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Business - Written by on Friday, February 12, 2010 10:11 - 6 Comments

Tim Bevins
Are we headed for more isolation?

The research team here at nGenera were having a conversation yesterday about how being more social and collaborative at work, using technologies such as collaboration platform software, might change the workplace, even the structure of organizations. It’s pretty well accepted that organizations of all kinds have more information, data, knowledge, expertise, connections, and internal networks than they can either find or take advantage of, so software that can help identify and then filter the flow of data and even expertise throughout an organization would be incredibly helpful, if not bottom-line productive.

Someone in the group mentioned how it would be great to be able to filter information from individuals, so that you only received from any person what you found most helpful or useful from that person. Makes sense to just use each person’s skill or knowledge strength to enhance your own. So, if you had Facebook-like connections with lots of people, you could selectively receive information about trends in mobile marketing from someone whose focus is mobile marketing. I see this as a kind of best of the best relationship approach: You get your colleagues’ best and they get yours.

But, when I thought about this approach, it struck me that it was actually anti-collaborative. A few byproducts of this approach came to mind, none of which I liked. Deciding who you want to listen to about specific topics – essentially, getting only insights and information that you think this person is best at – means you never hear from anyone else, never hear anything but what you want to hear, and you only hear one person’s views on a given topic. Taken to an extreme, I see this as exclusionary, not collaborative.

When I interviewed Randy Adkins, former Director of The Center of Excellence for Knowledge Management at the United States Department of Defense, he told me that the idea for a people search feature in the Air Force’s highly regarded knowledge management platform, Knowledge Now, originated in what he described as an unlikely place: the Air Force Audit Agency, the unit that senior leaders in the Air Force rely on to understand problems and develop solutions. The Audit Agency was having trouble locating the best people to dig deep into a specific problem and prepare solutions. With 900 auditors, knowing exactly who knew what or who was most knowledgeable about a specific weapon system or organizational process was almost impossible. Each auditor’s previous experience was invisible to the Auditor General (AG), which meant problem-solving was more complex than it needed to be. Taking advantage of the wealth of experience in the division was a high priority for the AG. “If you need to audit an F-16 supply support issue, is there anybody else out there that has had F-16 experience or supply support experience that we can put on that audit?” Adkins commented. “It benefits everybody because you have a more informed auditor, so when you are being audited, the chances of getting a more insightful person to help solve that problem is increased dramatically with People Search.”

So, yes, a collaborative platform should have a feature that exposes everyone’s strengths and skills to everyone else. But what I am getting at is this: Even with an expertise identification system, such as one based on people tagging, you never know where great ideas are going to come from. Filtering is great but if it closes off the possibilities of surprise and even creative thinking, it’s going to result in more isolation than sharing. The possibility of insights and ideas from unlikely places, it seems to me, would be minimalized if people filtered their connections to the extent that they saw individuals in a narrow way, as having useful information on just one topic. If collaboration platform software does anything well, it has to expose lots of people to lots of other people across the enterprise. It should increase the opportunity for surprise, not narrow it.


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Curated Stories Feb. 12, 2010
Feb 12, 2010 18:16

[...] Are we headed for more isolation? Published: February 12, 2010 Source: Wikinomics The research team here at nGenera were having a conversation yesterday about how being more social and collaborative at work, using technologies such as collaboration platform software, might change the workpla… [...]

timothy vogel
Feb 15, 2010 8:33

Hi Tim,

I’m intrigued by the term “network biologist” these days due to i t describng me perfectly. Read Kartik Hosanagar’s “Blockbuster Culture’s Next Rise or Fall: The Impact of Recommender Systems on Sales Diversity” to get an idea of the dangers of self-selection in information, particularly automated methods.

Increased informational Isolation made possible by modern applications that think they are “diversifyinf” really intrigue me. Totally human. to get less of something by following a methodology proposed ot maximize it! ;D


Feb 15, 2010 11:18

Thanks for the comment and the story recommendation. I just downloaded Hosanagar’s paper and will read it as soon as I can. The first few sentence of the abstract are very intriguing. When I’m done, I’ll post something here.

Whitney Parks
Mar 8, 2010 18:48

I recommend reading Cass Sunstein’s Republic.com 2.0. Although the book really frustrated me at first read, the more I think about it, the more the concept of polarization seems a likelihood in the social media/user-generated generation. If everyone seeks out the best information from experts on certain subjects and only focuses on those subjects, or political values, or child raising advice, etc… it does seems like less overall collaboration will actually take place… some of the things that have struck me the most in life are things that I came across by chance, not by seeking expert information.

Mar 9, 2010 10:12

Thanks, I will. Check out this post from me http://www.wikinomics.com/blog/index.php/2009/10/05/are-social-media-elitist/. I find the work done by Danah Boyd and Sean Silverthorne that prompted the post very interesting and provocative.
Thanks much for the suggestion.

Mar 15, 2010 22:36

Quite possibly.

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