» Archive for August, 2008

Social Networking Tools Try To Grow Up

Friday, August 29th, 2008 by Cody Burke

Social software?  That’s where you meet your friends, post pictures of your trip, maybe even play a game of Scrabble (the fully legal Hasbro version of course).  It isn’t, necessarily, something that you would expect to find in an enterprise setting.

To be fully embraced by the enterprise, social software has to do more than simply provide a space for a profile and grow and interact with a contact list.  Recent newcomers to the social networking scene have struggled to gain ground.  Micro blogging tools such as Twitter, which allow for short messages to be broadcast to “followers” in a user’s network, are still in their infancy in terms of potential uses for the enterprise.  The majority of the use is in the consumer market, letting your network of friends know that you are walking your dog or that you just read a good article.

Mining the consumer market for tools that will be successful in the enterprise is hardly a new idea.  Instant messaging, once purely a consumer pursuit, is now indispensable in many organizations, and tools such as wikis and blogs are increasingly finding a home in corporations.  Outside the enterprise, business-focused social networks (LinkedIn and Xing come to mind) cater to knowledge workers looking to interact with one another.

Social software in the enterprise perhaps became legitimized when Lotus Software introduced Lotus Connections in 2007.  Lotus Connections is a business-focused social software package that brings social tools from the consumer market into the enterprise.  Connections incorporates tools for the creation of personal profiles that aid in expert location, the establishment of new contacts across an organization, and maintaining important relationships regardless of physical proximity.

Today we see several social networking products from the consumer side that are making the shift into the enterprise.  An interesting example of this kind of crossover is Socialcast.  Socialcast began in 2005 as a white label social networking software company, developing custom private social networks for the entertainment industry, places for fans to interact with each other, centered on a music artist or movie.  Recently, Socialcast remade itself as into a provider of enterprise-level social software, applying the lessons learnt in the consumer entertainment industry to a business setting.

Socialcast is a social network dropped on top of a company’s intranet.  In addition to building a basic profile, Socialcast also enables users to post questions and answers, ideas, and project status.  Keeping track of other knowledge workers is enabled through streams (in a similar way to Twitter) that can be fully customized.  A sales rep, for instance, may want to know what is happening with the rest of the sales team, so he can choose to see actions taken by the team.  He may not care about what is happening with HR, so he would not opt-in to display that information.  Expertise profiles of users are also automatically and dynamically built by a semantic engine, using what you look at, where you spend your time, and what applications you use to connect you to new content and relevant streams of information.

The real test, however, is to find value for the enterprise in social software, and then convince decision makers that social networking tools can make an impact and that they are more than toys.  Social networking tools have the potential to impact knowledge worker productivity, efficiency, and effectiveness, and if deployed in concert with other tools and in compliance with the one environment rule to enable friction free knowledge sharing, then tools such as Socialcast may well become part of the glue that holds an organization together.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Cutting the Cord: Can we really work off the grid?

Friday, August 22nd, 2008 by Cody Burke

In the knowledge economy, the theory is that through the combination of knowledge and cognitive ability, and aided by technological tools such as laptops, mobile devices, and wireless access, we are now free to work from wherever and whenever we want.

For knowledge workers who find themselves in situations without internet access, a mobile device used as an improvised modem can be a lifesaver.  But how well does this backup plan work?  Can a knowledge worker stay connected and work remotely by mobile device alone?

As a test, I set out to work from home, using a Palm Centro running on the Sprint network as my sole point of internet access.  In addition, to further simulate the conditions of a knowledge worker “in the wild”, I would attempt to use it as my only phone line, for everything from internal meetings to external conference calls.

Starting from scratch, I set up Lotus Notes on my laptop.  Frustration set in as I was making local copies of databases, it literally took days to set up the local copies on the computer.  When a database would be downloading to a local copy, the speed of everything else would slow to an agonizing crawl – one misstep, one too many attempts to open even the smallest of e-mails would result in the dreaded white screen of Lotus Notes doom.  I resorted to doing this overnight, one database at a time, so I would still have enough bandwidth for e-mail, IM, and conducting online research.

Perhaps more problematic, the Palm Centro could only be used as a modem or a phone, but not both at the same time.  This led to some interesting situations; I admit that in desperation I used my regular phone to attend conference calls when it would be impossible for me to be off-line.  More than once, I found myself using the Centro for internet access to view a Web demo, my regular phone for the conference call, and so as not to overtax my bandwidth for the demo, my second laptop for IM backchannel communication with co-workers on the call.  Obviously this violated the rule I had set out for myself, but business before pleasure, so to speak.

I finally resorted to using Skype, which proved to be a good solution, despite the slight absurdity of using a phone as a modem for my laptop so I could talk on the phone.

In the coming weeks, I will share more thoughts on working wirelessly and lessons learned from my time on the last frontier of the knowledge economy, where the knowledge worker runs free and the internet access is ubiquitous.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

The Next Big Thing

Friday, August 15th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

Headline writers love to proclaim The Next Big Thing, something I talked about in a column here almost eight years ago.

At the time, I commented on TSTBTNBTBNWs (Things Supposed to Be the Next Big Thing but Never Were).  A few items on this list included artificial intelligence and push technology (such as PointCast).

Truly great ideas in business that weren’t proclaimed The Next Big Thing when they arrived on the scene include the telegraph, the telephone, the typewriter, the punch card tabulator, the electronic computer, the photocopier, the personal computer, the laser printer, and the Internet.

These ideas have all had a substantive, long-lasting, and transformational impact on work.  They made their appearance on the scene quietly but carried a big stick.

