Bas Reus' quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces

Interview with Jordan Frank from Traction

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on September 15, 2009

TeampageThe recent discussion on ‘Self-organization defined‘ where Jordan Frank from Traction Software commented on, triggered me to ask him some questions on the Teampage product in relation to self-organization. And as you can notice from the title of the blog, I’m interested in online collaborative spaces as well. Luckily, Jordan was so kind to answer my (many) questions. This post in an interpretation of some of the topics we discussed.

When I asked Jordan to explain Traction in maximum 100 words, he said: “Traction TeamPage is an enterprise social software platform. While TeamPage offers the wiki, blog, tagging, discussion and document management features people seek in a social software or collaboration platform, TeamPage goes beyond traditional expectations to deliver critical functionality that is need by most, if not all, enterprises. Simple examples include social tagging across differently permissioned spaces, content moderation model, a view/query model that lets you easily organize pages around your use case or work objectives, and an audit trail that goes beyond edit history”. The video below explains some more.

I’m really impressed by the loosely organized pieces of information in Teampage. One example is the manner in which it does not type content so finely that a given page can be a Wiki page or a Blog post or a Comment – rather, each entry flows into the blog-stream and may be assigned a Wiki page name or may have a relationship which makes it appear as a comment. Another example is the treatment of every paragraph as an object which can be tagged, linked to or commented upon. This solves a ‘problem’ I run into in my daily life, by having to choose when to use a wiki, blog, comment, tweet, or resort to an e-mail or whatever, the place (or silo, see a great story about Silo Smashing and Sharepoint) unnaturally confines the content, or the conversation. That’s the promising aspect of Google Wave as well, I think. Jordan thinks a little different of Google Wave:

I don’t think Google Wave is the holy grail in this respect. I see it as a protocol for interaction and threading. While it greatly improves item level discussion versus email, it won’t necessarily span workspaces or offer anything close to the capabilities that TeamPage does. But we can use it to great advantage – much better for capturing synching external conversation and internal history. Should be fun to implement. We are making heavy use of Google Web Toolkit in our next interface.

Clients of Traction Software use Teampage for a number of purposes such as for project management, intranet sites, market research, competitive intelligence, communities of practice and as a knowledge base. Jordan says:

The system easily organizes around use cases rather than shaping the workspace based on the technology used to implement it. As one example, rather than having a ‘blog’ and a ‘wiki’, an HR space may have a ‘Policy’ section and a ‘Questions’ section. That space may also be moderated, which may be a requirement for the organization – otherwise a less capable wiki just wouldn’t be allowed.

When we talk about self-organization, it is very important to set some constraints, or to remove them, all in order to let people ‘organize’ themselves easier. That’s what the consensus on the ‘Self-organization defined’ topic is. Translated to software or online collaborative spaces, I asked Jordan how this can be done in Teampage.

You can set constraints by providing templates, a starting set of labels (tags) and sections. Sections are like portlets in a space. A Project management team may have sections for meeting notes and issues, for example. Each section may be associated with article/page template. So, a meeting agenda template may launch from a meeting notes page section. If we talk at having freedom for the users of the software, there is any freedom you would expect in any other blog/wiki/tagging environment. The starting sections and labels in a template are just that, a starting point. A person in charge of the space can enforce some controls, or leave it fairly open.

Defining self-organization is not very straightforward. That’s one of the reasons that the earlier blogpost generated so much discussion. When I asked Jordan to his understanding of self-organization, he said:

In my context, it’s enabling individuals to organize themselves and their content without constraints that they don’t want. This acknowledges a need for constraints that may be helpful. This acknowledges that an organizational structure (be it top-down or matrix) may be necessary or simply helpful.

Key is to make use of existing organizational structures, and play with constraints. Keep them, make them or bypass them where necessary. Structures can always change, and Jordan explains this with a sports analogy, when I asked him about his earlier statement that self-organization often works better when there is some starting structure. What did he mean here?

I mean that a blank white page is very intimidating, and doesn’t necessarily assist team play. To use a sports analogy, Zone defense is a bit less structured than man-on-man. Zone defense requires constant adjustments and on-field co-ordination. So, there is a structure indicating an area a player defends at the start, but the structure may change as a play is executed and the players self-organize to adapt. Out of 10 types of activities, a project team may discover that their most pressing need is to document requirements and discuss issues. You may structure a space, initially, around these two use cases and you may go as far as gaining management backing (or mandate). At any time, individuals may go beyond the starting structure by posting other types of content, but they start by creating some gravity and a consistent process for documenting requirements and resolving issues.

