Technology After Culture? Not in a Million Years

August 12, 2010 at 1:22 pm | Posted in Fun, social software | 4 Comments

The Wall St. Journal reported today that technology began 3.4 million years ago, which is one million years older than previously thought (“Researchers Say Fossils Uncovered in Ethiopia Push Back the Beginnings of Technology by Almost One Million Years” ).  I predict they will also soon find the remains of the first technology industry analyst to be 3.39 million years old.  Because as soon as that first, shiny new V-shaped rock showed up for cutting hides, I’m sure someone was there to give the same advice I find myself repeating:

  • Sure, the tool is cool, but think about whether you really need it first
  • Don’t just let everyone start using this tool on their collaboration sites – er, carcasses.  Plan out what it will be used for and guide its usage
  • If your need isn’t urgent, consider waiting until V-shaped rock service pack 1 comes out (there may be bugs in the original rock.  I mean real ones – you could get bitten)
  • And most important of all: The majority of problems with aren’t due to the tool, they are due to people, cultural, and organizational issues that need to be dealt with first

The article sheds some light on the origins of that last bullet – the tendency to think about the technology before culture:

An international research team working in Ethiopia has unearthed what it considers the earliest known traces of the use of stone tools, a discovery that could push back the advent of technology by nearly a million years to a time before the evolution of the human family. (emphasis added)

So basic technology evolved before the basic social construct – the family?  No wonder I still encounter people spending all their time optimizing technology only to find that organizational structure and culture sink their projects.  Well, give it another 500,000 years and I’m sure we’ll catch up.


A Technology vs. Culture Rorschach Test

August 6, 2009 at 3:04 pm | Posted in Blogs, social software | 1 Comment

Here’s a quick test to see if you are technology focused or business focused.  Read the following paragraph and then select a multiple choice interpretation.


A blogging study published by Brockmann and Company in April, 2009 found that companies with blogs had a higher customer satisfaction than those without (32% vs 25%). They also had much higher employee satisfaction (26% for large companies with blogs, 12% without). 

Question: What does this study show?

A. Installing a blog can raise a company’s customer satisfaction rate and its employee satisfaction rate. 

B. Companies that have higher customer and employee satisfaction rates are more likely to install blogs. 


The point of the exercise is that from my conversations with IT folks (and others enamored with Web 2.0), too many would jump to interpretation A in this case and in the more subtle cases they encounter in their daily work lives. However, the field research we conducted on social networking showed companies with closed cultures that discourage connecting to peers to cross-pollinate ideas (the kind of companies that I don’t think engender high customer or employee satisfaction rates) are indeed less likely to implement social software.

Correlation statistics don’t indicate causation, so there’s no way to tell for sure which answer is correct.  But my instinct says it’s B.  This answer is further indicated by another question on the same survey that found companies with blogs were more green as well (20% for companies with blogs, 9% without).  It seems unlikely installing software makes a company more environmentally aware, so the other direction is the one that makes more sense.

When IBM Was Faced With 2 Options, They Picked #3

May 19, 2009 at 3:58 pm | Posted in IBM, Microsoft SharePoint, Notes/Domino, social software | Leave a comment

Good posting from Mike Gotta on IBM’s nice, but too late integration point between Connections and SharePoint.  Mike says that if he was picking directions for IBM he would have “prioritized deep integration with SharePoint”.  I agree entirely. 

Actually, as I mentioned in previous blog posts (like here and here) I think there were two angles to explore and IBM picked #3.  #1 is the “insanely great integration” that Mike describes.  #2 is a compete strategy if they think their social software is good enough to go head to head against SharePoint and knock it out of the running. 

What I do not feel was a real option was the “don’t say anything” option, also known as “wait and see” or “I’m sure clients will include us on head-to-head comparisons and POCs and figure it out themselves”.  Or “pretend Jive is your only competition”.  That’s option #3 and a non-starter in my book.

So I’m happy to see some effort coming out of IBM to address coexistence strategy, but I would like to see a more comprehensive strategy with technology, sales awareness, and marketing push (e.g., catchphrase and branding such as ConnectPoint, brochures, maybe even a sliver of the Lotus advertising budget) behind it.  If it’s not too late to pull that together.

Productivity Future Vision

April 3, 2009 at 3:37 pm | Posted in Attention Management, collaboration, communication, Fun, Information Work, presence, social software, usability, User experience | 6 Comments

Peter O’Kelly’s blog pointed me to a Productivity Future Vision video from Microsoft Office Labs.  Highly recommended.

