Human nature has given us the great ability to work together and be adaptive to changes in our surrounding environment since the dawn of mankind. Nothing new to this set of capabilities. Also we have been able to form uses of our common tools, so that we together manage to change society.
The tools have, and will be the foundation for innovation, and each new tool kit raises new challenges. Where we see new practices emerge, and craftsmanship to master them. In most cases, we have been situated in co-located uses, to form groups. The effort to coordinate that group, using different means to reach the set goals. Have bearing in the way we as humans communicate. Usually with a combination of spoken language and body language. In some boundary object interactions where we don’t have a common lingo. Body language have been a simple way to bridge between different communities. The communication tools used when we can’t see or hear each other have emerged over the years.
Today, our work conditions differ quite, from previous generations dependencies on co-located collaborative work. Due to the immense use of digital communication tools, and shifting focus from bodywork, to knowledge work. We simply engage in endless conversations on all levels, to undertake our daily everyday practices together. Some of these conversations have become routines, where we codify, store and use the outcome. Codified knowledge have been one of the key elements to run a large organisation, since cuneiform. Other conversations are just social-glue, to connect us with peers in order to solve the issues at hand. The problem in all this, is that the focus is more on the tools and means, and less on why we communicate and the need to coordinate our efforts in a group of people.
The other issue, is to find other groups of individuals to form emerging networks. Where our social ties are not so tightly knitted. But where the small world group acts in cellular fashion. The organising of resources, as humans working in different groups. The sharing practices, professions, disciplines and processes, is what we commonly call an organisation. With clear boundaries. Hence there are two dimensions to collaboration: in-bound to make the team work together, regardless if they are co-located or not. And second the out-reaching theme, connecting to the ecology where the group work and outcome signals to other parties and herds of people.
Managing the tool-kit
In my daily work practice either as researcher or information strategist I mix these two modalities of collaboration seamlessly. And I juggle around and struggle with a pretty hefty and complex tapestry of digital communication tools, since each facet of group work and context have different agreed upon tools and organising principles of information and data. And topping this, I also chose prefered tools of my own liking, that might divert from the commonly stated platform. Using these means anywhere, anytime and on any device, as stated in most digital strategies I have written or come across.
When organisation fast forward into digitally enhanced collaboration (just separating this for now from traditional group work without digital means), the most common path is to buy what all others have in their garage. “My neighbor just bought a brand new Tesla Car, and he seems to be very happy with his rather expensive choice.” Or just go for what we already have parked inside our corporate walls. Sharepoint is such a simple choice to make. It is a very capable software suite of things, that promise to solve all collaboration themes out-of-the-box. Or any other software vendor’s suite in the same ballpark.
A collaboration framework
Michael Sampson, have in his writing (books, blogs and lectures), pinpointed seven pillars for collaboration:
- Shared access to team/group information and data
- Location independence
- Real-time authoring and editing
- Group/team aware calendaring
- Social engagement
- Group/team task management
- Collaboration auto-discovery
The first 6 pillars, rest upon the in-bound teamwork. How to make a tightly knit group of people coordinate, collaborate in a smooth manner, so that they are able to reach their targeted goal. The reason why they start to work together in the first place. Be it a project, organisational bound unit, or learning network as communities of practice.
In a group of people, regardless if they are co-located, distributed or a mix thereof, they share the same goals. Hopefully? The social ties are pretty strong, and in some spaces they know each other in and out. In others they have been pulled together for a specific task, and have to agree on the game rules to work together. In loosely coupled communities of practice or networks, the ties are more related to profession, discipline or shared interest. Hence they might not know each other at all, but still share a common ground why the meet-up and engage in online conversations. For each different facet of in-bound collaboration, there might be nuances to what capabilities they need to become fluent in the use of either digital platform. My fellow researchers have pulled together a very nice recipe book to what ingredients is needed for a sustainable digital habitat, so I do not intend to elaborate more on this here.
My ambition is to further develop some thinking and tinkering around the second theme (seventh pillar), the out-reaching collaboration.
Out-reaching collaboration – Serendipity!