It’s great that Teampage is very flexible concerning creating a starting point, and as I mentioned earlier in this post, I’m really impressed by the loosely organized pieces of information in Teampage. But still, software alone is not going to make a difference. In my view, it’s an important part of a greater process. How do people use the software, and how is it going to make their (professional) life easier, more efficient, more fun, in other words, what is needed to help both the company as their employees (and everybody these people work for) to benefit? What is needed besides software? And where can software help to fulfil those needs? Is it part of a company’s culture? I think I will end here with these questions in mind……

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Purpose of collaboration: collaboration

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on September 7, 2009

Root SpiralWhy do people collaborate? To achieve goals (or to generate whatever type of output) and then quit? No, people collaborate in order to keep collaborating. Time is being invested to be able to invest more time together. Of course, the quality of the time spent on collaborating and the quality of temporary output will influence the probability that collaboration will continue in this formation in a positive way. If people like each other and like the process of collaboration together, people are likely to continue to organize themselves together. That makes collaboration an important purpose of collaboration. This corresponds to one of the important findings of Mark Elliott, which says:

Collaboration is inherently composed of two primary components, without either of which collaboration cannot take place: social negotiation and creative output. [..] Another caveat to the second primary component, creative output, is that the output may take the form of an ongoing process instead of a final conclusion. An example would be an intimate relationship—the parties involved may collaborate very closely towards the successful continuance of the collaborative process.

If we translate this to collaborative software, it should therefore not just be goal-orientated, but collaboration orientated as well. Multiple types of output during the process of collaboration can be good, there is not just one single output that’s acceptable. That said, there must be an initial purpose to start the collaborative process in the first place. Why do we start collaborating? I think it’s the best suited strategy if many people are involved and needed to create output, to generate possible solutions to problems, when people can choose to enter or leave the collaborative process, when access to the process is open to all collaborators (in a stigmergic way), and when new problems can come to surface during the collaborative process. The latter enables the continuation of the process.

In practice, the most important thing is to get the conversation started. Once it is started, it is easier to have it continued. So how do we get the process started, and have it continued and even sustainable at online collaborative spaces as well? So who do we start with? Just lead-users or as many people as possible right away? What are the traces that are set in the beginning? What are barriers to enter or how do we remove those barriers? What are the triggers for people to embrace the common subjects? What kind of output are we after? When can people step out of the process and can others step in? When is it self-sustainable?

All above questions are valid, probably hundreds more are. But it all starts with the same problem, how is the conversation getting started? Is it a big-bang or is it evolutionary? After that, in short, my pledge on collaboration: The journey is the destination….

Open space

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on August 18, 2009

This quest focuses both on self-organization and online collaborative spaces. So far, the first has gotten the most attention. In this post I will address the latter subject. Open space falls within this category and is very much related to self-organization as well. Open space, or Open Space Technology (OST), is a method to work with large groups of people, varying from 10 to 1,000 and even larger. The creators of this method claim that by using this method, it will be easier to solve complex and controversial problems. They also claim that it works best where other traditional methods fail. It’s a self-organizing process as well, participants construct the agenda and schedule during the meeting itself. The following are the four principles of the method:

Open space principles

Open space principles

  1. the participants are always the right people
  2. what happens, is the only thing that can happen
  3. it begins whenever it begins
  4. when it’s over, it’s over

These principles are very open ended, and the method claims that this is why it is so effective. There is no need to prepare upfront, just a theme is announced. When practiced, people gather is concentric circles, depending on the size of the group. There is just one facilitator that enables the session can take place. People can identify issues or opportunities related to the theme and can apply to discuss these topics. Many groups form, and when you feel you can’t contribute you can just leave and join another group. These discussions can last for a few hours. Afterwards these groups can continue online. There are some online solutions available as well, such as OpenSpace-Online, but there probably are more.

What can we learn from open space? Well, personally a lot. It’s quite new for me so I have to dig deep into this. But I can see opportunities when we take the problem statement into account. This method definitely supports self-organization, and organizations seem a very realistic target. But the key to success are as always people and their behaviour. The four principles seem quite easy to understand, but when working with large groups, other factors that our counter-productive will play a role as well. Does anyone know of people that have some experience with this method or have experience themselves? You are very much invited to let me know and help me learn about this method.

