Mass collaboration

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Mass collaboration is a new kind of approach to assessment. It focuses on the essential role of the assessment product as the shared object of activity that all assessment participants co-develop. The assessment product mediates the collaborative actions of collective knowledge creation and is an externalized explication of the knowledge of collective of assessment participants. Mass collaboration is shorthand for massively distributed collaboration.

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Mass collaboration and collective knowledge creation

Mass collaboration means more than just dividing tasks within a group into pieces that belong to someone. It is a way of working together on a shared set of tasks for a common goal. It makes use of the collective knowledge of groups and plurality of views in order to improve the output of the work. Its best properties can be seen in situations where there is a diverse (and maybe unknown) group of potential participants who possess different kinds of knowledge and represent a variety of value judgments about the issue that is being worked on.

Mass collaboration can be seen as a form of group communication whose results are manifested and explicated in the product of the work. The product also serves as a platform or a medium for communication between the contributors. This means that the contributions to developing the product are also messages sent from a contributor to others. It takes place in form of manipulation of the object that is being worked on and received by other contributors through observation the ojbject. Through this communication by contribution the product develops into an explication of the shared understanding about the issue being addressed.

Mass collaboration is rather a practice than a scientific method. However, Tapscott and Williams [1] have studied and found common properties of successful mass collaboration projects:

  • Being open in telling the objectives and inviting people to participate in the process.
  • Sharing all the information that you have immediately and to all participants, so that they can build on that.
  • Peering, or working side by side with loose hierarchies.
  • Acting globally with the aim of producing something that can be applied, or even directly used elsewhere in similar situations.

Mass collaboration can also be considered as a form of collective learning. In recent studies on knowledge creation, a trialogical approach has been developed to meet the demands of collaboration and distributed expertise of knowledge-intensive societies. The research on expertise has shifted from monological processes of knowledge acquisition to dialogical processes of participation, and now the advanced theories of learning approach their subjects of study as trialogical processes of mediation through epistemic artifacts (see figure below).

Three metaphors of learning[2]

Trialogue is a process where people develop and create some concrete things together. Individuals observe reality and/or communicate their observations and descriptions of reality to others, and develop a shared artefact based on own and communicated observations, shared belief systems, reasoning, and existing artefacts. The name trialogue is an extension of dialogue where interaction typically happens through words, that is, two individuals discuss a topic, and communicate with each other. In trialogue, an information artefact (various versions of it) describing the topic (a description of reality) is understood as the third player, because it has such a critical role in the development of a shared belief system. The information artefact may have a physical form of e.g. a wiki page. [3]

The recent years have shown some good examples of the power of mass collaboration, facilitated by the nearly ubiquitous web-access in many parts of the world, in creating scientifically sound knowledge; Linux, Human Genome Project, Wikipedia etc.[1]. The examples of successful mass collaboration and the advances in theories on knowledge creation imply that mass collaboration is a feasible approach also to assessment in the field of environment and health as well as other science-based policy support.

Mass collaboration in assessments

The reasons behind applying mass collaboration in assessments are basically very practical: to improve the quality of content and the applicability of the assessment output, and to improve the efficiency of the assessment process (see heande:Purpose and properties of good assessments for further clarification of the terms). Collection and synthesis of the knowledge and views of a diverse group of people tends to lead to better outputs than just relying on the knowledge and views of a limited group of individuals. Also, inclusion of diverse groups to contribute to the work tends to increase the acceptability of the outputs and can help to improve the usability of the outputs. Even the efficiency of the work process can be enhanced by mass collaboration, although the effect of unsuccessful or badly managed collaboration can also turn out counterproductive in this sense.

Assessments can be considered as good example of work which aims are clearly on creating shared understanding and where mass collaboration thus has great potential to be useful. After all, to put it very briefly, assessments are endeavors of creating shared understanding and increased enlightenment about societally important matters among:

  • Experts appointed to assess the issues
  • Decision makers with responsibility to deal with the issues
  • Stakeholders and the public at large

Participants to engage in mass collaboration in assessments can come from all of the above mentioned groups. Participants from different roles do, however, have different perspectives and intentions regarding the issues under assessment, and thereby they do naturally take different roles in the process. Anyway, the roles and perspectives are not fixed, as e.g. an individual having the role of an expert in some assessment, may be in the role of a common citizen in another assessment. The main difference to the traditional practice of assessment as well as stakeholder involvement and public participation is that despite their different roles and perspectives, all participants in mass collaboration are fundamentally equal contributors to the assessment. The issues of participation, stakeholder involvement and openness are considered in more detail in Participating in assessments and Organizing stakeholder involvement.

Applying the principle of mass collaboration in risk assessment means taking the output of the assessment work, the description of a piece of reality, as the central object of scrutiny. The description of reality is the thing that is colaboratively worked on and which serves as the central point or a hub of communication between the participants. In principle all participants are seen as contributors to the product and the product is considered as an independent object. In other words it could be said that all contributors are stakeholders in relation to the assessment product. This also implies that no one, in principle, has any more ownership to the product or a part of the product than anyone else, the product becomes common property of all contributors. Furthermore, if the participation is not limited, everyone becomes a potential contributor and the assessment product becomes more or less common property of the society as a whole.

The output of an assessment is an explication of the shared understanding of those who have contributed to the assessment. In an assessment the product is a compilation of information that attempts to describe a certain piece of reality as representation of the collective knowledge of the group of contributors about the assessed issue. The description develops iteratively through the contributions of the participants. The contributions are explicated messages that change the structure of the description and trigger other contributions by other participants. Ideally, the description is ready, when there are no more contributions and the quality of the description does not improve anymore. In practice, the assessment work can be declared done when no more big improvements take place and the quality of the description is perceived as sufficient. The assessment product is then ready to be used.

Mass collaboration has also been described under the name of collaborative communities. [4][5] Collaborative communities have a distinct ethic of interdependent contribution.

  • The actions of an individual focus on achieving a common goal. This results in flexible tasks and responsibilities.
  • To be able to act for the common goal, individuals must accept each others' objectives and identities. This is the way to build a suitable atmosphere for collaboration. The trust between individuals is based on shared knowledge. Individuals who share knowledge are perceived more trusted.
  • This results in a requirement to openness and knowledge sharing. It cannot be known beforehand, who will need a particular piece of information in a complex collaboration. Therefore, the most effective way to reach the common goal is to share all information with everyone.[4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Tapscott, D. & Williams, A.D. 2007. Wikinomics: How mass collaboration changes everything. Penguin Group.
  2. Paavola, S., & Hakkarainen, K. (2005) The Knowledge Creation Metaphor – An Emergent Epistemological Approach to Learning. Science & Education 14, 535-557.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Adler, Paul S. & Charles Heckscher (2006): Towards Collaborative Community. In Adler, Paul S. & Charles Heckscher (eds.): The Firm as a Collaborative Community – Reconstructing Trust in the Knowledge Economy. New York: Oxford.
  5. Juhana Kokkonen: Kohti yhteistoiminnallista yhteisöä. 27.11.2009

See also