Thursday, March 24, 2005

fyi “Tensions on the Web”—and the attention paid to Collaboration


Pointer to blogpost:

Kobielus kommentary:
A very thoughtful post by Adam Bosworth of Google (formerly BEA), all around search, taxonomy/ontologies, web services, privacy, security, managed environments, and collaboration.

But the larger framing topic is blogs—in particular, the tensions that one of his recent blog postings created, inadvertently, for him at Google—and his need to continually stress that his blog doesn’t necessarily reflect the official positions of his employer. That’s a tough balance to hit, and any of us who work for other people are always at pains to do so. I’ve been writing Network World columns for 17+ years, and always with my byline ending with “The opinions expressed are his own.” Which has usually been understood without much confusion, since I’ve rarely had any significant clout or say in the operation of the businesses that have chosen to pay me a salary. Being powerless has always motivated me to make my thoughts and expressions all the more forceful. Since this blog got started during a period of unemployment, I haven’t had much to lose (except my good name, people’s respect, and any possibility of future employment—trifling matters, really) by posting anything that entered my cranium. The alternatives are not to blog, or to blog without expressing anything even remotely interesting, daring, or controversial. I don’t care for either of those alternatives.

In this post, Bosworth was discussing the exciting developments with “folksonomies,” which are essentially semantic web environments within which anybody can post whatever tag-sets they like, in a bottom-up fashion, without draconian taxonomy/ontology-nazis telling them what tags are legal or illegal in a particular domain (analogous to how wikis operate in terms of free-for-all post/overpost concurrent authoring/editing). Bosworth acknowledges the inherent sloppiness of this sort of distributed collaboration, but places his faith in the power of team dynamics to quickly converge on a consensus, good-enough tag-set taxonomy/ontology for whatever domain they’re defining. And to evolve, police, defend, regulate, and restore whatever (presumably worthy/benign) collective artifact gets assembled through these dynamics.

All of which got me to thinking about how increasingly we’re all placing our faith in this new sort of “invisible hand”—the collaboration environment—to design online phenomena through emergent interactions, rather than trust/empower any one real-person uber-author. And it is a faith—not a science or art. Here’s how Bosworth articulates his personal faith: “I've always believed in the twin values of rationalism and humanism, but humanism has often felt as though it got short shrift in our community. In this world, it's all about people and belonging and working with others.”

Nothing wrong with those ideals. But Bosworth and others who tout the grand promise of Collaboration (I’ll capitalize this word for the rest of this post, just to zoom it for your consideration) usually treat it as something that magically emerges from some constellation of tools/services: blogs, wikis, IM/presence, P2P, e-mail, message boards, discussion groups, RSS feeds, knowledge management, shared spaces, portals, search, VoIP, etc.

And nothing wrong with those tools, in the abstract. I use most of those tools/services fairly regularly. But it’s always felt to me that IT professionals have always been looking for some Collaboration killer-app, or priestly class of killer-apps, as if therein lies nirvana, if only we can initiate and educate the benighted masses to the wonder of it all.

Excuse my cynicism on this matter. But I’ve been in the IT industry for 20 years, and most of that time, I’ve been treated to one new Collaboration killer-app after another. Cluttering up my virtual desktop/workspace with all of these Collaboration killer-apps, I’m now convinced that all these killer-apps are someday going to kill me from the sheer weight of their o’erweening ambition.

A few posts ago, I (Kobielus) expressed exasperation with the sheer complexity of Microsoft’s Collaboration killer-apps: “I think Microsoft should take the good stuff from Groove—the P2P-based distributed file sharing/caching/synchronization features—and junk everything else. Microsoft should embed this core Groove technology into Office, Outlook, Windows Explorer, MSN Messenger, Live Communication Server, Internet Explorer, SharePoint Team Services, and the WiFi-based workgroup peer-LAN functionality within “Longhorn.” But present a rich-browser interface to it all (via XAML/”Avalon”) and radically simplify and converge the UI, integration, and management of all these scattered client and server components.”

I’ve felt that way for so long. Simplify and unclutter my Collaboration world, and I’ll be a happier camper. Which reminds me of a book I checked out of my local library a few months ago. It was called “Feng Shui Your Workspace for Dummies.” With a title like that, how could I not check it out?

It was interesting and useful, up to a point. Of course, it primarily addressed how to “feng shui” your physical workspace—your office. And, of course, it primarily addressed that topic within the context of 3000 years of Chinese astrology, numerology, metaphysics, superstition, and so forth.

But, when you cut through all the distracting nonsense (personal note: my wife is Chinese, and I very much love Chinese art and culture), you come to the essential deep structure of “feng shui.” It’s simply the art of harmonious arrangement. As a set of principles and practices, it describes how to arrange your physical space so as to maximize harmony, comfort, and productivity between you, your artifacts, your colleagues, your surroundings, and the universe at large. As you might expect, “feng shui”ing your workspace involves a lot of de-cluttering, balancing, and arranging all the objects, textures, lighting, and so forth to make you feel happy, calm, composed, etc. A lot of common sense ideas, but expressed within a set of practical/philosophical guidelines. A key take-away: Evaluate your physical space according to how the eyes, attentions, and bodies of people (including yourself) naturally move throughout that space, and endeavor to make those movements more free and flowing without becoming robotic and repetitive.

I was sort of hoping that the book would have explained how to “feng shui” my virtual workspace as well. From personal experience, that’s something I’ve rarely been able to do for very long: maximizing the harmony, comfort, and productivity of myself and everybody else I work/deal with regularly. Usually, given the hectic/ever-changing nature of my jobs and the industry and the world, disharmony and disequilibrium are more often the norm. How can I “feng shui” a world that’s splaying awkwardly in all directions? I can barely “feng shui” my head and heart in harmony with each other when the world does a number on me.

