posted 1 Oct 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 2
The promise of computer conferencing
The original idea for computer conferencing surfaced in the 1980s and promised to diminish the need to commute and travel, save time, and reduce expenses. But as face-to-face meetings are still a big part of corporate life, Jan Wyllie believes it is time to re-examine the technology behind computer conferencing. Here he explains how taxonomies are a critical missing element and outlines a case study from the RSA.
The time has come to use computer conferencing seriously – not so much the synchronous conferencing where people interact during an agreed period of time, as in video conferencing and chat rooms, but the old asynchronous variety where people make their written contributions in their own time.
The basic technology, which is all computer conferencing needs, is internet standard ASCII e-mail plus hyperlinks, which have been around for many years. Today, machines are smaller, screens are better, files are bigger and connection is (usually) easier, but the essential software for organising and searching ASCII text documents is the same. However, organisations have failed to exploit this basic technology and have not even come close to realising its promise.
People’s attitude today is that computer conferencing – as a way of significantly reducing the need for face-to-face meetings – is a tool that has been tried, but has not significantly changed the way the people go about their business. It has failed despite the funding of myriad projects by the EU and national governments. The packed motorways and commuter trains are ample testimony to this lost opportunity.
Currently, the dominant patterns of people’s working days are the same as they have been since Victorian times: people leave their homes and local communities to commute to work in offices and factories. In order to make this way of life possible, inestimable sums have been spent over the last century or so to build and maintain vast transport infrastructures. As with computer conferencing, the basic technology involved has not changed. The only difference now is that people can travel faster and further than they could 100 years ago, thereby creating a lot more pollution and destroying habitats, while suffering from higher levels of stress.
There was a brief time at the beginning of the 1990s, before the internet and mobile phones boomed, when ‘cyber-pioneers’ had a vision of how technology could be used for behaviour innovation, rather than just knowledge innovation. It was a time of idealism, as it could then still be called. They hoped that computer-conferencing technology could enable a new era of home working and tele-cottage industries, which, when combined with progressive non-hierarchical management practice, would free people – and the environment – from the Victorian mass-transit mode of living.
Clearly, events did not happen that way. Instead of minimising unnecessary travel, digital technologies were used to make people more mobile. No doubt it was thought that the economic pay off would be greater: good for both the new electronic industries and the old industries, such as road building, automotive and aviation industries, and all the associated manufacturing that makes people’s current behaviour patterns possible.
The problems associated with mobile modes of living, however, have not gone away. In fact, they are getting worse. In the UK at least, the mass transport infrastructure that underpins our Victorian work patterns and lifestyles is full to breaking point and the government does not have the money to fix it, while people cannot afford to pay for it without massive government subsidies.
There seems to be no escape from this conundrum, which makes the future prospects even worse than people’s current lamentable experience. Work-related travel is already more expensive and uncomfortable. Terror threats and security procedures are making the experience fraught and unpleasant. Delays and jams are becoming the norm, rather than the exception.
More competitive economic conditions are also forcing companies to cut back on expenses, reduce their overheads, use their employees’ time more efficiently, and be more agile in their decision making.
Originally, in the 1980s, tele-working using computer-conferencing techniques promised that it could significantly reduce the need to commute and travel. It also promised to save time, and reduce overheads and expenses. So, given current deteriorating conditions, it must be time to reconsider what went wrong. Only then is it possible to see ways to overcome the difficulties.
More than words
People mostly communicate their thoughts in words. Words are the raw material of computer conferencing. Luckily, virtually all e-mail words using the alphabet and sent over the internet conform to the ASCII standard, so the cyber world started with the enormous advantage of a universal standard format. The tragic irony is that this advantage was then immediately thrown away, as all those beautifully standardised e-mail texts were automatically imported into proprietary e-mail formats, such as Outlook, which lack the instant word-search functionality that would make them manageable. In Outlook, for example, perfectly searchable ASCII text has been turned into an awkward mixture of primitive string searching, manual folder management and obscure views that often make scrolling through messages the easiest but most infuriating search option.
Of course, there are rafts of web-based conferencing systems. They all work differently with proprietary file formats; they are incompatible and require specialised knowledge and training to use, while offering varying degrees of ‘searchability’. After a while, users find that they are too much trouble.