In how many communities can you participate?

Posted in online collaborative spaces by Bas Reus on July 20, 2009

Today I would like to discuss the growing number of online communities that seem to exist. Just social communities, or commuties with a focus to work together or to innovate. Everyday new communities start, and that’s great. To have a flourishing online community, you have to have some people involved that are really contributing. Contributors (including 3% creators) make up about 10% of the visitors of online communities, according to Gartner. There are probably many people that contribute to multiple communities, depending on their available time they can put in. But the problem is, if more and more online communities exist, in how many can you participate, and as a result, how many communities can successfully exist?

gartner-generation-virtual-engagement-levels-june-2008

I’m not trying to answer these questions here, that would probably need some real research, but I think these are viable questions. How many people will eventually be a member of any community, and how much time are they willing to invest? Is there a maximum number of communities that can exist together? Will the future tell us or can we tell something about the future? Will there always be an abundance of people who will contribute, or is that a scarce good as well?

These questions came to mind when I read the excerpt of Mushin on the P2P Foundation blog.

Where in the past there was usually enough time for societies and communities to catch up turning knowledge into understanding and eventually wisdom, this seems to be impossible today for who could keep up with the exponential growth of information and knowledge, diversity and complexity in human societies?

The expenentially growing number of communities has its drawbacks, but the environment and infrastructure of these online communities play an important role. How can you stand out as a community? Many factors play a role here. The community management team should comprise of professional people who have matured by understanding that managing a community requires equal respect for all members. That said, maybe the question in the title should be rephrased in “How can communities develop to stand out of the crowd?”

Social software, out or in?

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on July 13, 2009

Enterprise 2.0 is a hot topic and is getting hotter every day. Since Google announced Wave lately, the topic is almost melting. Personally, I think enterprise 2.0 is quite misleading. Of course, the word enterprise is by itself misleading. Enter, or ‘in between’, and prise, that comes from ‘to take’ together forms ‘to take what is in between’. Not a very social meaning if you ask me. Especially when you think that Enterprise 2.0 is often referring to using social tools inside the firm, like on intranets. But ok, I’ll accept the term ‘Enterprise 2.0’ because it is becoming so well known and broadly used and that’s how language shapes itself.

ConnectionsSo back to the problem I have with the term. Social software used within the firm is becoming more mainstream. Many software vendors have solutions for this like Microsoft Sharepoint, Telligent Community Server and IBM/Lotus Connections. Many others have custom made solutions. But they all have one thing in common, their purpose is to enable employees to work together more efficient bymaking  collaboration, communication and sharing possible on their intranets. The latter part is where I have a problem with. How social is it when you can only be social with your colleagues? People are more and more familiar with social networks such as Facebook and LinkedIn. This is another world compared to the closed intranets. That’s right, closed. How social is that?

My point is that the usage of social software on intranets (and extranets) is a very good development, but why is it still closed? Why isn’t it more integrated with the open networks like Facebook? The lives of the employees that make use of products like Sharepoint reach further than that, especcially on the web. For many people the distinction between work and their personal lives is getting less evident. Employees can communicate with friends or likeminded people through e-mail and social networks, even during working hours, why not through the Enterprise 2.0 solutions? Shouldn’t the social networks be more interrelated, inside and outside the company? Wouldn’t that be more productive?

What about communication?

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on July 6, 2009

This above question I asked myself after reading two very inspiring pieces of work. The first is the PhD. of Mark Elliott, ‘Stigmergic Collaboration. A Theoretical Framework for Mass Collaboration’. The second is a paper from Paul B. Hartzog, ‘The Autocatalysis of Social Systems and the Emergence of Trust’.

Self OrganizationPaul argues that every act of communication is also an act of coordination. In order to communicate, both agents involved have to agree on the way communication works, which language is being used. But how do you agree without communication? Communication seems to be interrelated to coordination.

Mark argues that stigmergy is a form of self-organizing, without the need for any communication. This should resolve the coordination paradox. Because agents leave traces in the system, other agents can act on them. This indirect form of communication is not directly addressed to anyone, but the one that notices the trace can act upon it. But how does coordination work here?

