Recovering lost group communications skills
Richard Cross describes how the study of communications in societies untouched by cyberspace has enabled the rediscovery of lost communications instincts and the invention of a new patented technology for knowledge dissemination in enterprises.
Photo: The Lighthouse on St Agnes in the Scilly Isles
Lessons from a Small island - where Social Networking meets Sociomimetics
Speaking at the Emerging Technology Conference this year in San Diego ethnographer Charles Armstrong’s work on natural communication patterns on one of the Scilly Isles (UK) demonstrates the continued need to develop systems for collaboration that rely on an interdisciplinary perspective rather than the spectre of technocratic imperialism.
Mentored by the late Lord Michael Young, the UK’s most formidable developer of social ideas and institutions last century and inventor (among other things of the word ‘meritocracy’), Armstrong is an ethnographer by background and an entrepreneur in outlook He describes his work as ‘sociomimetics ‘ part of a growing field that parallels Biomimetics and complements the interdisciplinary roots of bioteams.
Disturbed by personal experience of the dysfunctional nature of corporate systems in 1999 Armstrong set out on his quest as a participant observer to study ‘how people naturally communicate and organize in an unnatural environment’ - one deprived of the trappings and technology of cyberspace.
Recovering lost communications instincts
Armstrong’s quest led to a year in St Agnes, an island with 72 inhabitants. As participant he helped establish an initiative to support IT related skills and as voyeur observed how the locals interacted and shared information in their daily interactions as well as when ‘when the boat came in’.
In the case where Friday's boat from St. Mary was cancelled, there might be six people in the village that needed to know. Armstrong found consistently they would all have that information within hours, even without a formal distribution system, and there would be no ‘verbal’ spam for uninterested people. This feat was accomplished without any formal or even conscious processes. The paradox from this and other knowledge sharing situations observed on the island by Armstrong was that whilst the employees of a typical corporation have the same native instincts and intelligence they seem to be lost from use in the digital age.
Fundamental communications principles
According to Armstrong whilst technology has modified the ‘command and control’ mindset ‘formal structures and electronic information systems are still crippling organisations’. For him the central issue is how Information Systems can harness social behaviour to manage information better.
Prompted by experience in St Agnes a new technique for distributing items through a social network has been patented.
Armstrong also formulated a set of fundamental principles which, if successfully applied, and scaled could enable corporate communication in a more meaningful fashion. Some of the principles adopted include interlinked social mechanisms:
- The requirement to understand useful social mechanisms in the enterprise
- The nature of implicit authorization parameters within groups or communities
- How Groups pool intelligence on relay targets
- How Groups can function as targets for relaying
- How Relaying is activated by semantic triggers
- The notion of trigger thresholds governed by social network and the need to access activity, content and user preference data from across the whole corporate ecosystem
The Trampoline tool
The software called Trampoline, http://www.trampolinesystems.com/ resides in a company's existing computer network, examining emails, documents, anything it can find. Trampoline looks for trigger words and phrases that recur frequently, then, like island gossip, disseminates the information on to the people for whom it will be relevant. If one of the semantic triggers matches the interests of another person on the network, that new bit of data is added to a weekly e-mail of interesting items sent to that person. This alert mechanism mimics a core, element in natural communications: the "delight" of discovery, the joy of serendipity. Users can also set levels of authorization on their data, to ensure intimate messages don’t inadvertently become ‘broadcast news’.
The Trampoline rollout has enjoyed early success, most significantly as part the U.K.'s Foreign Office called the Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership, or REEEP but also in the media. In the case of REEP some 3,800 users work in the virtual-island setting and the systems helps collaboration between many countries, cultures and companies in a virtual environment.
Making technology bend to human needs
Defined as a qualitative description of human social processes based on fieldwork, a holistic framework based on an idea that systems properties cannot be understood independently of each other, ethnography is all about observing ‘real life in a natural setting.’ Ethnography has a chequered reputation in the academic world. In the business world, associated with Anthropology as a ‘brand’ it has had a significant impact in the development of the computer industry. Xerox was a pioneer in employing anthropologists at it research centres. There Lucy Suchman, ( now at Lancaster University) when at its Palo Alto Research Centre employed the techniques to help define the field of Computer Supported Work and was the first non computer scientist to be awarded the Benjamin Franklin award for influence on computer science.
Mark Weiser, one of the founders of 'Ubiquitous Computing' famously remarked that the computer field should be concerned with making “machines fit the human environment, instead of forcing humans to enter theirs”. Trampoline has been designed along those principles to give individuals control to shape the system around their needs, strengthen their networks of trust and draw on a broader pool of information to nurture positive social dynamics.
Armstrong’s mentor Lord Young exemplified Max Weber’s principle ‘Only by attempting the impossible can we discover what’s possible’. In the light of Armstrong’s initial success it is clear that learning from the natural setting of a small island has significant potential to shape the corporate world.
About the author
Richard Cross is Managing Partner of MCHGlobal and can be contacted at email@example.com
Richard specialises in strategic organisational change and corporate transformation. A behavioural scientist by background, as director of MCHglobal he has consulted in over 30 countries with corporate and governmental clients in helping them achieve peak performance.
On the editorial board of Inside Knowledge since inception, Richard perspective on the impact of the Knowledge Economy will feature in the forthcoming book 14 Champions of the New Order. Richard's core interests are in helping organisational adapt to the organic and dynamic business environment of today where intangible dimensions and 'soft' variables such as interpretations, intentions, and relationships yield concrete results.
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