A few observations:

  • Airline seats in the future will be wider and have more legroom, even when you aren’t in first class (the seats on the plane don’t look like big, puffy, overwrought first class seats).  Furthermore, they will be clean and not have potato chips from the previous occupant smeared on them.
  • People will use their electronics calmly and be nice to each other.  People in the video seem to calmly make a few gestures, then relax and smile.  It seems that productivity expectations in the future have remained about constant with today rather than increasing along with the improvement in the capabilities of their applications.  The time saved through their more productive interfaces has been returned to the worker to allow them to stop and smell the roses instead of their employers and clients demanding more from them. This will allow people in the future to relax and use their new wondrous equipment in serene happiness.
  • Devices get thinner and more translucent.  But while you may think holding remotes that are as thin as a piece of glass and typing on hard, flat surfaces would be uncomfortable, they will actually be pleasantly ergonomic because people in the future will have dainty hands and features.  There seem to be no obese, elderly, overly tall, or overly short future workers.
  • There is no need for paper in the future, so working environments remain clean and clutter free.  Come to think of it, there seems to be no need for food, conference SWAG, books, printers, or desk lights either.  This explains the lack of garbage cans in the rooms shown in the video.
  • Office workers will not create content anymore, such as typing long streams of text or slaving over the graphics in the beautiful interfaces they use.  They simply do a few manipulations to content that already exists.  Presumably a new underclass of information workers (I’ll call them “information morlocks“) slave away underground crafting detailed content that the surface dwellers can then use through simple, intuitive, tap-exhale-and-smile interfaces.

OK, a few serious observations:

  • I like the thought leadership I see here.
  • The basis for some truly wonderous technology exists today, such as the machine translation, digital ink, mobile phone projectors, and OLED displays shown in the video.
  • Interfaces with touch and gestures can be much more natural than keyboards and mice.
  • Collaborative workspaces can be made more natural and incorporate many other useful technologies.

While innovating user interfaces and display devices have great gee-whiz factors, I’m really looking forward to much more mundane improvements in productivity.  To name just a few:

  • I want to see content that is created in easy-to-use tools that scale to the needs of the user and produce content that is easily componentized, tagged, reused, and reassembled. 
  • I want to see contextual meaning to be captured and guidance provided through integrated ontology and machine memory during authoring to enable better translation and localization.
  • I’d like to see powerful and consistent reviewing and commenting features across all productivity tools that can discover implicit collaborative authoring processes through observation. 
  • I’d like to see rich presence information that improves productivity by inserting routing and channel switching to messages that determine the most appropriate way to deliver a message while taking both sender’s and receiver’s contextual preferences into account.
  • I’d like to see operating systems and productivity applications working together to create more interruptable environments that fit the time sliced, interruptable nature of the workplace. They would allow better bookmarking that can save retrieve the exact state of applications and their relations to each other, easing the burden of remembering what activities were in motion during interruptions and reducing time to resuming work.  Snapshots of window layouts and application states would allow easy, instantaneous switching between multiple workstreams.
  • I’d like to see wearable electronics that utilize personal rich presence, mobile technology, and social networking profiles to alert people to others in their vicinity that share interests (or other programmable searches) and are open to serendipitous conversation.

I might be waiting a while …

On the Relationship Between Portals and Social Networking: Replace or Coexist?

March 20, 2009 at 8:49 am | Posted in portals, social software | Leave a comment

Burton Group recently announced the completion of a field research project to determine how organizations are approaching social networking (see Field Research Study: Social Networking Within the Enterprise). The interviews were only very lightly guided, so respondents got to guide the conversation where they wanted to go. It was telling that quite a few of them, when asked to talk about social networking, wanted to talk about portals. In fact, one third of the 29 organizations interviewed steered the conversation to portals at some point. This point occurred in one of two places: when talking about how social networking could bolster an existing, successful portal – or how it could replace a failed portal.

First, replacing a failed portal effort with social networking. Respondents in this category indicated they had failed in attempts to create a portal to address generic “knowledge management.” One idea is that perhaps social networking will offer a better route to KM than portals since it focuses on human interconnections rather than collecting data assets. For example, one organization said they had an “older KM Portal previously established, but information was hard to find and use,” so now they were interested in social networking.

