1998 should be the year of what we at The Basex Group have named the “Virtual Corporate Community”.
Groupware, long the supposed enabler of Collaborative Computing, has never really taken off. Yes, there are umpteen million Lotus Notes seats, and for many, Notes has been a tremendous enabler of Collaborative Computing. But it is not ubiquitous and Notes alone does not a virtual community make.
Virtual Communities, as electronic watering holes, have taken on a certain chicness in the past year, especially due to the ease of access created by heightened awareness of the Internet. A Virtual Community is perhaps best defined as an electronic means of bringing people together, where they can develop meaningful on-line and real-life relationships. This often takes the form of chat rooms and bulletin board-style discussion forums. A “community”, as defined by the American Heritage Dictionary , is “a group of people living in the same locality and under the same government” and “a social group or class having common interests”. If one infers that a portion of Cyberspace is a locality then an amalgam of these two definitions comes fairly close to defining a “Virtual Community”.
The first Virtual Community was perhaps the MsgGroup, an electronic discussion formed in 1975 by Steve Walker, an ARPA program manager. The then-existing network community needed, he wrote, “to develop a sense of what is mandatory, what is nice and what is not desirable in message services.” [Walker: "Completion Report: ARPA Network Development", Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Information Processing Techniques Office, Washington, D.C. January 1978.] The dialogue that ensued over the next ten years created a community of peers, many having never come into personal contact with one another, but interacting as if they were long-time friends and colleagues, and also defined the standards for Internet messaging.
Thus, it may be observed, that the MsgGroup brought people together to discuss a specific business issue but also met our amalgamated definition of “community.”
The on-line services usually identified as pioneering Virtual Communities, such as The Well, started with a different mandate. The Well sought to bring together people who shared values similar to those of the Whole Earth catalog, the organization that started the service. Interestingly enough, The Well’s community did not exist only in the on-line world; it also sponsored an open house “pot lock” party every month for many years.
In the business world, corporate management looks to such tools as Collaborative Computing and Knowledge Management to bring the best people together, collaborating on projects and sharing expertise. Unfortunately, when project teams are formed, the people who put the team together must make such decisions largely based on whom they know or know of. Since many larger corporations are far-flung organizations and are not known for encouraging casual contact, the universe from which a selection is made is often very limited and can leave the best people off the team, simply because they are unknown to the team leader. In an interview I recently had with a major software company that creates software for the purpose of collaboration and teamwork, it was stated that the assumption was that the their customers would create teams based on known entities, limiting the value of the important collaborative tools that they produce.
But what if corporations had a way for their people to interact, in an on-line corporate setting, with others of like interests, for the purpose of furthering overall enterprise-wide knowledge sharing and pooling of information?
Just as the Industrial Age widened people’s physical mobility tremendously, expanding an individual’s universe from their small area of town to (minimally) an entire city or metropolitan area, the Information Age has heightened that mobility to hundreds of millions of (interconnected) users. However, in the business world, even within the same corporation, individuals are still largely limited by physical proximity because they have no means of interacting with other employees unless they are assigned to the same project or meet one another through happenstance. That results in seas of resources remaining untapped which could result in an individual’s reinventing the wheel or, worse, to spinning his wheels without result.
The Information Age has brought a certain proximity to strangers in a social setting. Yet Corporate America, which does not encourage what it considers unnecessary (read: “unprofitable”) communication through its computer networks, has yet to realize that information workers could learn to interact with one another on a higher level there, and on a more productive basis to boot. If employees had a platform with which they could be casually exposed to the variety of skills and talents within a given organization before the “moment of truth” occurred, the result would most likely be greater productivity and job satisfaction.
By using computers to mediate the exchanges between information workers, both social and professional interaction will be impacted greatly. To a large extent, this has already begun to take place. A mere decade ago, virtually all interaction between individuals in disparate locations occurred through the mail, the phone or, occasionally, facsimile. Nowadays we exchange all sorts of ideas and even conduct negotiations via electronic mail, resorting upon occasion to such other new technologies as voice mail and individualized video conferencing. We see the beginnings of groups holding meetings in a “chat” environment on line, and these settings have been largely accepted by the on-line community for social interaction. Universities have been requiring students to purchase computers for some time, and some professors have been using the Internet as a virtual classroom, not once convening the class in person.
The concept of the Virtual Corporate Community may lead to a rather schizophrenic lifestyle, as information workers find it possible to enjoy life in a pastoral village while maintaining an virtualized urban existence as a member of the Community. This new breed of worker will enjoy the ability to interact as handily with colleagues in Frankfurt and Sydney and many other major metropolitan areas. Who knows? These colleagues may very well be in non-urban settings as well, and the downtown “business district” as we know it may become more of an information management center than a place to go to work.
Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex. This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).