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Global Applications of Collaborative Technology

Nonconsensual Negotiation in Distributed Collaboration

Distributed projects are not only more difficult to manage, but also involve problems never considered for traditional methodologies on single-site projects. The collaboration project described here involves the development and writing of a multipartner European Union grant proposal.

The scope of the proposal was initially agreed upon by most partners in a brief face-to-face meeting. The overall proposal skeleton was prepared three weeks later by three key stakeholders in a two-day in-person meeting and later shared with all partners. The full proposal was developed in the following four weeks, when many of the stakeholders were traveling worldwide. One of the partners, Themios Theklies (all names used here are pseudonyms), noticed the format of the document should be changed to reflect the needs of the EU-issued RFP. In the process, he edited the text extensively, changing the original focus and proposed deliverables to those more aligned with his own agenda—all without the agreement or knowledge of the rest of the team. This created a problem: How to reconcile the original text with Theklies' de facto posted new requests?

Peter Petroli (academic co-coordinator) prepared a new version including Theklies' requests and reinstating the earlier set of deliverables. A pattern emerged in which one partner would change something to reflect his or her own interest and amend the rest to reach some level of consistency with the previous versions, keeping all changes to the previous partners' agenda to a minimum. In practice, multiple sets of agendae were beginning to be reflected in one single document. An interesting insight was how much of the negotiation proceeded without formal recognition that negotiation was indeed happening. This phenomenon was labeled "nonconsensual negotiation."

The task-media fit perspective suggests the media most appropriate to a given task is used. Our observations generally support this perspective, with one interesting and provocative exception. Initially, face-to-face communication was appropriate to establish trust and proposal focus. Later, the written version was appropriate to clarify detailed focus and deliverables. However, it was also used as a tool for nonconsensual negotiation. Since negotiations are typically conducted in richer media, this exception suggests that managers must be aware of its ramifications for distributed collaboration projects. Richer media was eventually required to agree on departures from the course originally selected. A transatlantic, transpacific phone negotiation was called and yielded a focused proposal eliminating nonrelated deliverables equitably for all partners. It seems the original concept meant different things to different people, with little shared understanding of expectations. Partial clarification of the underlying assumptions was only possible through different written versions and as a direct result of nonconsensual negotiation.

This fits well with certain knowledge management approaches, particularly by making implicit knowledge explicit. The recommendation is the concept of emerging meaning must be acceptable up-front with implicit negotiation becoming more visible. As part of this requirement, it is fundamental to recognize the existence of nonconsensual negotiation and resulting appropriate media choices.

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Roberto Evaristo ( is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago, Ill.

©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/1200  $5.00

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2001 ACM, Inc.


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