In other cases, portals failed to get off the ground due to endless planning. One respondent indicated “They have not deployed yet after a year and a half of planning but are now looking to go to a collaboration platform”. Another organization had different internal constituencies (IT, corporate communications, and HR) come into conflict as they forced the portal in different directions. For this organization, the result has been a portal effort that has been stalled for over 3 years. We recommend time boxing portal implementations to be six to nine months (the longer time being for large enterprise deployments) to avoid analysis paralysis.

If a social network is being launched from the ruins of a portal effort, one has to seriously ask why the social network is expected to succeed when a portal failed. If the answer is that a focus on connecting people to people is really what the organization needed rather than connecting people to applications and content then you may be on the right track. But if the answer is that the new technology is better or more exciting, expect failure for the same reasons the portal failed: lack of business buy-in, poor or no governance, poor adoption resulting in a failure to reach a critical mass of users, analysis paralysis, and no business proposition for solving problems the users can recognize.

Now that I’ve discussed using social networking to replace a failed portal effort, I want to move on to the more cheerful subject of using them together. The path is clearer for organizations with successful portal efforts that want to add social networking in. Portals act as a personalized hub for applications, content, collaboration, and processes. This puts them in a unique position to reach people in a role-based manner who may want to interact in a social network. Through integration, social network sites can inject people and relationships into the portal interface. One interviewee explicitly mentioned that it “would be interesting to add people and relationships to the portal user interface and experience … to surface social networking in the portal.” Another mentioned they were interested in hanging community features off of their new, open source portal. This makes sense since portal infrastructure is often used today to create role-based portal sites. For example, one respondent had separate portals for employees, alumni, retirees, and a women’s network. By adding social networking technologies, these existing portals could become even more powerful mechanisms for connecting people with similar interests that may not come in casual contact during their workday.

Note that in this model the portal is not itself a social network, but it can work with the social network site. The SN site may have portlets or widgets that the portal can consume, APIs that custom-written portlets could access, or (worst case) screen scrape summary information the network site. The portal could also provide links to contextually relevant social network sites. The social networking site simultaneously exists as a destination for use when social networking is a primary activity and can point to information in the portal. In this way the portal and the social network site can each play to their strengths and make each other stronger and more successful. The portal provides the back-end integration (directory, single sign-on, implementation of portlet standards, portlets connecting to enterprise applications) and front-end presentation (in a personalized, screen real-estate metaphor) for building portal sites. However, the SN site is probably not built on the portal framework. The SN site provides the ability to define an online persona, list connections, receive notifications on the activities of those connections, participate in inter-personal, group, or community activities, and control social networking permission, preference, and privacy settings. It’s a great combination and one we expect to see more frequently.

Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.

Physical Presence + Mobile + Social Networking = Killer Social Networking App?

March 9, 2009 at 1:25 pm | Posted in Mobile and pervasive computing, presence, social software, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment

Some clever students at the University of Maine created a prototype of a “friend finder” that works as follows according to Gadgets.Softpedia:

The students’ concept, which they call the Friend Finder, is a device attached to a piece of clothing or accessory, such as a purse or handbag. A series of LED lights in the fabric are programmed to light up when someone who also has the device comes within 30 feet, but only if the two people match in pre-programmed personal characteristics, likes and dislikes.

These type of wearable electronics must be somewhat common as this story was also covered in talk2myshirt, a website specifically about wearable electronics.

The Wall St. Journal (3/6/09, p W11, “The Ghost in the Love Machine“) picked this up as a computer dating story, but I see this as a serious idea for business-related social networking.  How many wallflowers do you see standing around the bistro tables during social breaks and buffet dinners at conferences?  Well, picture the following scenarios:

  • You’re at your annual epidemiology conference, of which only a small handful of attendees match your specialty of pediatric epidemiology.  Your Bluetooth device dings a few times to let you know the name badge to look for of someone else within 10 meters of you who pre-regestered with the same specialty and checked that they are available for conversation
  • You’re at the annual internal conference for financial staff at your large conglomerate and your Bluetooth device lets you know someone very close to you at the cocktail party is an expert in EU stock options regulation, which is one of the topics you pre-registered as wanting to connect with someone about.
  • There are a bunch of people that you’d like to connect up with at a conference (some are old team mates, others are vendors you wanted to connect with informally) and your eyes are getting tired walking around the crowded tradeshow floor and scanning for people you know.  Then you remember you pre-registered a list of people who you’d like to be alerted if they are nearby and see your iPhone has already pointed out two of them a short distance nearby.

