Recently in Collaboration Category

Further thoughts on the effects of air travel disruption

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A couple of weeks ago I surmised that the travel disruption caused by the eruption of Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull might force businesses to rethink how they manage their long-distance relationships. It might, I posited, force businesses to be more open to teleworking, teleconferencing and the use of social media for geographically dispersed teams.

Eyjafjallajökull is showing no signs of stopping. A reduced ash plume combined with favourable winds and a change in the aviation industry's policy towards acceptable ash levels allowed air travel to restart, but the last couple of days have seen Ireland and Scotland forced to close airports due to renewed ash threat. The volcano became "more explosive" with a higher, denser ash column that was swept towards Ireland and Scotland by a southeasterly wind.

I think it's reasonable to say that we may see further disruption in the UK and across Europe as this eruption continues, so it seems like a good time to remake the point: Start planning now for your business to be affected by further flight bans, especially as the holiday season creeps towards us, increasing the risk that staff may be able to get out of the country but unable to get home. Start introducing collaborative technology now. Don't wait for disaster to strike, but get your staff up to speed with new tools whilst you still have the luxury of not being in the middle of a crisis.

Harold Jarche points out that working online is different, and it takes some getting used to:

[I]t's not about the technology. The real issue is getting people used to working at a distance. For instance, everything has to be transparent for collaborative work to be effective online. Using wikis or Google Documents means that everyone can see what the others have contributed. There is no place to hide.

And Ethan Zuckerman makes a great point that we don't notice how much we rely on our infrastructure until it has gone. I like Ethan's definition of 'infrastructure':

Infrastructure is the stuff we ignore until it breaks. Then it's the stuff we're stunned to discover we're dependent on.

He then goes on to point out how ridiculous our dependence on air travel has become, to the point where we expect to be able to fly in, do a 20 minute conference presentation and fly home again. I've even done that in one single day, and it's not fun. But, Ethan says:

It's possible that Eyjafjallajökull could change this. If a 24 hour trip to London has a significant risk of becoming a 5 day trip to London, the calculus changes. As much as frequent travellers gripe about delays and cancellations, they're pretty infrequent, and mass delays like the ones currently being experienced are downright rare. If they become commonplace, I personally would expect to say no to travel lots more often and do a lot more appearances via Skype and videoconferencing.

From meetings to conferences to team-building events, unreliable air travel changes how we think about long-distance travel. It should also change how we think about working over long distances, and, thence, how we work with the people who sit right next to us.

And for anyone who thinks that this is all a big fuss over nothing, here are a couple of thoughts:

Firstly, when Eyjafjallajökull erupted in December 1821, she did so in fits and starts, with two weeks of activity followed by nothing until June 1822 when she erupted again. Ash fell intermittently for months and activity continued into 1823. In June of 1823, Katla, her neighbour, erupts for four weeks. We are likely to see lulls in activity from Eyjafjallajökull, but we shouldn't interpret that to mean that the threat is over.

Secondly, by implementing social media, encouraging collaboration and discouraging unnecessary travel your business will become more efficient, more effective and will waste less money on travel. Even if Eyjafjallajökull stops erupting, you'll still be better off for having prioritised better collaboration practices.

Enterprise 2.0 Beta

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Via Anthony Mayfield, I discovered this video from KS12:

Anthony pulls two ideas out of the video: How our need to assign and take the credit for ideas can mess things up; and how sometimes information should just fade from view as it gets older, rather than being always perfectly preserved.

I pulled out another: That releasing software in beta is an important statement about the underlying attitudes towards innovation and development, and sets the scene psychologically for change and progression. In the Web 2.0 community, the 'release early, release often' ethos is well known and frequently used. Start-ups release the most basic version of their software, gather user feedback, watch for emergent behaviour and then develop the next release accordingly. Users are primed by the word 'beta' to expect problems - so they are less upset when they occur - and also to expect change. The process doesn't always go smoothly, but it is a cost-effective way of developing software and web services quickly.

Enterprise really needs to embrace the idea of beta, not just in software development but in their project planning too. The idea that everything has to be perfect at launch, that launch is an end instead of a beginning, and that addressing bugs and flaws after launch is somehow a sign of weakness is an anachronism. I can't count the number of projects where all the effort has gone into a final deadline and the results of all our hard work withered on the vine because no one thought about what to do with the work we had produced.

This is especially true of social software and social media projects where the tools are evolving faster than even the professionals can keep up. Social media projects of whatever stripe should be be seen as an ongoing process of change as the tools, ideas and culture all slowly mature. It's much more like cheese that ripens slowly than a souffle that flops if not consumed immediately.