The interesting part is that it seems there are some different approaches. Paul is talking about direct communication, while Mark talks about indirect communication. But coordination is always needed. And communication is always happening. Can stigmergy be the autocatalyst for communication? But how is communication being agreed upon? Please let me know your opinion.

Posted earlier on P2P Foundation.

What’s the deal with Google Wave?

Posted in online collaborative spaces, self-organization by Bas Reus on July 2, 2009

This question I asked myself when I first heard of Wave. This new tool of Google can be very interesting, because it’s main purpose is to help people communicate and collaborate on the web. Communication and collaboration on the web is becoming more relevant because companies are beginning to embrace the importance of it for the way their employees can work together.

Google_Wave_logo

The product is not yet released, but it will be later this year. Therefore it is difficult to grasp the potential importance of it already. The Google descriptions are quite technical of nature. Of course, technological changes can work as an enabler, but cannot work without the human factor. Many questions pop up in my mind. Which people are going to use this tool? And for what purposes will it be used? Groups of people that work on a professional project, or people that try to organize a birthday party?

The most recent tool that made it to a relatively large audience is Twitter. But Twitter evolved strongly from the start. People started to develop their own codes that were picked-up by Twitter, such as RT for re-tweeting. Could it be that the people who will use Wave will change the original purposes of using Google Wave, on a scale that happened at Twitter?

In short, this is what Google claims it to be:

  • Google Wave consists of three layers, a product, a platform and a protocol.
  • A “wave” is equal parts conversation and document, where people can communicate and work together with richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more.

The product is the webapplication, the platform is the API, and the protocol is how it works in terms of storing and sharing data. Waves are conversations where multiple people can participate by writing text, sharing photo’s and video’s, and all realtime. When you start a wave, you invite people to it. They are then part of the conversation. The development team says the following:

Everyone on your wave can use richly formatted text, photos, gadgets, and even feeds from other sources on the web. They can insert a reply or edit the wave directly. It’s concurrent rich-text editing, where you see on your screen nearly instantly what your fellow collaborators are typing in your wave. That means Google Wave is just as well suited for quick messages as for persistent content — it allows for both collaboration and communication. You can also use “playback” to rewind the wave and see how it evolved.

According to Google, it’s more like how e-mail would be if it was invented today, by combining all sorts of communication possibilities. It shows a lot of similarities with hosted projectmanagement tools like Basecamp, but has more possibilities.

To return to the question I stated above, it is not answered yet. Are people going to use the product to communicate and collaborate? Does it make other existing products like e-mail superfluous? Is it going to change the way people work? Are people going to change the way the Google Wave works? Who will tell… Of course e-mail has it’s limitations. It works quite good for a small group of people working together. It becomes quite difficult when documents are sent for review and multiple versions exist. It becomes impossible, or at least very inefficient, when a very large group of people is involved. A wiki page works better in these scenario’s. On the other hand, instant messaging works best with only two people involved.

Potential benefits:

  • working together in large groups could be easier with Wave
  • other great implementations because of the open API and protocol
  • history of conversations are easy to follow
  • webbased, so accessible for anyone (with a modern browser)

Questions unanswered:

  • is this a replacement for e-mail?
  • will it change the way people communicate on the web?
  • for which groups of people is Google Wave best suited?
  • for what purposes will Google Wave work best?
  • how will ‘competitiors’ react?

Many questions remain unanswered right now. The near future will probably answer some, when it will be released to more people. My early conclusion is that Google Wave is developed to enable others to build products on the platform and protocol that will be released. The webapplication that Google already is working on, is a great example on how the platform and protocol can be used. It’s probably not the one-size-fits-all solution for communication and collaboration on the web. Is Google trying to? Is the interface that good that it will be super intiutive? The question I will keep on asking myself (and you) is how people are willing to use this tool in order to get their things done. When will many people favor Wave instead of classic e-mail which is used by everyone? Under what circumstances will Wave work best, and when will it typically not work at all? Will it be useful for large teams within organizations? Are wiki’s becoming more easy to use with Wave? To be continued…

This blogpost is the first of this weblog. This weblog is part of a personal quest on self-organization and online collaborative spaces. Posts on this weblog will address current trends as well as more scientific orientated subjects like self-organization, autopoiesis and stigmergy. I hope this blog will help me in my journey on these subjects, and that you readers will have a good time reading it as well as getting inspired by it! Cheers, Bas Reus.

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