Cisco’s Workplace of the Future

I’m a big fan of Cisco Systems. Sure, they’re a $200 billion behemoth. But they don’t act like it (not in an anti-competitive way, at least). They make quality products, they acquire great companies for good reasons, and they seem to generally care about bootstrapping and collaboration. My colleagues at MGTaylor and the Value Web have done quite a bit of work with Cisco and John Chambers, and they’ve only said good things about them. Cisco also used to have an internal research group focused on collaboration that was doing great work, although I don’t know if it still exists.    (MPX)

A good friend of mine works there and had been promising me a tour of its “workplace of the future” for quite some time. A few years ago, Cisco designated one floor in Buildings 11 and 14 as experimental spaces, designed to be a more collaborative environment in today’s network world. My friend had spoken glowingly of portable workspaces, movable walls, and open space, and I was excited to see it for myself.    (MPY)

This past Monday, on my way down to Southern California for the holidays, I stopped at Cisco for my promised tour. As we walked over to Building 14, my friend told me that employees who worked there had complained about the space, particularly the lack of private space to get work done and a “home base” they could call their own.    (MPZ)

I got my first experience of the “workplace of the future” in the lobby, where a virtual receptionist badged me. The space was like any receptionist area, except there was no receptionist. On the desk, there was a badge machine, and behind the desk, there was a large LCD screen with a camera. We pressed the button, and a person appeared on the screen. My friend identified herself, explained who I was, and out popped a badge. It was cute, but gimmicky. I’d be curious to know how much money they save (if any) by doing this.    (MQ0)

Then, the coup de grace: the space itself. The first thing I noticed was the eating area, an enclosed circle at the center of the space. “A Watering Hole, positioned nicely,” I thought. Next, I noticed rows and rows of lockers.    (MQ1)

Then I noticed the cubicles. Rows and rows of cubicles. “When do we get to see the space?” I asked my friend. Then I saw the look of shock on her face, and I realized that we were looking at it. Cisco had given up. They had listened to the complaints and had replaced their experimental space with cubicles.    (MQ2)

My friend felt really bad, but I wasn’t disappointed, not by the tour at least. (Not that I passed on the opportunity to poke fun at her and Cisco. “So this is the workplace of the future?” I asked. “Looks an awful like the past to me.”) There were some great lessons to draw from the experience.    (MQ3)

First, designing effective spaces is hard. It’s one thing to design an effective collaborative space; it’s another to design an effective work space for lots of people. You have to account for the Intimacy Gradient, and if there’s cultural change involved, you have to decide whether the cultural shift is actually desirable.    (MQ4)

Second, good companies aren’t perfect. I need to find out why exactly they changed the space, but the fact that they reverted to cubicles disappointed me greatly. It’s one thing to make a mistake; it’s another thing to give up entirely. If any of you know the story behind these spaces, I’d love to hear it.    (MQ5)

More on the Price of Openness

I’m a very private person. On the surface, that may be hard to believe, coming from someone who blogs regularly, who has a public Flickr stream, and who interacts regularly with tons of people, most of whom I like. But it’s not news to anyone who knows me. When it comes to my work, I’m very transparent. Again, this blog is a testament to that. When it comes to me personally and the people I care about, I can be as tight as a clam.    (M1Y)

Over the years, I’ve gotten better at walking the boundary, maintaining my privacy without completely walling myself off from others. I’ve lowered the outer walls a bit, and my life is much richer for it. But the walls are still there. It’s my own personal Intimacy Gradient. Frankly, those boundaries are what allow me to live a somewhat public life and stay sane. It’s reminiscent of Wonko The Sane in Douglas Adams‘s So Long, and Thanks for All The Fish. The world really can be an asylum, and it’s important to have a sanctuary from that.    (M1Z)

I don’t self-identify as a blogger. When bloggers express outrage about something, I don’t say to myself, “Ah yes, those are my people.” I have many friends and colleagues who blog, several prominently, but I don’t think of them as bloggers either. I think of them as people I respect and care about. Sometimes, these friends become the center of online idiocy, and in those times, I try to remind them to remember the people and the things that are really important to them. What happens outside of that circle doesn’t matter as much, and it helps to be reminded of that.    (M20)