Will Eyjafjallajökull force business change?

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There can't be anyone left who's not aware of the Eyjafjallajökull eruption in Iceland. Activity started on 20 March with a 'curtain of fire' fissure eruption at Fimmvörðuháls, which sits in between two glaciers, then entered a second phase on 14h April with what's known as a phreatomagmatic eruption actually under the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap. A phreatomagmatic eruption is one where magma reacts explosively with a water source, be it ground water, snow or ice, resulting in a plume of ash and steam.

I've been following the eruption closely since 20th March, mainly because my degree was in geology and volcanoes have always fascinated me. I love a good Hawai'i style eruption! When it was just a fissure eruption at Fimmvörðuháls it was basically a neat little tourist attraction, but things are much more serious now. This new phreatomagmatic eruption is a different kettle of North Atlantic cod, primarily because of the airspace closures that the ash cloud is causing.


Disrupted air travel is not just affecting tourists who are stuck abroad or whose holiday has been cancelled, it's also affecting business travel and, much more importantly, airfreight movements. Airspace closure of a day or so is one thing, but it has been six days and that is going to cause some significant problems not just for the airlines who are currently haemorrhaging cash, but for any business relying on goods transported by air, whether as part of a just-in-time supply chain or not. We may soon start to notice this as perishables like fruit and veg become restricted to locally-available and in-season produce.

It seems unlikely to me that this current eruption is going to cease any time soon. It is, of course, impossible to predict with any certainty what is going to happen, but historically Eyjafjallajökull has shown itself capable of prolonged (two year) eruptions and we need to accept that we might just be at the beginning of such a period of volcanicity.

If that's the case, then the main factor we need to keep an eye on is the weather. At the moment, the winds are bringing the ash right towards Europe, with Norway and the UK bearing the brunt of it. If the weather changes and a southerly starts to push the ash plume up towards polar regions, for example, then hopefully that'll clear the air and we'll be able to start flying. However, I think we should at the very least start to prepare for a future in which air travel is unreliable and where we suffer ongoing sporadic airspace closures. Even if the weather changes enough that we can start to fly again mid-week, there's no guarantee that we're not going to see more bans in future.

What does this have to do with social media? Well, if I were a CIO right now, I'd be looking at making sure that everyone in the company has access to video conferencing software such as iChat or Skype, particularly those who usually travel a lot. I'd also be looking at encouraging clients, partners and customers to ensure that they too have these tools installed. I would also provide everyone in my company with IM, would install one of the better wiki platforms and start encouraging people to ramp down their business travel and use social media and video calls instead.

Now, admittedly if I was a CIO I'd be doing that anyway. When people have a choice they tend to choice the status quo over change, but necessity is the mother of invention adoption. Continued sporadic air travel bans will take choice away, so it is in business' best interests to prepare now for what could be a long period of unreliable travel.

Business travel - such as for meetings, conferences, training - is something we've taken for granted. But we haven't always done business that way and there's no reason why we have to rely on face-to-face meetings now. Social media can step in to fill the gap, providing a better solution than conference calls alone. I wonder if Eyjafjallajökull is going to force the wider adoption of social tools as air travel once again becomes rare.

Event: Radical Real-Time

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The Radical Real-Time annual virtual unconference is scheduled for June 5 this year, with the theme of "Making the Most of Collaborative Worlds: Physical, Virtual and Blended Collaboration".

This Radical Real-time unconference will take place in different virtual platforms that offer possibilities to meet both asynchronously and synchronously. The synchronous part of our conference will be an array of meetings during four hours on June 5, 2010 starting at 2.00PM GMT. You are already participating in the asynchronous part of the conference by being on this Ning site. Right now, we are collaboratively putting together the conference program.

For more info, check out their Q&A page.

The Tyranny of the Explicit

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Johnnie Moore has a great podcast episode talking with Viv McWaters and Roland Harwood on how an undue focus on metrics can get in the way of real thought and understanding. I see this frequently myself, too, when people want to focus on 'return on investment' or 'success metrics' for social media at the cost of understanding the intangible results, which are actually more important than the measurable ones. There are some great nuggets, so well worth listening to. I particularly liked Johnnie's discussion of how learning has become codified in unrealistic ways and how that relates to best practice documents that don't get practised.

Telecommuting: Just do it!

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I've worked for a lot of remote clients over the years, reaching back to when I was a web designer during the Dot Com era. From the company in California for whom I designed and built a website during the late 90s, to the start-up in Montreal that I worked with last year, my professional engagements have been as often remote as on-site. I've been freelance one way or another for over ten years so working from home is second nature.