So what I’ve described is combining concepts from rich presence (adding a physical dimension and availability flagging), mobile technology (some RFID or Bluetooth-type micro-broadcasting technology), and social networking (profiles on what you know and what kind of people you’d like to converse with). 

This is similar to functionality on conference sites to help you connect ahead of time with others and form communities of interest, but adds ups the ante on serendipity – that all-important buzzword for the value of chance meetings that are too often stifled by org charts, distance, and general closed-mindedness. It’s similar to sites that let you find people to connect up with when visiting a city or museum, but more “wearable”.  I’m hoping this already exists somewhere, because I think the immediacy of it could make it a killer app for social networking.

Addendum: My teammate Mike Gotta pointed out a company called nTag that lists this type of functionality among their features:

Get attendees talking with nTAG’s Greetings features. Using profile information provided at the time of registration, nTAG lets attendees know what they have in common so it’s easier to start conversations.

"Two Executives Trampled, One Gored Due to Craig Roth Article: Film at 11"

February 6, 2009 at 10:08 am | Posted in business case, Enterprise 2.0, Fun, social software, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

Social Computing Magazine has published my article The Elephant in the Social Software Room, which I posted in this blog last week.  The theme of the article is that there is a business issue that is unspoken but impacts decisions about adoption of social software: to what degree do organizational structure and gatekeeper processes serve a positive purpose?  The truth is that many suspect they know the answer, but no one really does.  Assumptions that there is value to the structure drives the amount of risk that executives worry about when technology helps employees circumvent these structures and processes.  Perception that the structure doesn’t always have value is what drives employees to look for mechanisms to get around the artificial walls and bureaucratic processes.

The part I really like is that Social Computing picked up on the analogy and inserted a picture of an elephant in a boardroom to illustrate the concept.  I sincerely hope that no executives were trampled during this photo shoot, however worthwhile the issue at stake is.


The Elephant in the Social Software Room

January 29, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Posted in business case, Enterprise 2.0, social software, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

As we found in our social networking field study that Mike Gotta ran, organizations often fret about potential negative impacts of breaking down organizational and, to some extent, social barriers.  Some stakeholders wonder whether execs really want borderless discussions among their staffs, whether engineers really want sales people to be able to contact them directly, whether employees will spread poor practices without gatekeepers, etc. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an elephant in the middle of the social software room.  The unspoken question that is in the minds of execs is “Does our institutional structure and its information flows and bureaucracy serve a real purpose? ” Because if the answer is “yes” to any extent, that forces one to examine what the useful purposes are and how technology (and the culture embedded within it) may thwart those purposes. Social software acts as a blunt instrument for short circuiting institutional structure and bureaucracy since it cannot be selectively applied to its parts that are not beneficial while sparing those that are serve a purpose.

One way to think about this in a more concrete way is to determine what proportion of the lines connecting boxes on the org chart are meaningful.  Do they serve a useful purpose to the organization?  If you were starting from scratch, would you redraw the same line?  Certainly there are many lines that only exist because of outdated needs, useless political infighting, or patterns that emerged over time for reasons that don’t apply anymore.  I’m just as certain there are lines that make sense. The probability that any line on an org chart or to a gatekeeper on a process flow diagram is meaningful is certainly not a perfect 100%, but it’s not a Dilbertian 0% either.

Too bad, because if the answer were indeed that 100% of the lines were useful or 0% of them were useful, then the correct decision on whether to adopt social technology that can circumvent the organizational structure or chains of command for information/process flows would be easy.  The problem is that in practically all cases, it lies somewhere inbetween.  That is when a blunt instrument introduces risk since it doesn’t know the meaningful lines from the meaningless ones.

If there are ways in which the current hurdles to fully open social communication positively act as a reward system, influence trust, or affect information quality, how will the social software know and respect those boundaries?

Organizations have not had to question the value of their structure, information flows, and bureaucracy very often in the past because there were few ways to circumvent it.  But social software provides the most effective way to date for employees to get around the barriers and pathways that have been established formally and through practice. It’s time for those concerned about potential negative impacts of social software to step back and examine the real question: what is the real value of the organization and bureaucracy as it stands today?  Getting the answer to that question on the table is essential before jumping into technology.

Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.

Who Wants Queries In Emai’ls "To:" Field? Don’t Include Me in That Query Result.