I don’t have any great hope for an ideal Collaboration environment. And I don’t place inordinate hopes in Collaboration killer-apps like Groove, blogs, wikis, etc. And I don’t expect that people, work, or the world will get any simpler or easier to Collaborate with. Sloppiness is the way of the world, when the world’s evolving out of control.

But I’ve found a way to “feng shui” the ever-messier Collaboration ecosystem, at least in my head. Ever since I covered the young Lotus Notes for Network World, in an article in 1990, I’ve been elaborating my own personal interpretive framework for all this. It found first expression in that Network World article, then in an article I did for Rapport Messaging Review in 1996, then in my “Workflow Strategies” book in 1997, and then in my Burton Group reports in 1998-2004. (Actually, now that I recall, I started developing my framework in 1987, when I was a research associate at the International Center for Information Technologies, and was exposed to Action Technologies' Fernando Flores, their Communicator structured e-mail program, and their new-agey Collaboration philosophy. But I digress).

Here now is my Collaboration conceptual framework:

• Collaboration involves sustaining a protocol for effective interaction among people and organizations: a framework for interaction between networked individuals to exchange information and manage work successfully.
• Collaboration in the business world often depends on well-defined but adaptable protocols expressed as recurring processes or workflows.
• In a dynamic world, the accent is on process adaptability, with fast-changing conditions requiring that people reorganize and improvise on the fly, using whatever resources are at their disposal to meet whatever new challenges emerge.
• The ideal enterprise collaborative environment must serve both the present (any existing process/protocol) and the foreseeable future (any process/protocol that is likely to emerge), with a clear emphasis on flexibility and adaptability to support new business goals, policies, and activities. This focus places the emphasis squarely on collaborative environments that support multifunctional, integrated, application suites and integrate with services supported on legacy network platforms (NOSs), but increasingly emphasize integration with services and standards running over the new world platform (the Internet and World Wide Web). The collaborative environment should also support access to all information and functionality from an integrated, universal client environment (browser-based applications).
• We define collaborative processes as taking place within a three-dimensional collaborative “space,” consisting of the dimensions of platform, structure, and media. The collaborative space supports the context and substance of interaction between users scattered across the map, time zones, projects, and organizations.
• Collaborative platform refers to the geographic, physical, and technological environment in which work is performed--in other words, the means of production and distribution. The dimensions of the collaborative platform include user terminals and application software, operating environments, networks, geographic range, and mobility. The collaborative platform incorporates the “network services model” of core enterprise services (file, print, directory, security, messaging, web, management), as well as the physical infrastructure supporting these services.
• Collaborative structure consists of the organizational apparatus and controls used to define, coordinate, and track business processes. In a company’s information technology environment, the collaborative structure resides in the sum total of automated information systems that implement and enforce organizational controls. The collaborative structure in any organization is constrained by the presence or lack of appropriate directory, security, and management functionality in the underlying network/systems platform. Structure-oriented collaborative applications fall into three main categories: time management, workflow management, and project management. We characterize these applications as “high structure” in emphasis. High-structure applications are designed to directly support threads or protocols for interpersonal coordination within the management “superstructure” within which most coordination takes place: work schedules, operating procedures, and organizational charts, as well as the associated task breakdowns and assignments.
• Collaborative media consist of the work products and all raw and semi-finished materials--including information and communications inputs--used to give the product shape, substance, and coherence. Media are the things that flow in a business process, within the context of a technological platform and organizational structure. Media fall into three general categories: stores, threads, and meetings. Media-oriented collaborative applications fall into three categories: information-base sharing, messaging, and conferencing. We characterize these applications as “high media” in emphasis. The best way to characterize high-media collaboration environments is by the range of information stores that they incorporate, integrate, and access. Indeed, one can regard Internet-based high-media collaboration environments as consisting of three layers of overlapping information stores, corresponding to the three principal application tiers in an enterprise network: collaboration, intranet, and NOS. A truly comprehensive Internet/intranet collaboration environment would include the following information stores: file, document, data, directory, message, newsgroup, image, webpage, and object.
• Traditional database-oriented corporate applications are “low-structure” in emphasis, since they usually do not directly support interpersonal coordination but nonetheless embody or enforce impersonal corporate policies and procedures. Examples of low-structure applications, according to this definition, include mission-critical applications in support of payroll, order processing, and customer service. Indeed, most enterprise applications fall into the “low-structure” category, imposing pervasive controls on operations by defining or embedding these controls within the underlying information stores.
• Many of the underlying authentication, access, and confidentiality controls used by both high- and low-structure applications are defined within the enterprise NOS, directory, security, and management services. Consequently, the enterprise directory service represents the pivotal piece of infrastructure for enabling both high- and low-structure applications
• A well-rounded collaboration (or “groupware”) environment is one that provides a broad range and smooth blend of high-media and high-structure functionality. Groupware point products, by contrast, are those that emphasize one or the other type of functionality, and often a subset within one of these categories (e.g., any of myriad specialized messaging, conferencing, calendaring, or workflow products).

Yeah, yeah, I know, that's messy as hell. Not much harmony for the uninitiated. But such are most Collaboration paradigms. If they get too simple, they get too simplistic. Or too fascistic.

So here's any even simpler version of all that: Any collaboration space can be characterized as meetings, messages, materials, teams, times, tasks, and flows.

Or, even simpler: A collaboration space is stuff that needs doing, and the stuff it gets done with.

Oh well, it's "feng shui" harmonious for me, at the very least. It keeps coming to mind. It helps me clear up my personal confusion. And classify every new Collaboration tool.

And get through my Collaboration-crazy days.