Serendipity in life, sometimes connects dots between people. I happened to share a taxi to Milan’s airport for 2 hours with Larry Prusak 10 years ago. From a Knowledge Management research conference we both had attended and done talks at. And during this ride we both shared stories from the trenches, and connections to friends and peers. Building the social tapestry, that still unfolds. When I meet people with the same aspiration and passion for communities and networks of practice as myself.
In large organisations, it is difficult to know what is going on, on a daily basis across all places and contexts. And connecting teams and groups separated by organisational boundaries, profession, locations, processes or practices have been the promise and peril for knowledge management. Early on the focus was set on codified knowledge, as record keeping. But the more control put into the stew to get people to codify what they were up to, the less things were then added to the shared spaces. This was simply, because this extra task, diverted them from their everyday work practices. Still 20 years further down the road, this shared view of our tools and technologies persists.
The question then is: What design imperative can we build upon, so that connecting people and serendipity happens, without a steep threshold of manual work of codification?
Some consultancy firms have a culture of sharing and codifying, and this practice is also what they promise to their clients. The problem is that the lego pieces in the box, all artifacts developed by members of staff, reflecting on their observations from the trenches. Taxes lots of resources, and also the half life is pretty short. Storytelling and compelling narrative, is what sticks. This is what I remember from the personal conversation with Larry Prusak. And still after this long time, I am able to reflect on pretty detailed parts of that conversation. Not codified, or recorded.
My own reflection to the out-reaching capabilities using collaborative technologies are:
- Semantic Enhancements and Links
- Auto-suggestions in real-time
Profiling and Personal Data
As users of a multitude of digital communications platforms, we leave a digital trail. In less good circumstance this might be used against our will and intentions e.g. the NSA and other authorities’ surveillance of our digital lives. Or in online services like Facebook and Google, intrusion into our privacy online. We sign a contract with the Devil, without reading the fine print, selling our privacy as the currency for free services.
In the 90’s when I both started my internet consulting firm and research, I came across a fellow researcher at MIT Media Lab,Prof. Patti Maes. She and set of colleagues founded Firefly network inc. Using their agent technologies and collaborative filtering algorithms. They were later bought by Microsoft. One of the foundations of their technology was dynamic profiles and a standard (P3P) to people profiles and segments, and attributes to this. These technologies in different incarnations are now omnipresent, and widely used by Facebook, Linkedin, and Google to name but a few. The main idea, was that the end-user fed the agent his or her profile and preferences. Sometimes it could be a manually-intensive process of record keeping, while at other times the use of any service could add bits and parts of the users behaviour as part of a digital trail – uncovering the “tacit knowledge” of the user, and his or hers networks in doing so. The keeping of user records is sensitive as it was with P3P and the like. It failed to get traction to a larger audience due to conflicts arising from privacy and intrusion issues. It is always a matter of whom you trust. Other technology companies, have tried similar paths, to tap into the tacit knowledge, like Autonomy have with their agent-profiles and so forth. Regardless of the success or not, profiling is key in delivering anything valuable to the end user.
Finding peers and friends (FOAF) through profile records and catalogs, i.e. Active Directory (AD), is probably the most asserted requirement in any digital workplace development. Social and collaborative platforms like Sharepoint, mix both the more structured elements to a user-profile derived from AD, plus the users’ contributions, and digital-trails e.g. connected friends, groups, social-tags and so forth, NB. Office Graph (Oslo).
But in a world where everything is not hosted in one to serve them all platform, and where users depart outside into other shared spaces for their collaborative work. These single platform profiles, are pretty useless. Most organisations try to build compounds and user-profile mashups, using profile segments from a diversity of information systems (i.e HR), and services. The most ambitious efforts combine user-profile records from the inside environment, with external social media profiles, i.e. the users Linkedin profile.
Users do like to improve their profiles, if the value in doing so is in a direct feedback loop to the use of the platform. Here LinkedIn is a good example. In other online networks, the settings for your profile have become so complex, that users just ignore configuring them at all, i.e. in Facebook.
