beyond the economic realm, is a good starting point later on while investigating the various collaborability mechanisms.
2) Methodology: Hicks’ approach and methodology as set out in his first chapter “Theory and History”;
What is relevant in Hicks explanation on his approach and methodology for my “theoretical” approach on collaborability is that I am at the same point in describing my notions as Hicks was when he wrote his book. He postulated his notion and reasoning behind it and asked others from other disciplines to challenge and contribute.
His specific scientific approach to create “a theory on economic history” can in my view be projected one-to-one at my inquiry into collaborability. Inspired by Hicks’ approach, and heavily borrowing form his work I will now elaborate on my approach to create “a theory on collaborability”.
Boundaries of subject “collaborability”
Talking with Hicks: collaborability is a large subject, an enormously large subject. It extends our globalizing society, the workings of humans both as individuals and as groups from small up to countries, the collaboration mechanisms that make our modern societies work, our history and spans multiple sciences. We cannot contract the boundaries of collaborability to a single science.
Collaborability is based on the notion of “specialisation”, not only among economic activities but also a specialisation of economic activities from activities of other sorts.
A major function of Collaborability is to create a joined singular topic to which various sciences and disciplines can contribute. A topic where cross boundary exchanges between sciences can lead to a synthesised package of knowledge that overcomes the limitations of the inherent specialisation that have laid the basis for every one of these distinct sciences.
No Grand Design
My theory on collaborability will not be a description of a “grand design”. Nor will it be a moral assessment of what and where we are today or what one should do in a certain case. I am trying to unravel the various aspects and the dynamic relationship between those aspects that make us so successful as a species: the way we collaborate.
I will take some general ideas from various sciences, which I will apply to our ability to collaborate. If these combined ideas have any meaning they should be able to explain (some of) the patterns, which we saw in history as to have extra-historical support. In creating collaborability I am interested in general phenomena, not in particular stories, events or cases.
Regularly I get requests to show the practical relevance of my emerging theory in a particular case. I often take up the mantel as to show how it could work out, or to explain backgrounds in a new manner. These exercises do often lead to addressing specific elements of the collaborability model. In that sense it helps elaborating on and the documentation of collaborability. Sometimes it even leads to new insights helpful to further shape collaborability. But that said I regard the theoretic development and any practical application as two very distinct things. As Hicks explains:
“The distinction is between an interest in general phenomena and an interest in particular stories. Whenever our interest is in general phenomena, theory may be relevant; otherwise usually not.[…] it is a general tendency to which theory is unmistakable relevant.”
Every model or theory is as strong as its assumptions (and its underlying relations and reasoning) and let others be the ones to challenge them! As long as my model, annex theory, is better able to describe the related parts of reality then previous models I have reached my goal! Others can then contribute and ultimately build on the fabric of thoughts being initially postulated by the theory.
Multi disciplinary approach
Even though collaboration can be seen as a continuous process of specialisation – which is at the hart of economic history – and many of the phenomena we perceive today are rightly or wrongly translated into economic behaviours by politicians, businesses and citizens alike collaborability is not only about economics; far from it.
Collaborability cannot be seen from a single economical, social, historical or any other in its essence limiting perspective. Even though some aspects can be approached in a quantitative way, like network dynamics and some economic phenomena, or can be based on solid scientific data the entanglement of the subjects ask for a different approach.
I will identify general ideas from various sciences – from economics, politics, sociology, technology in all of its facets, network dynamics, our biological and neurological constitution, philosophy and so on – and apply that to the world around us. If the theory is robust enough maybe we can apply these general ideas on history to see if the patterns have some extra-historical support. It is a question though if it can only be done on a limited scale, for special purposes, or that it can be done in a larger way so that the general course of history, at least in some important aspects, can be fitted into place.
The task ahead is a theoretical inquiry, which must proceed in general terms. It is only a normal development for which we are looking, so it does not have to cover all facts; we must be ready to admit exceptions, exceptions which nevertheless we should try to explain.
Every study needs boundaries, needs subjects and sub-subjects. I realise that having an insight, however clear and complex, is not the same as being able to have others undergo the same insight. That can only be done by using words with all the limitations that brings with it. Paraphrasing the teachings of John in Pirsig’s “Zen and the art of motor cycle maintenance”:
“If you describe the parts, you will destroy the whole”
A new topic like collaborability needs to develop its own terminology. Part of my inquiry into collaborability therefor is a quest to find the right vocabulary to use. It is not only using the right words, but also to link them with clear definitions and notions. And to declare the relations with and demarcations between the various terms and definitions used.
Early on, for instance, I used the term “Scalability” to address the domain I am investigating, even though I knew already this was not comprehensive enough at the very start. I used it for the lack of a better word. “Scalability” is referring to the changing reach and the changing amount of effort to reach others. This leads to both being able to reach more “nodes” more easily (i.e. increasing scale) as well as it allows smaller entities to compete with bigger ones (i.e. inclusion and lowering economic thresholds). Scalability is a core notion to Collaborability but is to limited to capture the breath of ideas and concepts/mechanisms involved.
As I continued to uncover more of the relevant aspects involved and their interdependence I found that it all boiled down to our abilities to collaborate which also has an effect on scalability as a sub-aspect. The non-tangible and enormous reservoir of “social capital” that we have created to allow us to collaborate I dubbed – for the lack of a better word – “collaborability”. Actually I fancied the word “Internality” the most, as this is literally the exact opposite of “Externality”. In the model the domain I am trying to find the right term for conceptually IS the opposite of Externalities.
But the term “Internality” is already used in behavioural economics to describe those types of behaviours that impose costs on a person in the long-run that are not taken into account when making decisions in the present. In a sense this is just a special form of externality, only not directed to third parties but to the actor himself. (NB an “externality” is a cost or benefit which results from an activity or transaction and which affects an otherwise uninvolved party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit. Via Wikipedia)
While I am pretty comfortable to use the term “Collaborability model” to describe all aspects covered in my inquiry I keep on being hesitant to use “collaborability” as a sub-part of that model. Until I find a better fitting word I will use “collaborability”.
Major difference with approach Hicks
The core of Hicks approach is to find a theory and a ordering of historic developments that can help explain the economic development in more or less generic terms over time. He postulates the “Rise of the Market; the rise of the exchange economy” and is then looking back how this developed through time shaping our world with “history” to deliver “proof” of his thesis. I am still to postulate what collaborability is all about, what is major components are and what type of dynamics this involves. Only after postulating the core theses on collaborability it can be challenged by looking into history if we can find credence for it as it should hold its own also in times before us. Maybe some day we will get to the point that we can start an inquiry into “a theory on collaboral history”. But lets first start at the very beginning.