I don’t know Kathy Sierra personally, but I feel bad about what happened to her, and I wish her the best. It won’t be the last time that something ridiculous like this happens, and next time, it very well may happen to someone I do know, maybe even me. Incidents like these really force you to stop and think.    (M21)

In response to this fiasco, Ross Mayfield made a profound observation:    (M22)

Being open on the web matters. Transparency is good. Society values it more every day and it is the underlying force field of the blogosphere. But it is rare to hear horror stories of being too closed, and frequent for being open. Maybe being too closed makes you unheard to begin with. Maybe it means isolation which is our greatest fear. Maybe it also means corruption when conspired.    (M23)

Last year, I wrote of a far less serious case where people were paying the price of openness. And I concluded that the cost was always worth it in the end, because authenticity will always win. It means a very different thing in this context, but it still applies.    (M24)

Still, openness does not mean without boundaries. When we think of collaboration and collaborative spaces, we must not forget the importance of Intimacy Gradients. This is a good personal lesson as well.    (M25)

Blue Oxen’s 4th Anniversary

A few weeks ago, about 50 friends and colleagues — including co-founder Chris Dent, visiting from Seattle — joined us at Chris Messina and Tara Hunt‘s gorgeous new office in San Francisco, Citizen Space, to help celebrate Blue Oxen Associates‘ 4th anniversary. Thanks to all who came and to all who sent well-wishes. Thanks especially to Chris and Tara for being such great, generous hosts, and thanks to Tara Anderson for handling all of the logistics. Pictures are up on Flickr, and there’s a funny video of some late night, after-party silliness as well.    (LLX)

Of course, being a Blue Oxen event, there had to be a “group exercise.” This year, Kaliya Hamlin led us through an incredibly moving one. She asked all of us to take a moment and write down a meaningful thing that happened to us this past year. She then asked us to write down something we hope will happen next year. Everyone then posted them on the whiteboard for all to see and share.    (LLY)

A few people signed their notes, but most of them left theirs anonymous. Some notes were easy to identify, but most still leave me wondering who wrote them. Some notes were business-related. Many were deeply personal. Some notes were knee slappers. Others were heart-wrenching. People wrote about relationships, both good and bad. They wrote about losing family members and about surviving cancer. They expressed both despair and hope.    (LLZ)

What the exercise did was raise the group consciousness. I knew almost everyone in the room, most of them well, and over the past year, I interacted regularly with many of them. Yet this simple exercise surfaced many things about the people in my community I didn’t know. It changed the way I looked at everyone in the room, and it reminded all of us of our humanity.    (LM0)

Great group exercises not only surface interesting content, but also elicit surprising behavior. Jonas Luster started the process by drawing connections between cards of people he thought should connect. I don’t know how many people connected through the wall, but I know some did.    (LM1)

Due to the hustle and bustle of being the host of the party, I didn’t have a chance to contribute my own meaningful moments to the wall, so I thought I’d rectify that here. My list is long. Most of my moments consist of late-night conversations with friends and colleagues over dinner, over drinks, and over the phone, covering everything from concrete topical challenges to philosophical ramblings to general silliness. Just thinking about many of these moments brings a smile to my face.    (LM2)

If I had to sum up all of the meaningful moments from the past year into one sentence, it would be this:    (LM3)

I’m grateful that my relationships with many of my work colleagues have evolved into true friendships.    (LM4)

I’m a firm believer in professionalism, which often translates into a wall between myself and my colleagues. It’s my personal manifestation of the Intimacy Gradient, and my wall is probably a bit higher than others. Nevertheless, I do let down my guard over time. It’s never planned. It’s just something that happens organically over time, a natural deepening of trust past a personal threshold. When it happens, it’s always incredibly enriching. It happened a lot this past year.    (LM5)

I am so grateful to have such high-quality and supportive people in my life. It makes me all the more motivated to chase my dreams, to continue to learn and improve, and to contribute as much as I can to this world. I’ve discovered something that’s special and important, and I’m not even close to fully understanding it. I’m going to work my butt off until I do, and I’m going to share what I learn as widely as possible.    (LM6)

The Future of Intelligence, Part 2

In my last post, I wrote:    (L8D)

Transforming national intelligence is not enough. We need to transform the relationship between intelligence and policy.    (L8E)