One of the great myths of the IT world is that there is both ‘structured data’ and ‘unstructured text’. Structured data is the business of IT professionals, while text has always been an SEP (someone else’s problem). One of the possible reasons for this myth is that if data needs structuring and storing, there will be work and sales for relational-database vendors, programmers and consultants. However, the management of text in a structured way has been virtually ignored, except by specialist librarian and information-science academics. The growing interest in taxonomies is finally putting the management of text information under the spotlight.
The secret is that text can be used to structure text without the massive overhead involved in programming relational database-management systems and the like. With simple text retrieval tools, original texts can be as structured as much as anyone can want using multi-faceted hierarchical taxonomies, or any other associations that might be deemed desirable. To illustrate the point, even standard e-mails are not merely unstructured text. The ASCII e-mail itself has a structure, consisting of elements, such as sender, date, subject and so on, which add value to the text base.
Using internally structured text and standard text-retrieval tools, the job at the text-data coalface becomes more like an exercise in simple English composition, rather than one of computer programming. It means that knowledge managers can take direct control of text data sets, as well as save on expensive database-management systems.
A good example of the basic text-retrieval software functionality needed to manage a computer conference using Outlook, for example, is Sleuthhound Pro that uses the ultra-fast ‘binary chop’ search algorithm on alphabetically sorted indexes of the full text, which should be standard on all computer systems, but is almost unheard of (see www.isleuthhound.com).
To date, the most successful computer conferencing has been among communities of enthusiasts and some communities of practice. Processes are ad hoc and chaotic. For example, people go off in different directions; there is repetition; there are in-jokes, tracts of irrelevance, and much time and energy spent on personalised debates on the rights and wrongs of a point, the facts of which have not been established. Nevertheless, these online conferencing communities have persisted among special interest groups for many years and will continue to do so. See www.cix.co.uk for an example of one of the oldest and best.
This anarchic process yields interesting facts and insights, and some learning, but does not lend itself to the more formal needs of the organisational workplace. This is especially true for decision making, which, for very good reasons, takes place through conversations at face-to-face meetings that are themselves structured using a type of rough taxonomy called an agenda and strict rules of procedure. Nevertheless, most face-to-face meetings also suffer from their share of time wasting, jokes and irrelevant discussion.
The question is why can’t people agree a formal process for gathering the relevant information, analysing it, discussing it and finally making decisions without requiring people to meet in person? A major part of the answer is because it has not been tried, except on rare occasions, such as during the RSA’s Tomorrow’s Company inquiry (see case study on page 28).
Ignorance about the role of taxonomies in knowledge management has been one of the major reasons why computer conferencing has not yet been used more effectively as a management tool. Even Lotus Notes applications have fallen out of use because agreed taxonomies and rules of practice failed to become established. Once people see the sense-making potential of taxonomy working in general, the use of taxonomies in formal computer conferencing is likely to follow.
Computer conferencing can:
- Give everyone a voice - Personal charisma and loud voices, rather than the facts, are no longer the major influences on decisions;
- Provide common focus – People address the same questions in the same space with an acceptable minimum knowledge about the issues involved;
- Enable overviews, summaries and updates – Knowledge can be assembled in convenient chunks that are easy to assimilate;
- Organise content – People will know what they need to know, as well as access it easily using combinations of taxonomies and free-text retrieval;
- Avoid repetition – It is clear what has already been covered and easy to update people who have fallen behind;
- Reduce omissions – People know what aspects have been covered and can see new aspects to cover using items that do not fit within the taxonomy. The creation and analysis of a ‘don’t know’ file is crucial for evolving a taxonomy;
- Create complete audit trails – The process takes the minutes itself, and is transparent and easy to follow. Process ethics aimed at ensuring fairness, balance and accuracy are applied more easily.
For behaviour innovation, the taxonomy working process requires the application of a collaborative discipline based on an easily learnt set of literacy and editorial skills to describe and classify knowledge.
While much of the repetitive classification work based on proper nouns and simple rules can now be automated, the mental processes involved in creating and using a conceptual classification are intimately involved in what the encapsulated knowledge means. Trying to automate this kind of judgement-based classification is confusing, dangerous and irresponsible.
