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July 06, 2007

New Models Of Work: The Individual Is The New Group, Reprised

by Stowe Boyd

I have been talking with a wide range of companies recently that are developing business "Web 2.0" apps. I put the word in scare quotes, because not many of the core principles (or at least what I perceive to be the core principles) of Web 2.0 are showing up in many of these apps.

How many web apps have I seen so recently that provide some sort of intranet, supposedly for small/medium businesses? Way too many, and with way too little differentiation, and hardly any new thoughts about business.

First of all, I believe that because of the way that we live and work the individual is the new group (see my original post on this from January). Stated differently, apps that purport to help us order our work should start by solving the problems of the individual, realizing that one of the issues involved in work is sharing with others.

So, I am amazed to see how many apps continue the old, old ways, where membership in groups is the primary (if not only) notion at work. All of these apps that support projects as a collection of folders into which we move documents and people get access to them through group membership.


Not that this model doesn't 'work'. Obviously we have been able to get work done, and to share things, using this model. It's been around for decades.

But I am more interested in bottom-up organization schemes, both at the interpersonal level and at the tool level.

Just some examples of these ideas, and a few notes about tools I have been trying to use:

  • Contrast the notion of Gmail's 'labels' -- which are essentially tags -- and the typical use of folders and categories in these intranet solutions. In Gmail, I can tag any email with dozens of tags, if I want, so I can aggregate and find it in a variety of ways. An email from a particular client is denoted with the company name, a location, and perhaps a project, task, or issue. As a result, I can pull up all emails related to London, specific project, or the topic of 'conceptual design' independent of project. With folders, things are put in one place, and can't be sliced in other ways.
  • Parts versus Wholes -- I favor (in principle, since no one has built something like this) treating everything I am fooling with as miscellaneous (thank you, Dr Weinberger, wherever you are), basically a big pile of parts. Here's a picture, here's an email, here's some notes on some topic, here's a to-do item, and here's a file (which has parts inside, like slides or sections or spreadsheet pages). What I'd like to be able to do is define assemblages of all the things wearing some tag, or defined by some tag algebra. Imagine pulling together an on the fly assemblage of all the bits in my heap that are tagged 'conceptual modeling' and 'public', and creating a workspace with that. At the same time, many of those public bits on the topic of conceptual modeling might be included in private assemblages, but they would still be public.
  • Flow, Traffic, and kinds of Parts -- The explosion of interest in Twitter, Facebook, Jaiku, and related flow apps turns certain premises on their ear, but even most users seem unable to articulate what is going on here. One factor is the shift to information flowing through defined social relationships in an asymmetric fashion, away from the symmetric and closed groups of the pre-2.0 era. Another factor is the flow of various parts, not wholes, thought the apps. For example, Facebook does not embed my blog as an element in a portal presentation. Instead, new posts appear as they pop into my RSS feed: a flow of parts instead of embedding the whole. Now, a gazillion sorts of bits are starting to flow through Facebook's traffic: new slideshows, new answers to questions, new events created, and so on. And we see a similar emergence of types of traffic in Jaiku and Pownce.
  • Mobile versus Stabile -- The other shift (very early) is toward pulling information from the traffic of these flow apps, and doing appropriate things with it. (I have appropriated Calder's terms based on the different kinds of statuary: those that move and those that don't.) If someone updates an event that I am interested in, and that I have added to my calendar. I think what I want is not automated updating a la iCal subscription, but instead seeing the change go by in a highlighted way, allowing me to acknowledge it or reject it. For example, a smart desktop companion app could be reading my Facebook traffic just looking for event information, and I might get a Growlr update popping on my desktop. I want to stay still, working, and have things of interest find their way to me. The world of browsing, where people are mobile and information is stabile, looks very 20th century.
  • So a wish list, of sorts:
    • Work Management tools that start with individuals and bits, and work outward to assemblages and networks.
    • Tools that allow us to be stabile and make more and more critical information mobile, not vice versa.
    • New models of access and visibility based on networks and tags, not groups and folders.
    • Agreed upon conventions for flow apps to be able to interoperate, not just platform plays like Facebook. I don't necessarily want one platform with ten thousand services streaming through it. I want to be able to use best of breed solutions, and have them stream together the way I want. As an example, I use Dopplr now to define where I will be geographically, and I stream that information into a specific calendar in Google. I might want to stream things so that my planned travels to various locations would lead to postings in Facebook local networks, and I would like to stream responses from those networks back to the trips in Dopplr. Obviously, this sort of gasketry is impossible today, but given enough interest by the community, and motivations among the developers for maximum network effects might push things in this direction.

At any rate, I am amazed that no one has started to move away from folders and documents in the intranet space, and I am amazed on the other hand that consumer-oriented frenzy in these flow apps hasn't translated manifested itself in a new metaphor for work based on flow. I guess it's going to take a while, and perhaps a couple of index apps, before these ideas can get off the ground.

If there is anyone out there pushing these ideas -- and I don't mean just another 'dead easy to use' old school intranet app -- please contact me. I am willing to believe.