posted 10 Sep 2008 in Volume 12 Issue 1
The knowledge: Stowe Boyd
Constructed with Social Tools
By Jenny Ambrozek
Stowe Boyd’s in-person presence at conferences cannot be ignored. He wears a hat which Chris Carfi via Twitter explains “is not a beret, it’s a cap turned backwards”. Nor can his industry influence be underestimated. Stowe added the term ‘social tools’ to our lexicon in a 1999 e-mal newsletter article ‘Social Tools: Business in the Post-Everything Economy’.
As a blogger since 1999, meme leader and frequent speaker, Stowe Boyd provokes thinking about social tools and their impact on business, media, and society about which (by his own admission in the ‘About’ section in his Message blog,) he is obsessed. As Toronto-based wiki consultant Martin Cleaver contributed via a blog comment: “I’ve met Stowe a few times now over the last couple of years and he is one of a few individuals whose opinions I will actively seek.”
Doing this Boyd’s way
Why should organisations pay attention? What are social tools and the new ways of working that Stowe Boyd promotes?
Honouring Stowe’s passion for social tools, this profile addresses those questions by drawing on insights gathered from those who know him best, ‘socially’ via blogs, Twitter, tags and feeds. It also includes an in-person interview conducted recently at an
Boyd defines social tools as “software intended to shape culture”. In 1999 under the heading: The Rise of Social Tools, Stowe wrote: “The big story of the transformation of business culture isn’t the props – the servers, networks, ten million web sites, and all the information lying around in databases in HTML – but what people are saying to each other and how they coordinate their actions, behaviour and goals.
The big story, Stowe believes, is that the global computer network is an enormous chat room, enabling us to collaborate in unexpected, complex, and novel ways. “We are experimenting with new social systems that to an unprecedented degree involve software and hardware.”
New approach to software development
Stowe saw a new category of software emerging, software intended to augment social systems. Not to change the company inadvertently, like e-mail did, when the electronic analog of interoffice mail became something else, grew into something else by changing the way people communicated, and led a change in the structure of the company. No, this generation of software is intentional, designed from the start to guide human behaviour into new paths and patterns, to counter prevailing ways of interaction.
“I call these social tools: software intended to shape business culture.” – Stowe Boyd 1999.
In a blog post, Patti Anklam explains how Stowe Boyd does not just promote social tools and their value, he lives them. “Stowe is immersed in the technologies and committed to living his life and displaying his connections, schedule, photos, thoughts, his entire (or so it seems) social milieu online using a collection of tools including blogs, Facebook, Dopplr, Twitter and Flickr. Practicing what he preaches, Stowe is a passionate advocate for a world in which we truly value social capital.”
And why is that important? Patti Anklam continues: “It will happen …t hat having a larger number of connections is more important at work than simply doing a job well – or in Stowe’s words from his Reboot9 Conference presentation titled Flow: “Productivity is second to connectivity: network productivity trumps personal productivity.” That is to say, the more connections you have the more resources you have to bring to a task: all work can be co-work.”
The coolest guy
William Anderson, adds via Twitter that Stowe goes beyond using social tools to display his connections – to acting. “Stowe’s a connector. He connects people with people; people with ideas; ideas with ideas. He’s the thought leader who has people like Nick Barker, E20portal.com co-founder, naming Stowe, whom he did not previously know, ‘”the coolest guy at the Enterprise 2.0 conference.”
The ideas flowing through networks around Stowe Boyd have been stored in a myriad of blog posts through the years. Since the 1999 meme ‘social tools, other themes causing blogosphere buzz and attention include: ‘The individual is the new group’; ‘Social = Me First’; ‘We build our tools and they shape us. Lifestreaming is shaping web culture’.
A blog post by Matt Balara even points to the existence of a ‘Boyd’s Law’ that challenges us to move from personal to network productivity (the effectiveness of a person’s entire network: contacts, contacts of contacts) to assess the benefits of social tools. Via e-mail Stowe explains that as “we have moved from hierarchical, top-down, centralised work – (Henry Ford’s assembly lines or the pre-Internet global corporation) – to networked, bottom-up, edgewise work, personal productivity has been trumped by network productivity.”
Inspired by a graduate school queuing theory study, Boyd’s Law states: “Connected people will naturally gravitate toward an ethic where they will trade personal productivity for connectedness. They will interrupt their own work to help a contact make progress. Ultimately, in a bottom-up fashion, this leads to the network as a whole making more progress than if each individual tries to optimise personal productivity.”
Interviewing Stowe Boyd in a hotel lobby delivers more than imagined. The conversation is punctuated with Stowe waving to passers-by. Is there anyone at this conference Stowe does not know? Given his 3,920 Twitter followers, perhaps not.
From ‘big iron’ to social software
What we learn is that Stowe’s passion for social tools is founded on significant big iron computer development. A BS degree from the
Today Stowe Boyd’s deep software development experience and Boyd’s Law principles are being applied to the latest generation of social tools. These tools are enabling people to work more effectively and collaboratively.
Workstreamr, is a start-up announced March 2008 via Stowe’s blog – Work Made Social™. He explains the underlying principles about which he has been thinking for a very long time: “The combination of social media, professional networking, and ‘streaming’ – information being directed from applications to the user proactively via a desktop client – we call workstreaming.” In practice these principles translate to tool functionality including:
Inviting others to collaborate in project workspaces where tasks, milestones, event, and discussions are shared in a blog-like way, although password-protected;
By ‘following’ friends, colleagues, and organisations. Any project you are involved in is automatically followed;
Organisations – companies, non-profits, universities, and so on – can likewise publish profiles, allowing users and other organisations to remain aware of activities, events, calls-for-proposals, and hiring or consulting opportunities.
Workstreamr is the future of work as Stowe Boyd sees it, uniting “web-based project collaboration and professional networking” to provide a “more powerful context for getting work accomplished collaboratively”.
Nine years after first writing about “social tools” Stowe Boyd was at
Future is for ‘edglings’
However, Stowe was also at the conference to talk about ‘Web Culture and the New Ethos of Work’. His premise speaking to a packed room: “As more workers are web denizens, and are just as likely to consider themselves affiliated through web relationships as work relationships, what are the impacts on the norms and mores of the new workplace? How have our perspectives on time, collaboration, productivity, organisational structure, strategy, and success changed? What are the microcultural impacts, like meeting etiquette, and the macrocultural impacts, like bottom-up decision making? What are the generational flash points? How should the individual and the organisation plan for the ongoing changes?”
In a conversation following, Stowe talked about what the future holds as the impact of the revolution in social tools in the consumer space flows further into enterprises. He sees the potential as significant as the days of re-engineering that removed levels of management: “Social media – many-to-many, person-to-person communications and relationship matrices that will skirt current largely top down models.” He predicts a greater hollowing out of companies, and less centralised control with more decentralised decision-making to ‘edglings’. “Everything has to be bottom up. There’s a real tension, conflict between Web 2.0 and social apps and how businesses are currently structured. It may take 10-15 years for fullest impact but it will be really consequential.”
His closing advice: Keep eyes on the horizon. Take tools and practices into organisations. Make it happen.
The video interview with Stowe Boyd is at YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=US5C5U1raM0. If you are blogging or Twittering comments on this article please tag #IKStowe to join the wider discussion. Learn more about Stowe Boyd at www.stoweboyd.com.
Jenny Ambrozek is founder of SageNet LLC, US, a consulting practice helping companies architect participation.