First things first, though. For the past two days, I and several esteemed colleagues participated in a CIA workshop on blogs and Wikis, organized by Mark Oehlert at Booz Allen Hamilton. The intention was for people within the CIA to learn more about blogs and Wikis from us, but the learning was decidedly bidirectional. We got a glimpse of how the intelligence community works, and we got a chance to further guide the CIA’s thinking on how to improve the way it collaborates, both internally and with others.    (L8F)

I spent both days listening closely for patterns of effective collaboration. Given my previous experience with government work, I wasn’t optimistic. These folks surprised me. There were certainly horror stories, but they weren’t significantly worse than stories I have heard and experienced in other organizations. More importantly, there is a small group of vocal, committed champions who believe strongly in how some of these tools can improve the way the organization works and who are actively trying to make this happen.    (L8G)

One problem I often see in organizations are claims that certain silos are necessary, claims that tend to be unfounded. Well, these claims are mostly true in intelligence. Given this constraint, how is effective collaboration possible? How can you build trust and traceability when there are different levels of classified information and when anonymity is critical and necessary? How can you have a conversation with someone who doesn’t exist, as far as the CIA is concerned?    (L8H)

We can divide these challenges into three areas: collaboration with folks within the organization who share the same security clearance, collaboration with folks in other organizations who share the same security clearance, and collaboration with folks on the outside who do not share the same security clearance. The first two scenarios are relatively straightforward to address. The third is incredibly difficult.    (L8I)

The notion of an Intimacy Gradient came up on multiple occasions. An Intimacy Gradient is an important concept in the design of collaborative spaces (both online and face-to-face), but it is a concept rife with problems when implemented online. You can create an online space where people feel comfortable sharing information and leaving artifacts, but that comfort can be completely misguided when it comes to digital artifacts. Blogs are a good example of this. Blogs feel like private spaces, and so people share information on them as if they were private, information that can bite you in the butt later on. (See Whine In Private.)    (L8J)

A more subtle example is the Wikipedia visualization that Fernanda Viegas and Martin Wattenberg demonstrated at Wikimania last month. The two were able to show all sorts of personal information about users inferred solely from their editing behavior, which is all publically available. I’m quite certain that none of these users had any idea that such revealing visualizations were possible, and that many would have thought twice about participating if those visualizations were available. Viegas and Wattenberg have been struggling with the ethics of making such visualizations available because of privacy concerns, but the reality is that someone less thoughtful can come along and do the exact same thing.    (L8K)

The intelligence community can’t afford to deal with these issues after the fact, so they must think very deeply about these issues ahead of time. The line between FUD and caution is a thin one, and it must be tread carefully.    (L8L)

That said, there are still lots of more straightforward things that the CIA can do to improve the way it collaborates, and they’re already exploring many of them. There are several active bloggers within the CIA, including several senior-level people. There is also a Wiki for the intelligence community called Intellipedia. Of the 40 participants at the workshop, more had used Intellipedia than blogs, and I suspect that many more will try it after the proceedings of the past two days. Change is happening, and many participants even argued that change was inevitable. Whether or not it will happen quickly enough is the question.    (L8M)

Although the focus of the gathering was on tools, the conversation returned over and over to culture and incentives for collaboration. Many of the ideas centered around ways to encourage blogging or Wikis, but most of these were misguided. I think rewarding people for using a tool is generally a bad idea. What you want to do is reward people for collaborating.    (L8N)

Booz Allen Hamilton, for example, has an employee review process known as the 360-degree appraisal. When employees are reviewed, management not only interviews the employees, they interview their colleagues and their clients. The end result is a holistic picture of their employees’ effectiveness. This kind of review process naturally rewards collaboration, even though there is no formal metric.    (L8O)

Another way to encourage collaboration is explicit Permission To Participate (one of the patterns that Wikis are so good at facilitating). It’s wonderful when senior level people actively blog and encourage others to do so, but sometimes, Permission To Participate needs to be even more explicit than that.    (L8P)

It’s hard to extrapolate too much about the state of the CIA from what happened at the workshop. For starters, the participants were obviously self-selecting. However, the fact that there were 40 people who self-selected was itself significant. There seems to be an impressive amount of savviness within the organization, and if it can ever figure out how to leverage that savviness, many good things will happen. The participants asked good, good questions throughout the two days, demonstrating a high-level of thoughtfulness and introspection.    (L8Q)

