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Abstract

Many electronic networks, such as forums, provide interaction spaces where participants collaborate on complex issues over extended periods of time. However, while inter- and intra-organizational collaboration has been widely studied, collaboration practices in electronic networks need further investigation. Extant research on electronic networks has mainly emphasized availability of expertise, by focusing on factors such as individual resources and participant diversity. We call for a closer examination of the collaboration practices that allow such expertise to be leveraged for successful outcomes. We argue that an examination of collaboration practices in different technology-enabled contexts is essential to the study of knowledge work, which increasingly occurs in electronic networks. Therefore, in this paper, we provide a starting point by investigating the structure of collaboration that enables one group to engage in “deep discussion” and sense-making, develop perspectives, and create knowledge. Specifically, in the context of discussion threads, which are the locus of collaboration in many electronic networks, we explore the structure of interaction that leads to effective collaboration. We propose that two dimensions—initiating dialogue and sustaining dialogue—predict the effectiveness of collaboration in discussion threads. The hypotheses are tested on six months of message data collected from an electronic network focused on methodological issues in the social sciences. We find that the proposed interaction variables contribute to knowledge work over and above the traditional variables that have been studied in the literature such as individual resources and participant diversity.

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