Emergent Learning Forum Gathering on Social Networks

I’ve been following Alex Gault‘s blog for several months now. It is an outstanding source of articles and information on collaboration and Knowledge Management. Earlier this past week, I learned that Alex had organized the program for last Tuesday’s Emergent Learning Forum meeting, “Social Networking, Relationship Capital and Expertise Management.” Both the speaker list (Spoke Software‘s Andy Halliday, Intel’s Anita Lo, and Tacit Knowledge SystemsDavid Gilmour) and the opportunity to meet yet another blogger in person were too much for me to resist.    (140)

Alex kicked off the meeting with an excellent introduction to Social Networks, providing some background material (see Social Networks) and a concise overview of the current marketplace.    (141)

Andy Halliday followed by talking a bit about Spoke Software, although the scope of his talk was much more general. Spoke’s tool identifies social networks within the company (including people’s contacts outside of the company) by analyzing outbound email, and then acts as a referral broker. Andy emphasized individuals’ abilities to control their profile and protect their data. Afterwards, I asked Andy whether they had identified a threshold for how large an organization usually is before it can benefit from such a tool. He answered 1,000 people, but added that Spoke’s extended search capabilities (for contacts outside of the company) increased the tool’s utility for smaller companies.    (142)

Spoke is marketing the tool to salespeople, but it is clearly cognizant of the wider opportunities. Andy cited a few, including search results based on your social network (essentially Brian Lincoln‘s Collab:GrassRootsPeerReview idea) and a tool for sorting your inbox (including spam filtering). Spoke hosts a free online version of its tool called the Spoke Network.    (143)

Anita Lo, Intel’s Productivity Program Manager, gave a remote presentation on Intel’s recently deployed expert locator service. There were some technical difficulties and the talk was cut short before Anita could talk in-depth about the system, but a few points caught my ear. Intel conducted an internal survey to identify its most salient knowledge management need, and expert location was the top priority. The result was a system called People Yellow Pages, based on a tool that they purchased but that Anita did not identify. The system seemed to depend on people keeping their profiles updated as well as an overall taxonomy for categorization, which was managed by a librarian and validated periodically via surveys. This approach is in stark contrast with Spoke Software‘s and Tacit Knowledge Systems‘s, so it would have been nice to discuss how well it worked and whether Intel had evaluated any tools that automatically built and maintained people’s profiles.    (144)

(Seb Paquet posted some comments on Anita’s talk as well. Interestingly, Seb watched the talk remotely from his perch in Canada, and he may have been able to follow the talk more clearly than those in attendance!)    (145)

David Gilmour closed out the morning’s talks. I wrote about David’s excellent Harvard Business Review article before. His talk mirrored that article in some ways — an impassioned belief in the knowledge brokering model, coordinating collaboration rather than trying to force people to work together — but he provided much more detail in several areas. In particular, he spent much time discussing his company’s emphasis on individual privacy (as had Andy earlier) and noted that Tacit Knowledge Systems had several patents on ways to protect privacy, one indication of the value the company places on it.    (146)

David observed that individuals liked to use the tool to see their own profiles, which are automatically constructed based on their behavior (email, documents, Web, etc.). On the business end, he noted that pharmaceutical companies (which make up many of his clients) needed no persuasion regarding the ROI of his approach; the only question was whether or not the tool worked as advertised.    (147)

Jay Cross, the CEO of Emergent Learning Forum, posted some notes on the day’s talks as well. He also mentioned Alex’s other blog, the Collaboration Cafe, which I have added to my aggregator as well.    (148)

Won’t Someone Write a Decent E-mail Client?

Brian Lincoln was complaining about e-mail clients recently, and he said that he was willing to pay $1,000 for a good e-mail management tool. That’s a stunning statement, if you think about it. E-mail is probably more widely used than word processing, and probably ranks near even with Web browsing. Several companies have devoted large budgets to building e-mail clients, and there are several open source initiatives as well. You would think that there would at least be once decent e-mail client by now.    (40)

Despite all of this, I completely agree with Brian. I haven’t found anything that comes close to doing even mostly what I want.    (41)

(I have to throw in a brief disclaimer about mutt, which I’ve been using for about a year. Mutt is very customizable, which I like very much, and is fairly UNIXy, which I also like. It’s supposed to be easily extensible, but I haven’t had a chance to test this myself. At some point, I will.)    (42)

I get tons of e-mail. I save a large percentage of it, including e-mail that I send. My archives date back to 1994. There’s a wealth of information there, and I’d like to be able to easily retrieve what I need when I need it. I want:    (43)

  • Powerful search capabilities.    (44)
  • Categorization.    (45)
  • Ability to link e-mails with other types of information: calendar, datebook, Web pages, source code, other e-mails, etc.    (46)
  • Useful views.    (47)

I’m not going to expand on these here, except to say that doing all of this stuff right has significant architectural ramifications. One reason I may be so difficult to please in this regard is that I have fairly well thought-out ideas on what that architecture should be, and I have yet to see this kind of architecture in any tool. I was heavily influenced in this regard by Doug Engelbart, who’s also on our Advisory Board. (Some of these thoughts are loosely captured in my paper, “Towards a Standard Graph-Based Data Model for the Open Hyperdocument System”, which Ken Holman presented for me at Extreme Markup 2002.)    (48)

The e-mail tool whose architecture comes closest to my vision is Helium, a class project at Indiana University that emerged out of Gregory Rawlins‘s KnownSpace in Fall 2002. Using Known Space as its data architecture, the team explored and prototyped a lot of interesting ideas. Unfortunately, there are limits to what a team of students can accomplish in a semester, and the project is unfinished and in stasis.    (49)

Chandler holds a similar appeal as Helium, as I explained to the Collaboration Collaboratory last January.    (4A)

Here are some other pet peeves regarding today’s e-mail clients:    (4B)

  • HTML e-mail. If you’re going to use it, at least implement it consistently.    (4C)
  • Moronic word-wrapping and line lengths. More evidence of widespread disinterest in interoperating well with other e-mail clients.    (4D)
  • Reply-to behavior. Most users have no conception of the “To” header. They hit their “Reply” button, and simply expect the e-mail to go to the right place. This is a solvable usability challenge, but somebody needs to tackle it.    (4E)
  • Quoting. How difficult would it be to come up with a standard for quoting other e-mails? More importantly, wouldn’t it be great if people could send one-word responses to e-mails without citing an entire three-month thread at the end of the message?    (4F)
  • Header control. Most e-mail clients hide headers by default. That’s okay. But sometimes, there’s valuable information in the headers. Many e-mail clients make it extremely hard to view this information, or to forward it to other people.    (4G)
  • Folder management. Blech. Folders are not a good way to categorize e-mail. The first vendor who figures this out is going to make a lot of money.    (4H)

Grass Roots Peer Review

We had a Bay Area gathering of the Blue Oxen Associates Collaboration Collaboratory at Applewood’s Pizza in Menlo Park, California. Nine of us showed up, and we had a great time mixing and chatting.    (3P)

At one point in the evening, Brian Lincoln told Jon Cheyer his idea of Grass Roots Peer Review. They talked for a bit, and then Jon drew me into the conversation. Before we knew it, we were all discussing the idea,    (3Q)

Eventually, we started exploring a possible experiment that the collaboratory could perform. I posted a synopsis of that discussion on the tools-yak@collab list.    (3R)