Tuesday, August 07, 2007

It's like getting married

I used this analogy last week in a meeting and -- although people chuckled -- they understood it.

When we develop a digitization program, we often must collaborate with others either internally or externally. If we collaborate with people internally, we may believe that we have already laid down the necessary foundation, but perhaps we have not. We will likely be more aware of building a firm foundation with those we partner with externally, but we may shy away from negotiating everything, since we don't want to offend or appear picky.

It is like getting married. When you meet a perspective life-partner, you date and get to know that person. Perhaps you discover that you use words differently, and so you have to talk about what you mean (the meaning behind the words). As the relationships get serious, you may begin to talk about the future and making this a formal partnership (a marriage). That's when you'll begin to negotiate about who will do what or at least talk about expectations. And if you do decide to spend the rest of your lives together, you might decide to formalize your understanding in how this partnership will work in a prenuptial agreement. After the wedding, if something goes wrong, you can point to the prenup -- or other paperwork (like a list of who is responsible for what) -- to remind each other of the agreement that was made.

So it is with building a cooperative digitization program. Even if you already know the prospective partners, you need to ensure that you're speaking the same language. You'll need to formalize who is going to do what. You may think it is obvious, but formally agreeing "on the obvious" and writing it down will provide documentation that could be critical later on. Given the length of many programs (elapsed time), there may be people involved at the end, who were not involved in the program at the beginning. In that situation, the documentation becomes even more important because it communicates across time what the founders intended.

Like every marriage, there may be some renegotiation. That's fine. But you cannot renegotiate what you did not negotiate to begin with. In other words, you can't change the rules midstream if you don't know what the rules were in the beginning. Therefore, creating the upfront documentation -- the partnership agreement -- will be helpful when you decide that the agreement needs to change. And the agreement will be helpful if the partnership needs to be dissolved.

If you don't know what the rules are for your program -- if there is no paperwork, no documented expectations, etc. -- it is not too late. Talk to your partners about documenting your agreement for the future. Talk about the need for future workers on the project to understand the agreements, rules, etc. that you have been using. Take the time do to it; you won't be sorry.

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