As with the now forgotten P3P standard, the user needs to be in control of his or hers Personal Data stored in the profile. And the negotiations between the user and the service who want to manage profile-segments have to be dead-simple.
The user-profile is still one of the most underdeveloped data-sets, and the privacy issues are certainly not ironed out. But without a decent profile, all other things will fall apart. It should not be a laborious process for the end-user to keep their records in shape, and the backing set of informations systems must interoperate or else the building blocks won’t match. For online services, they rely upon browser cookies. Where all of them leave identifications and signals to the back-end services. Since the HTTP standard is decentralised and decoupled, contrasting older architectures like client-server. For each service this set-up works, but for a user with many things, devices and spaces. None of these low-level means, build a personal data record that they are able to manage and control. Or connect between services and profile segment. In a easy to use manner.
In a utopian world – profile matching gives us serendipitous experiences and connects us with other people, that we otherwise would never have met or interacted with. For now we just hope that we are being helped to find the people we know about through FOAF and graph search. Fingers crossed, we will soon get interoperability and new emerging standards, governed by all providers… where the balance of privacy, control and open interop, just work!
Semantic Enhancements and links
In the in-bound conversations for teamwork, the sharing space for collaboration has several well-known patterns. But in many instances, failure is omnipresent, regardless of the supporting platform, be it old CSCW as IBM Lotus Notes in the 90’s and later IBM Connections, or Sharepoint. To a large extent it boils down to the organising principles for information and data, that all participants will adhere to, and follow, with pragmatic governance, and lifecycle in mind – not forgetting the culture of caring for the users, through adaptation strategies in order to get them into a comfortable mode, actually using the given platform.
The simplest structure, is to answer a set of very obvious questions before starting a teamwork space.
- Why are we going to participate?
- Who will be participating and who is welcome to join, and finally, who runs the show? i.e. Information Ownership and stewardship
- Who will be interested in the outcome from our joint effort? Audience and Coverage
- What is the general theme for our work? Title, Topics, and brief Description
- What kinds of artifacts and spaces are we going to use in our daily work? Type
- For how long will we be hanging out in this collaborative space, and what will happened after we close down the room we share?
- Relations to other domains (projects, programs or organisations). Linking!
If one uses the inverted pyramid for communications, all these questions will be pretty easy to answer. For those who fail to answer these questions, they shouldn’t be able to start the teamwork at all if there is no targeted goal for participation.
The answers to the questions above will be added as resource descriptions to the collection (metadata). That will be useful patterns for information architecture and search patterns when the amount of collaborative spaces grow. And for connecting the dots? If you also use common standards, like Dublin Core, interoperability will follow. You could have bits of your shared space in SharePoint, Archive and final Documents in a Document repository, tasks and more open collaborative space, as in a enterprise wikis (Atlassian) and jira. Using OneNote, Evernote or whatever you have. And you will still then be able to keep track of findability across spaces, and devices.
When users start to participate and contribute with digital artifacts, the supporting platform will guide them, and auto-suggest both administrative resource descriptions and narrow and targeted vocabularies. Hence the formation of a pragmatic and useful organising model to all data. Without killing the users in their pathway of adding semantics.
A final note, is that the cross-linking and auto-suggested links. Is what we get, supporting the last pillar of the seven pillars for collaboration mentioned above? We are able to add metadata and search driven user-experience and information architecture elements, that connect and link people, content and collections all together, without having to manage this complex task manually.
Auto suggestions in real-time
Finding things and navigating in real-time. Obviously to work together we need to find things to be able to act in our enacted environment, and be aware of triggers in our everyday pathway that relate to our practices. These information flows, do have to be calibrated and nurtured to not overwhelm us with data feeds. So filters! But in same breath, they not be too narrow, so we fail to connect the dots in the overarching picture to things.
There are many fancy smart devices and services, that add context and triggers to autosuggest for you on your pathway of doing your actual work. These means, should be in the background and infuse correlations that makes sense. And that it not disturb, like the well know MS Office Assistant (Paper Clip).
A connected company, is a place where people are able to work seamlessly without boundaries, in-side out, or outside in. In all this emerging internet trend like semantic web and linked-data might come handy.