04 Jan The year of working together (really!)
It’s the New Year and time for pundits everywhere to predict every possibility that 2006 will bring. I assembled a list as well, and the more I looked at it, the more it became obvious that each item led to one uber-trend for 2006.
I share this with a minor tremor of trepidation. I worked in IT publishing through the late ’80s, when each year was declared – with increasing certainty – as the “Year of the LAN.” What I’m about to say may seem a little like that. After all, this particular issue has been the centerpiece of more than one company’s makeover for a decade or more. Countless start-ups have come to tackle the challenge once and for all. And still, here I am, at the dawn of a new year, declaring 2006 as the Year of Collaboration.
I know – it sounds a little anti-climatic. You were hoping for something a bit more sexy, something brand new, something we could inflate for dramatic capital returns. Collaboration may not sound very sexy, but that’s probably because you’re thinking about collaboration in its old, exhausted form.
In the early ’90s we called it “groupware” and companies such as Lotus (with Notes) and Novell (with Groupwise) staked their future on it. The companies had grand visions of improving worker productivity by letting us work together more efficiently. In reality, the vast majority of groupware implementations were elaborate e-mail systems with very useful shared address books.
A generation later, new collaboration “spaces” were offered up, providing work teams a “virtual online meeting place” to keep notes, exchange files, and monitor projects. We also got a first dose of automated collaboration when Amazon.com and other online retailers took up “collaborative filtering” technologies to recommend additional purchases to their customers.
While all these technologies have improved dramatically since their earliest days, at some point we have to acknowledge that there is a significant difference between shared databases and online workspaces and the actual business of collaboration. By its very definition, collaboration means people working together to achieve some outcome that, presumably, would be less significant and perhaps not even possible, if tackled by any one person alone.
That hardly qualifies the next 12 months as the “Year of Collaboration,” you might say. But, alas, real collaboration is afoot and real collaboration will provide the breakthrough we so desperately need to harness all that information that is so elusively “at our fingertips.”
True collaboration isn’t a best attempt to emulate a conference room or file cabinet. It isn’t the assumption that if people like you like X, then you’ll certainly like X, too. Collaboration is people working together, and that is beginning to happen in spades.
Certainly, social networks come to mind. Among the earliest of these, Friendster, was all about friends helping friends get a date. Newer social browsing tools – a number of which we’ll see next month at DEMO 2006, are all about friends helping friends find information online. There a number of less obvious examples. Among the more effective anti-spam systems were those, such as Cloudmark, that asked people to identify and report spam. With enough people collaborating on the problem, these systems could shut down spam before it reached your network.
This latter type of collaboration will take hold and grow substantially in the coming year. People will work together on tough problems, and their collective labors will deliver substantial benefit to themselves and to others. Current information systems – call it the Internet or the Web or even private corporate data – are quickly surpassing the capabilities of algorithms alone to identify and deliver appropriate answers to those who need them. No one company can deploy enough manpower to supplement even the best algorithms with human intelligence. But, people – millions of people – working collectively can.
It seems simple enough, but that’s the big breakthrough: people working individually and collaboratively are the value-add in a network of intelligent machines and massive data stores. And, somehow, that seems like a very optimistic way to begin the New Year.
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