January 23, 2009 at 2:41 pm | Posted in email, etiquette, social software | 2 Comments

MIT’s Technology Review reported today on a prototype e-mail system that “allows users to direct a message to people who fulfill certain criteria without necessarily knowing recipients’ e-mail addresses, or even their names.”  To paraphrase the idea, the “to” field is being treated as a query (e.g., all people at company X in role Y) and can allow for fuzzy logic (e.g., all people interested in X). 

The article mentions one scenario I deem useful (addressing to a person’s most recent email address by just entering their name), and acknowledges the obvious room for abuse and spam.  I can’t even fathom how much spam would result if spammers or semi-spammers like recruiters or real-estate brokers could send emails to “everyone with income > $100,000” or “everyone who graduated from Harvard” or “everyone who owns a single family home”.

But I think the real issue here that wasn’t addressed in the article is that this system is entirely skipping over the entire burgeoning field of social networking.  Yes, people want to be able to find everyone in product marketing at a certain company or everyone from their high school graduating class, but we have social networking systems to do that.  For consumer use there is LinkedIn, Facebook, MySpace, and Xing.  For enterprise use there is IBM Lotus Connections, MySites in Microsoft SharePoint, and the social search capabilities that were in BEA Pathways were merged into Oracle’s secure enterprise search.

But people want to maintain their social networks and decide which communities to join.  If I want to associate myself with a group that I could join, such as “University of Chicago MBAs”, that’s my decision.  I don’t want it made for me by a query engine.  And if that community wishes to keep its list private, as the “Ex-META Group Analysts” group does, that’s our business too.  There’s a rich set of social connection and community functionality – creating, joining, inviting, disbanding, leaving, mining, referring, federating – that people want to do with social networks.  The richer functionality described by this addressing system seems to ditch all of that in favor of a query that determines your inclusion or exclusion based on a database without injecting the human effort that goes into nourishing and pruning one’s group and community memberships.

As Mike Gotta pointed out in his posting on Facebook And It’s About Honoring Mutual Relationship Rights, connections between people depend on trust and, accordingly, permission rights. 

I’m reading a lot into this system and what is probably some great academic work from a summary article.  It could be very interesting on academic merits.  But as a tool for culling social connections built into email, I think it doesn’t fit real-world needs and expectations.  The fact that a set of queries can determine you are a member of a group doesn’t mean its results will be useful (as an indicator of true commitment to a group) or welcomed.

If You Think Wikipedia Posters are Grumpy, Just Talk to Technology Industry Analysts

January 5, 2009 at 5:08 pm | Posted in Blogs, Fun, social software | Leave a comment

NewScientist reported on Saturday “Psychologist finds Wikipedians grumpy and closed-minded“.  It seems that in a survey of Israeli online encyclopedia contributors rated low on agreeableness and openness.  Similar results are quoted from studies of Digg, Twitter, and YouTube.

So why to do they contribute?

Amichai-Hamburger speculates that rather than contributing altruistically, Wikipedians take part because they struggle to express themselves in real-world social situations. “They are compensating,” he suggests. “It is their way to have a voice in this world.”

Now, I’m just a grumpy, anti-social blogger, but I feel there are several patterns for contribution to social sites.  Selecting any one audience or blending the results will fail to find the clusters of usage characteristics. 

My exposure to social sites is as an adult, and an industry analyst on a collaboration and content strategies team, so I’m no expert at the patterns for teens or young adults.  But from a professional point of view, I can see patterns including:

  • Lifelogging: Persisting insights and knowledge to retain them for future reference
  • Networking: Getting attention and being searchable for the purpose of attracting others who could be useful to you in the future by offering you information, employment, or buying your products and services
  • Content reuse: For people that often communicate electronically and have ideas, rants, positions, or just lists of links that they find themselves repeating, a blog or wiki entry provides a place to craft the entry once and then just point people to it every time thereafter
  • Staking territory: Being the first to point something out, draw a conclusion, or coin a term in order to reap dividends later.  In the web 2.0 world, blogging an idea is a little like copyrighting it in that you can easily prove later that you came up with it first – in the court of public opinion, if not a court of law

One thing all of these have in common is that they aren’t altruistic at all.  But that’s not a bad thing – by following their own interests, others can benefit from their postings/tweets/entries.  And many of the top IT bloggers are quite extroverted, social people judging from their speaking events and networking.

Still, this research intrigues me.  I’d enjoy applying similar research criteria to see if other groups are grumpy and closed-minded: Smalltalk programmers, Green Bay Packer fans, music A&R executives, American Idol viewers, plumbers, technology industry analysts, …

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