Possible great ideas that could be TNBT include the mobile phone (and derivative smartphones), the laptop computer, Wi-Fi, SaaS, and social computing.

Things that people perceive to be great ideas, but aren’t, include the smartphone (yes, it is sometimes a great idea from a business perspective, but from a work-life balance perspective the smartphone may yet prove to be quite the opposite), calling anything “Web 2.0,” touchscreen technology, and the paperless office.

Public radio used to have a program called “The Next Big Thing” but it’s no longer on the air.  I wouldn’t worry too much about this, though.  As I promised back in 2001, The Next Big Thing is just around the corner.

Here’s an idea that turns out to be a really bad idea: battery backup for alarm clocks in hotel rooms.  To begin with, hotels seem to make really poor choices in choosing in-room clocks.  If one can’t quickly ascertain that the alarm is indeed off and not set by the previous guest for three in the morning, the only choice is to unplug the thing.  Last night, that’s exactly what I did in a brand new hotel in Monterey and, since they are only two months old and don’t have their sea legs, I’ll spare them the embarrassment of being mentioned here by name.  Yet the clock went off at 3 a.m. regardless.  Why?  The darned thing has a battery backup.  Since this is a five-star property, the GM has assured me that housekeeping will check all clocks when preparing rooms for incoming guests.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

What Was I Working on Again? Part III – Driven to Distraction

Friday, August 8th, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

The July 15 Information Overload conference was chock full of information.  Last but not least on the program was Maggie Jackson.

Jackson was one of the first journalists to interview me on the topic of information overload; she writes for the Boston Globe (a fact that led me, until a month or so ago, to believe she lived in Boston) on the topic of work-life balance.

Jackson’s book, Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, was recently published and, given her knowledge in this field and the timing of her book, I thought it appropriate to invite her to speak about the book (and to sign a few copies as well).

The underlying theme of Jackson’s book is the erosion of attention, attention to work, attention to information, even attention to eating and leisure activities.  If we continue to squander how we use attention, we may descend into an era where emptiness rather than fulfillment rules, where one never goes sufficiently in depth in one area because a virtual clock is ticking that guarantees something will intrude three minutes hence.

Yet all is not lost.

Technologies may appear to rule but the threat of machines taking over is not a new theme.  Rampant in science fiction and the cinema (think Fritz Lang’s Metropolis or Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times), indeed S. Fowler’s “Automata” (1929) comes to mind (machines take over all human activities and eventually eliminate the human species).  A few others of this genre include E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” (1909), about a future earth where a central machine makes all decisions and caters to all needs through automated appendages (most humans live below ground and need the omnipotent Machine for survival) and Lionel Britton’s “The Brain” (1930), where a mechanical brain is the last and only form of intelligence on a doomed planet earth fifty million years hence (to its credit, it does contain all knowledge in existence).

George Parons Lathrop envisaged a 22nd century with automated factories run by a single person at a keyboard in “In the Deep of Time” and Jules Verne’s “Paris in the Twentieth Century” foresaw giant calculating machines that resembled “huge pianos,” also operated via a keyboard.

But back to Jackson, who argued that our inability to focus portends an impending Dark Age, which would translate to our civilization’s decline despite technological advancement.  While the world becomes a global village, it has also become more fragmented and disembodied.

Distracted is well researched (although a good part of Jackson’s research is outside of the past half century), well rounded, reasonably focused on the issue (although there are inexplicable detours, such as the cultural history of the fork), and it should be required reading for every knowledge worker.  You can purchase a copy at Amazon.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

What Was I Working on Again? – Part II

Friday, August 1st, 2008 by Jonathan Spira

The July 15 Information Overload conference was chock full of information, perhaps to the point of where we had no time to think.

Not surprisingly, that was the title of David Levy’s presentation at the event.  Levy presented a fascinating paradox, namely that, just as we are creating new tools for knowledge work and collaboration (and as our economy is becoming more knowledge based), we are losing the time we need to think.

Levy referenced Nobel Prize-winning geneticist Barbara McClintock who, in her studies of corn plants, was able to take enough time to look and hear what the material (her corn plants, specifically) was able to say to her.  Indeed she exhorted people to be contemplative, to “take the time and look,” but in many cases this was met with puzzlement.  Technology has continuously accelerated the pace of research and that appeared to be incompatible with her more contemplative view.

Levy made a solid case for setting aside time for contemplation although he pointed out an interesting paradox: the inspiration for today’s knowledge sharing and collaborative tools comes from Vannevar Bush’s memex, a portmanteau of “memory extender,” which he wrote about in his landmark article “As We May Think” in the July 1945 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.  Bush envisaged tools that automate the more mundane and routine aspects of knowledge work, freeing up the knowledge worker to have more time to think.  Unfortunately the introduction of more technology did not achieve this goal.

Levy also looked into our leisure time as examined by Roman Catholic theologian and philosopher Josef Pieper.  For the ancient Greeks, leisure was not merely free time but a goal of the highest order.  Pieper, writing in post-Second World War Germany, saw a nation in danger of being all-consumed by work.  Germany was in danger of losing its leisure time, as defined by the Greeks.  The accelerating pace of work can best be described in a decline of the work-life balance and the attempt to multi-task at sporting events and other leisure time activities.

Levy’s solution is to reintroduce more contemplative practices into both work and academic settings.  While it will be hard to undo the damage caused by multitasking and information overload, finding more time to think, via contemplation and meditative practices, will hopefully offset the damage that these problems occasion.

Next week we’ll wrap things up.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.