The most significant outcome for me was the opportunity to put a human face on the CIA. It’s an opportunity that most people will never get, because the CIA will never be a transparent organization, and it will never be able to fully leverage the notion of Markets Are Conversations. But perhaps I and others can act as a proxy.    (L8R)

I enjoyed meeting many people, including Calvin Andrus and the team behind Intellipedia (who I hope will attend RecentChangesCamp in May so that they may experience WikiOhana firsthand). I especially appreciated the thoughtfulness of those who were present, which included both champions and skeptics. Most importantly, I appreciated people’s hearts. The CIA point person for the workshop closed the gathering by remarking that the commonality between the guests and the participants was passion, then told an emotionally wrenching story about his son and about watching the plane crash into the Pentagon on 9/11. These folks are smart, they’re human, and they care. They care about doing their jobs well, and they care about improving this country.    (L8S)

The CIA has had a checkered history, and many challenges lie ahead. Change will not be easy. But they are doing some things well, and we should continue to engage with them, so that we can continue to learn from each other and improve. I came away from this workshop more optimistic about the CIA itself, but less so regarding its relationship with other intelligence agencies and with its customers, the policy makers. But, first things first. Baby steps lead to big changes.    (L8T)

Battling Group Think

Geoff Cohen asked:    (PM)

As we build different kinds of groupware/social software, what’s the role of consensus, and how powerful is it? Does software make reaching consensus easier or harder? For purely message-driven systems like email lists or USENET, consensus is much harder to reach than it would be in a real-life meeting. But once consensus is reached, breaking that consensus often brings down the flames of wrath. All of this is somehow invisibly coded in the interstices of the software architecture and human nature.    (PN)

…    (PO)

Could we architect social software that fought groupthink? Or does it just make the gravitational attraction of consensus, even flawed consensus, ever so much more irresistable?    (PP)

Seb Paquet responded:    (PQ)

I think the key to avoiding unhealthy levels of groupthink has to do with designing spaces that consistently exert pull upon outsiders (or social hackers or community straddlers), so as to keep the air fresh.    (PR)

…    (PS)

I think the blogosphere exhibits this kind of “outsider pull” much more than topic-focused forums.    (PT)

…    (PU)

But what about action? A diverse group has fewer blind spots, but on the other hand, agreement in such a group can be harder to establish, so there is a real possibility that the group will go nowhere beyond conversation. Is a core of agreed-upon ideas necessary for group action to take place? I think so. Does this mean that group action requires groupthink? Not necessarily, because some people are able to act upon ideas without believing in them so strongly they can no longer challenge them.    (PV)

Ross Mayfield added:    (PW)

He [Seb] is right that groupthink is avoided by a social network structure that allows a dynamic and diverse periphery to provide new ideas, but the core of the network needs to be tightly bound to be able to take action.    (PX)

That’s the main point of Building Sustainable Communities through Network Building by Valdis Krebs and June Holley.    (PY)

…    (PZ)

The ideal core/periphery structure affords a densely linked core and a dynamic periphery. One pattern for social software that supports this is an intimacy gradient (privacy/openness), to allow the core some privacy for backchanneling. But this requires ridiculously easy group forming, as the more hardened the space the more hard-nosed its occupants become.    (Q0)

Finally, Bill Seitz commented:    (Q1)

I think a shared mission is necessary. Whether that amounts to groupthink is a fair question.    (Q2)

There are a goldmine of ideas here, and the discussion is highly relevant to issues currently faced by the Collaboration Collaboratory. I’ll address them one at a time.    (Q3)

Group Think Versus Group Action    (Q4)

Bill’s comment points to the crux of the matter. What qualifies as Group Think or Group Action? We’ve discussed this question a lot at Blue Oxen Associates. In our upcoming research report, we draw a distinction between bounded and unbounded goals, and individual and collective goals. Generally, having shared unbounded goals is enough to constitute group alignment, but having shared bounded goals is required before you can call an effort “collaboration.”    (Q5)

The larger the group, the harder it is to define a shared, bounded goal that every group member will endorse. A good example of where this happens are elections. In the case of Howard Dean supporters, for example, the community is defined by a universally shared, bounded goal — voting Dean for president in 2004. As we’ve seen in the Dean case, having that universally shared, bounded goal was a galvanizing force for a previously unseen community of progressives in this country.    (Q6)

