One of the most fascinating developments there are at the moment at the workplace is I think the use of social networking tools. What can ben seen in several reports is that the use of social networking tools (for example to find the right person for a task) is growing rapidly within companies (Funny thing is that in many cases this is happening completely below the radar of the IT department). The tools are used for example to find the right person with the right expertise as close by in your network as possible. Directly based on previous work done by people like reports they wrote, memberships of communities, questions they answered etc. Maybe even based on the emails you sent to specific people though in this respect there are of course issues on privacy that we have to deal with
IBM is developing some quite interesting applications around lotus connections dealing with social networking. Recently they have developed a tool called Atlas that is capable of showing you your network, how it relates to the subjects you are dealing, with and how to reach people. Important is that this information is also showed in relation to the company structure and (other) communities.
What I especially like about developments like these is that it gives the individuals in an organisation the power to create their own network besides the structure of the organisation. Links are being made that work instead of links that are made to control power (or am I being naive and will it still be used to do that?). I think due to the transparancy it will give the individual more power to reach his goals based on achievement instead of organisational position. People can create their own organisation that supports their work within the overall organisation. This leads to fascinating possibilities.
Of course their are lots of questions on how this will work. How do we deal with privacy, will the organisation not use the transparency to discipline people instead of giving them more freedom. What is the role of management in structures like these?
Some books are very helpful in making you understand developments. This summer I have read a book called “The Cluetrain manifesto”. Central theme of the book (which by the way is written in 2000 but started as as website in 1999) is the statement that markets (and a lot of other things) are conversations. The way companies use corporate communications and PR to tell us how we should think about them simply does not work anymore.
It makes you think. When I go to the market each Saturday to get the ingredients for a nice dinner I am in constant conversation. I tell the girl that always helps me with the vegetables how they were last week and she tells me what kind of specials she has this week. Sometimes we discuss how the ingredients are best used for the recipe I will be making. I learn from her and sometimes I can tell her new things. Same with the small butcher that I go to. In essence this is a weekly conversation that accompanies the business we do together. The one greatly enhances the other.
In a way this is the natural way people started doing business. Democracy and debate became of age in the Agora of Athens that was established as a marketplace. It is only with the establishment of big companies that we lost the conversational way of doing business. And because of this greater distance we created corporate communication to tell people what we think they should think of our company. But we stopped listening and forgot about two way conversation.
Internet and especially the social networks it supports again creates the opportunity to be in conversation with the market. Not to tell people why your product is so great but to be in conversation about the features people want. People love to help companies to improve the products they like, all they ask is that they listen and take them seriously.
I think here is a message for a lot of companies. More and more it will be needed to open up the company and invite people from the outside to help. With the development of new products, with how the product can be implemented.
The market is a conversation and conversations go in two directions (at least the nice ones, don’t you think?).
One of the other great books I have read this summer is linked, a book about the theory of small world networks. Many know about the famous Milgram experiment where he showed that most people in the world are connected by not more than six handshakes. Linked shows that this is because society has a “small world” topology, meaning that we have many closely related groups that are coupled by “connectors”, people that have many long range connections. The funny thing is that this type of network is also fairly common in nature, e.g. the way neurons are connected in the brain and the way fireflies synchronizes their lights. He describes many forms of these networks and simulations he did with this topology. I think this work has a lot of design rules in it how to create successful social networks. Somehow I think for example that the dunbar number (which relates to groups size and dynamics) is related to this. I will get back to that some other time.
Does Wikipedia work or doesn’t it? That is the question.There is a lot of discussion on what the quality of Wikipedia is and how we should use it. An interesting point of view is the comparison with Open Source software. I think there are two quite important distinctions how Wikipedia and the Open Source movement handle the way they organize their processes.
Wikipedia is for the most part anarchy. Anybody can simply put some information in and correct whatever is there. Even when Einstein would have written the part about relativity than john doe can easily “improve” upon it. On pages where this leads to numerous changes (who the hell does this Einstein guy thinks he is by changing what I, John Doe, have shown to the world…) the adopt a feudalist approach where some people (the Aristocracy) have received special administrator powers by Jimmy Wales (the King, Wikipedia: c’est moi).
Open Source has adopted a much more open approach to this. Also here you find the few who are at the inner circle with special powers but they are promoted there by the group based on their merit. In software it is pretty easy to see if something works or not (most of the time). Either it crashes or it works. Either the function works or it does not. That makes it much easier to spot the talent and quality of developers compared to the quality of the contributors to Wikipedia. And of course: Linus Torvalds is no emperor. No, Linus is God and above us all. Considering the ubiquitousness of Linux at least he knows what we all are doing.
My conclusion is: you definitely need some sort of structure to make these things work. And the risk of structures, organisation and hierarchy’s is that they are easily abused.
But does this not like a lot like real (physical) life. The Romans already understood this: “who will guard the guards” (as you clever readers already understood from the title. I had to look it up on the Internet …).
We already have a history in mechanisms for this kind of situation for more than 3000 years since the forum in Athens and it is called democracy (OK, there where times when it did not work…).
In a democracy we elect people to rule our country. We elect people to make the laws and to enforce the laws. We appoint people that judge others within the context of that law. Reality is a big social network. And you know, when we are not satisfied with the ones that rule we send them away during election time.
The mechanisms in social software should not be that different from our democratic rules: we elect people in whom we trust that they will govern rightly. Some rules will be hard to change (the constitution or the way we vote for administrator) and others will be easy to change (parking fines or the mechanism how a recommendation is calculated), depending on how important they are for the foundation of the community. And regularly we will have the opportunity vote or run for administrator ourselves.
In order to make this work we should not just look at Machiavelli but also to Montesquieu who wrote about how to design the checks and balances to prevent the Machiavellian Kings.
Yesterday I was at a seminar organised by the Rabobank and Veldhoen and Company. Theme of the seminar was the new way of working made possible by new and flexible office environments, new tools and new working environments. Henny van Egmond, with whom we cooperate in our research project “The future workspace” made an interesting remark about the stimulation of new ways of working.
A big problem in our society is the automobile. On the one hand it has liberated us by making it possible to move freely but most of the time it now forces us to stand in lines kilometres long. This is costing us all far too much time. When we look at the new government program (beleidsprogramma, sorry, only in Dutch) the only focus around this subject is how to deal with all the cars on the road (more road, more clever use of roads etc). But what they almost completely overlook is how to decrease the number of people who are trying to use that road. The ministry of transportation, responsible for our roads, has created a budget for 2007 of € 135.000.000 to decrease the transportation jams. In total 29 different types of measures they propose. All relating to how better make use of roads and none focused on how to learn people to commute less (well maybe one item where it says that the department should be an example. So they subsidize their own tools to work from their own home).
I think it is time to have a chat with the department.
What happens when you remove the office from the office? What happens when people have a dozen offices to chose from? What happens when we take away the coffee corner?
Together with Buro Blink we have held the kick-off of the Future Workspace project with Royal Haskoning, Rabobank, IBM and Telematica Instituut. During the kick-off one of the items was a brainstorm using SIT. The idea is that you take a situation and you either remove something, multiply it, add something, whatever. Remove yourself from the current situation and based on that think what would happen and how you would deal with. For example, use a kind of dating service in companies to connect people that ought to work together when you have flexible workplaces (no more office) and working hours.
In this project we will be researching the workplace of the future. Social software in all kinds of appearances, including the ones we do not know yet, will be part of this research. One of the areas of research is into 3D worlds as an interface for cooperation. University of Delft, Leiden (CETIM) and Amsterdam are part of this project.