While we’re defining our terms, let’s think about the word “collaborate” for a moment. For the etymology buffs, collaborate has its roots in Latin. “Co-” is a prefix meaning “together” or “jointly.” “Labor” means to work. So to collaborate means literally “to work together.”
It sounds easy enough. People have been working together for thousands of years. It’s an essential skill we’ve developed since humanity’s earliest days in primitive hunter-gatherer societies. You’d think after all that practice, we’d be quite good at it.
Yet you might be tempted to draw the opposite conclusion after looking at all the software tools aimed at fixing collaboration problems. If collaboration is such a simple thing, why is there so much noise in the enterprise market about it? It isn’t because the human race has suddenly become antisocial. It’s because most of our existing computer hardware and software has all the interpersonal skills of an idiot savant.
The vast majority of office productivity software got its start in the PC era, from the early 1980s through the early 1990s. During this period, the predominant office technology paradigm was to have a computer-to-employee ratio of 1:1. Also during this period, linkages between computers were rare while linkages between people were common. Thus was born the concept of sneakernet. Sharing and communicating information was a human task; storing and processing information was a computing task. The PC’s of that time were little more than advanced pocket calculators.
What’s remarkable is that that the mindset has persisted into the Internet Age, where linkages between computers are often more constant than the linkages between people. Our computers are used for much more than information processing and management. They are now tools for communication and self-expression. As such, they can become social objects in their own right. But it will only happen if we in the tech industry can get the interface right. Just as in real life, appearances matter and bad behavior is noted on the permanent record.
The buzz around collaboration technologies means that the software industry has noticed that the thing we do most with our computers is work with other people. The first generation of enterprise software got things wrong by trying to gather the data together while keeping the people apart. The next generation of software may very well do the opposite, by bringing people together while keeping the data separate.
This idea is at the heart of the infovark solution. Everybody has their own ideas, thoughts, documents, and messages. Some of these need to be shared with others. We want to enable that communication in the most natural and seamless way possible, without impinging on other coworkers’ space. We want to find and retrieve only the most relevant items, rather than distracting employees with useless data. We want people to collaborate as they always have, while allowing the computer to track, process and manage the information that results from that collaboration.
Collaboration is not new. It’s at the center of every business enterprise. What’s new is the emergence of software to enhance that collaborative experience.
Michael Francis Booth posts an interesting take on the privacy/security debate surrounding social networking sites like Facebook. It’s called Stop Designing out the Fun, and it makes the excellent point that social networking software exists because people enjoy managing their web of relationships. Recent attempts by Google and Facebook to automagically update your network of friends are annoying not merely because they violate our current digital definitions of privacy and security, but because they do something by machine that humans prefer to do by hand.
Think about that for a moment: There are menial tasks requiring micromanagement that humans actually love. We get a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from them, despite the fact that they consume a great deal of time and effort. From a process reengineering point of view, these are chores ripe for delegation, outsourcing, or elimination. Yet from a psychological point of view, removing those sorts of activities can be counterproductive.
Michael illustrates his point with a quote from Jakob Nielson regarding video game design. Games have a lot to teach us about this principle. Many games require intense concentration and focus, yet people love them. Some even get addicted to them, despite the fact that they often have menial, repetitive elements. In fact, if you asked a casino manager, he’d probably tell you that it’s the repetitive elements that keep the customers coming back for another throw of the dice or a pull on the lever.
Imagine a slot machine that didn’t require you to do anything – you feed 100 bucks into the slot, and then it says:
“Sorry! you lost.”
If we’re to bring social software inside the enterprise, our yardstick can’t be efficiency alone. We also have to figure out what tasks employees enjoy and build on those tasks. Doing so will boost productivity, because people are good at the tasks they enjoy.
Hugh MacLeod, over at gapingvoid gives some great insight into “Social Objects”:
“The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else”
I really like the term. Social Objects are everywhere in modern web applications – Check out the discussion pages at wikipedia, or flickr. Every one of those crummy facebook applications that you accidentally join has, at it’s core, a social object.
As for the Enterprise, the social objects that are present in the workplace may not be as interesting as say, Vampires, but they are nonetheless important artifacts that people interact daily with. The latest copy of the employee manual is a social object. A previous forgotten version may also be a social object. The new team put together for the latest PR campaign is a social object. Other people who contribute decisions on that campaign are social objects. (isn’t inter-office gossip fun?) And all of these social objects co-exist in the workplace with a stream of social objects that people bring along with them.
Now, these social objects are a nice abstraction, but they don’t really offer us much utility – the real opportunity to improve the function of the enterprise lies in the conversations about these objects, and the actions taken as a result of those conversations. As Dean said in a previous post, Computers aren’t very good at conversations. But they are very good at remembering and tracking things.
Since we started infovark, social objects and people have been at the forefront of our thinking. (We’re working on the best way to manage these enterprise social objects for the people who work with them.)
Every time I see a post like Hugh’s that explains what we’re working on, it makes me feel a little less nervous about the whole startup thing…
Rock on, Hugh 😉
What did happen to the Intranets? Beats me.
When I first started as an intern, Lotus Notes was all the rage in my department. People would create Lotus Notes databases on share drives for everything. Access controls were few, administrative access was plentiful, and the thing grew like you wouldn’t believe. The phenomenon, termed “Notes Sprawl”, meant that everyone had their own little mini-silos of information scattered around, trying to solve everything from financial reporting to whose turn it was to bring the cake to the next morning tea.
Of all these Notes databases, by far the most popular on my local Notes server was a forum that allowed all the people in my building to talk to each other. Everyone would log in every day to chat about various topics — some corporate, some personal. Occasional flame wars would erupt. Both meaningful and frivolous discussion flowed. It was probably the first functional online community I’d ever seen.
It didn’t last. When the IT team discovered its high rate of growth and restricted access to the forum, employees had nowhere to go. At about the same time, Internet access arrived on our corporate PCs. The once-healthy corporate community dispersed into fragmented Internet communities.
The social elements of our forum, which were the actual reason that people were using the corporate intranet, could be served just as well by the public Internet. Each individual ventured forth to pursue their own interests with other like-minded cake connoisseurs and amateur radio operators. But business concerns could not be aired on the open Internet in the same way as before. A valuable corporate communications channel disappeared. Employees retreated to their established chains of command for corporate information.
Sam Lawrence, over at Jive Software is absolutely correct when he points out that Facebook is a success because it’s people centric. Intranets, on the other hand, have been seen more as content repositories.
Here’s the thing: People don’t care about content as much as they do about people. The conversation you have about the content is equally, if not more, important than the content itself. And the conversation you have about the content depends on the people involved in the discussion. Getting the right people together is essential.
Yet the whole concept of “The Business Intranet” is hampered by very Web 1.0 thinking. It’s treated as a static place to get information, rather than an interactive place for people to connect. It’s an Employee Manual on a computer. (Nobody reads those either.)
If Enterprise 2.0 is going to deliver improved utility in the workplace, we have to stop thinking so much about the content. The content is an artifact of the conversation. We have to start thinking about the people and their human need to connect with others.