For large groups, I don’t think it’s necessary to have universally shared, bounded goals, although it’s nice when it happens. It’s enough to have small subgroups sharing different bounded goals, as long as they do not conflict with the unbounded goals, which must be universally shared.    (Q7)

The Intimacy Gradient Pattern    (Q8)

An aside on terminology: Intimacy Gradient is an excellent name for the phenomenon I first tried to describe in a previous blog entry, where I introduced the Think Out Loud and Whine In Private patterns. The problem I had in describing the Whine In Private pattern was that some spaces — blogs being the best example — felt like private forums, but were actually public. So people whining on their blogs are not actually Whining In Private; they just feel like they are.    (Q9)

Ross also used the term Backchannel, which I had also recently noted in my Wiki as a good name to describe this mostly private, but partially public space.    (QA)

Community Boundaries    (QB)

One of the founding principles of the Blue Oxen Collaboratories is that the products of the discussion and interaction should all be freely available to everyone. This is why the mailing list archives are publically available, even if participation is restricted to members.    (QC)

There is an Intimacy Gradient pattern involved here. There is a small barrier to entry to participate in tight-knit discussions, which makes the environment more conducive to parlor-style conversations. On the other hand, anyone can benefit from the resulting knowledge, which is our ultimate goal. Our hope is that the collaboratories act as a substrate for a much larger conversation.    (QD)

This has already begun to happen, and blogs play a key role. Bill Seitz, Chris Dent, Danny Ayers, and I have all blogged about discussions on the Collaboration Collaboratory, which expands the conversation to a larger group. The side effects include countering Group Think, as Seb suggests, and also attracting new members who want to participate more directly in the lower-level interactions. Similarly, we mention these blogs on the mailing lists, so the collaboratory members are aware of the larger conversation, thus completing the circle.    (QE)

Are there hidden costs to these Intimacy Gradients? Absolutely. Examples of blogs being read by the “wrong” audiences abound. Gregory Rawlins became a victim when he made some choice comments about another programmer’s software on a private, but publically archived list. (Sorry, Greg, but I always get a good laugh when I reread this.)    (QF)

Nevertheless, I think the benefits outweigh the downsides. I recently joined Howard Rheingold‘s Brainstorms community, and have wanted to link to some of the discussions there, but couldn’t. It’s unfortunate, because those linkages are lost, but it’s a tradeoff I understand. Finding the right balance is tricky.    (QG)

How Open Should Wikis Be?    (QH)

Our original intention with the Wikis on the Blue Oxen Collaboratories was to treat them the same as the mailing lists — restrict writing to members, but allow anyone to read the content. However, we did not configure our Wikis that way, mainly because we couldn’t — UseModWiki doesn’t have this feature — and it was low on list of things to hack. (See PurpleWiki:RoadMap.)    (QI)

Based on our experiences with this configuration and further examination of other Wikis, I’m reluctant to change this model now. One potential compromise is to require registration to write to the Wikis, but to make registration free. The difference between this and simply allowing anyone to click on “Edit This” is subtle, but significant. I’m still a bit undecided on this issue, although I seem to be leaning in favor of extreme openness. The reason for this is simply that we’ve had some interesting contributions and comments to the Wikis that probably would not have been made if there were even the slightest barriers to entry. Again, it’s a good safeguard against Group Think.    (QJ)

This issue recently cropped up again, because both the PurpleWiki and Collaboration Collaboratory Wikis were vandalized for the first time. Chris Dent discovered the act first and quickly fixed it, noting, “In a way this is sort of a good sign. Infamy is almost as good as fame….” My reaction was, “Good catch, by the way. A good sign of a healthy Wiki is how quickly the community fixes vandalism.” Notable in both of our reactions was that we simply fixed the problem and moved on, instead of rushing to implement access control.    (QK)

John Sechrest, however, suggested that access control was exactly what the Wikis needed, which led to some interesting philosophical debate about the openness of Wikis. My response to John wasn’t very deep, but it does sum up my feelings on the matter: “Wikis are successful because the cost to contribute are zero. There are downsides, but there are also upsides. Get rid of one, you also lose the other.”    (QL)