In the last decade, many of the problems with remote working have been solved. It is now trivial to do video conferencing: All you need is a decent internet connection and Skype. Transferring large files is easy using services like DropBox or DropSend. IRC (internet relay chat), which was once a staple communications channel, has been replaced by instant messenger and Yammer. The emailing round of documents for discussion has been replaced by wikis like Socialtext or PBWorks. If you're willing to be inventive, working remotely isn't technically difficult.

This certainly seems to be experience that the editorial staff of had when they decided to all work from home whilst putting together the most recent issue. Technologically, telecommuting is pretty simple and there's no reason why more companies couldn't just decide to get on with it. The social aspects of distributed working are a little bit thornier: it suits some personalities more than others and you do have to think very hard about how your emotional needs get met. I've always been pretty happy being on my own all day and getting my social fix online, or at meetings and evening events, but some people need a bit more face-to-face interaction to be happy. But homeworking needn't be all or nothing. There's no reason why more people can't do two or three days at home and the rest of the week in the office.

The benefits may well outweigh the downside too. gathered these stats from Kate Lister from the Telework Research Network, who asked what the numbers would be if 40% of the American workforce worked from home half the time:

  • $200 billion: productivity gains by American companies
  • $190 billion: savings from reduced real estate expenses, electricity bills, absenteeism, and employee turnover
  • 100 hours: per person not spent commuting
  • 50 million tons; of greenhouse gas emissions cut
  • 276 million barrels: of oil saved, or roughly 32 percent of oil imports from the Middle East
  • 1,500 lives: not lost in car accidents
  • $700 billion: total estimated savings to American businesses

The social enterprise isn't just about helping people realise the benefits of social media in the workplace, but is also about the vast possibilities in flexible working that social tools offer. And from what has experienced, it seems that there's no reason not to dive in and give it a go.

Can problems be solved by blogging?

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Davide Castelvecchi writes for the Scientific American about how mathematician Timothy Gowers from the University of Cambridge used his blog to crack a complex Naughts and Crosses (Tic-Tac-Toe) problem. In an experiment to see if "spontaneous online collaborations could crack hard mathematical problems," Gowers and commenters on his blog looked for a simpler proof for the density Hales-Jewett problem, (which asks, in a more complicated way than I am about to, how many squares can be removed from a naughts and crosses grid in N dimensions to make the game unwinnable).

It won't be surprising to anyone familiar with social media that the answer turned out to be yes, you can crack complicated problems through discussion in a blog post's comments. In this case, the new proof was derived in six weeks through hundreds of comments and was written up into a paper authored by the collective entity DHJ Polymath.

The methodology will be familiar to many bloggers too:

When trying to solve a problem, mathematicians usually make many failed attempts, in which they try lines of reasoning that can turn out to be "blind alleys," after weeks or months of work. Often those lines of reasoning that seem promising to one expert look obviously fruitless to another. So when every attempt is exposed to public feedback, the process can become much faster.

Although not groundbreaking, what this experiment does do is throw up an interesting thought about the nature of problems. Castelvecchi draws a distinction at the top of the article between problems like the density Hales-Jewett problem which cannot be solved by breaking work up into smaller tasks, and those that can. In the distributed problem solving world, Galaxy Zoo is a great example, bringing together thousands of people to successfully classify millions of images of galaxies (and that's just the start of their success!).

But the density Hales-Jewett problem also has key property that makes it amenable to collaborative solving which Castelvecchi doesn't mention: It is possible to know when you have answered it. That means that there's a specific end-point to which all participants are heading. Many problems that we seek to solve do not have such a neat solution, but the process of attempting to answer parts of the problem is valuable in and of itself. Wikipedia, for example, attempts to solve the problem of collating and verifying information and although it will never be "finished", the process results in a very valuable information set. Some problems are even "wicked problems" which change their nature as we try to solve them. Wicked problems, and other problems with no solution, may yet still benefit from exploration.

So, we end up with this handy matrix:

Problem Matrix

Social media or specialised collaborative platforms can be used to in all instances to help find a solution to the problem, if it is possible to do so. Otherwise, it can at least provide an opportunity to discuss the problem which in itself is a valuable exercise. The only thing that surprises me is that more companies don't turn to social media, internally or externally, to help them define, discuss and possibly solve business problems.

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This page is a archive of recent entries in the Collaboration category.

Blogging is the previous category.

Community is the next category.

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