Apart from investing in reports, research and books on corporate taxonomy creation and finding professional taxonomists (who are very thin on the ground), how can organisations use e-mail and text-database technology to turn computer conferencing into a real substitute for physical meetings?
In an article of this length, it is only possible to give a taste of the work involved. Still, the most important skills are within the natural human repertoire of intellectual abilities. The back of an envelope is always a good place to start this kind of undertaking
- Establish the purpose of a conference – This is easier said than done. Tip: concentrate on sustainable outcomes;
- Devise the first draft of a conference taxonomy – This is where finding someone with some pertinent experience is most useful. Warning: it is generally not a skill taught to IT professionals;
- Consult users on taxonomy – At this point there is no substitute for clarity of presentation and good listening. Users are the ones who will know what has been left out and what is not important;
- Seed taxonomy with key information – Once a starting taxonomy is agreed, enter the information that participants should know before they comment. Good editorial skills are required;
- Solicit more pertinent facts from users – Keep facts and opinions separate. The difference is that facts have source references, opinion is personal thinking;
- Ask open questions based on facts – An open question has no right/wrong, agree/disagree, yes/no answer. It is a question that opens an area of doubt and solicits a thoughtful response. This is the occasion for personal thinking. Advice: consult an expert on open questioning;
- Synthesise responses – Both similarities and differences are highlighted, ideally by disinterested third-party reporters;
- Reflect and comment on syntheses – Groups can achieve a new level of meta-perspective on their collective thinking process. A group becomes self-reflective. Jargon: second-order cybernetics;
- Iterate at will – The process can be iterated until a decision is reached, whether by consensus or vote. If there is no consensus, the obvious way path to follow is to it to a vote.
Put this way, the process may appear to be quite long and drawn out. However, compared with the money, energy and time spent on decisions made in traditional face-to-face meetings, the taxonomy-driven computer conference must surely be cheaper and simpler to organise. Moreover, money that would be spent outside the organisation on items such as airline tickets, would instead be spent internally on developing new editorial and classification skills.
The greatest objection to remote working, as a real behaviour innovation, has always been that people simply like to meet and that people do not change, or rather they do not change unless they have to, often through some kind of economic imperative. This time around, computer conferencing could be the tool at the heart of organisational survival in competitive trading conditions. If this is the case, then the most important ingredient for the success of the process will come into play: it will be taken seriously and, not just as an interesting option to try.
Case study: Network Views
“The RSA Tomorrow's Company Network was privileged to have the support of Network Views, a fascinating and very user-friendly means of facilitating dialogue and spreading novel ideas that provoked equally lively response,” Raymond Thomas, former Chancellor of Bath University, 1994.
In 1993, the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacture & Commerce (RSA) in the UK put its 250-year reputation for innovative influential thinking behind an inquiry into the role of business in the new millennium. As a first step, RSA programme director Mark Goyder convened a group of top, forward-looking UK companies to sponsor research and thinking into emerging business issues. At a conference to announce the good news to RSA Fellows and other interested parties, the guests, who were mostly very successful business innovators in their own right, spontaneously formed workgroups in order to join the thinking. So the Tomorrow's Company Network was formed.
The initial – and many say the most challenging – view of the inquiry was expressed in a detailed discussion document by Goyder, called The Interim Report. As a service to the network, the information management workgroup undertook to conduct a collaborative conference into what network members thought about the content of the report. The conference was conducted by mail and fax since at the time the vast majority of network members had barely heard of the internet, let alone used it as an interactive conferencing tool. Nevertheless this document was designed to be on the web.
The result of the collaborative insight process is some very cogent thinking on the issues companies, their owners and their customers must all address in the face of powerful technical drivers and environmental imperatives.
Inquiry-network members were asked to write down what they thought were the most important questions and opinions that the report stimulated in them on a response form. Unlike polling techniques, the questions were open ended on purpose to ensure both common and original views. Responses were not supposed to be essays, but reactions, thoughts and feelings. In addition to the paper journal version, both original thoughts and synthesis were classified and stored in what we then called electronic-book format for use by people with Windows computers. See www.trendmonitor.com/commissions-RSA/index.htm for the complete set of Network Views.
The method used to synthesise responses was content analysis. Content analysis is a well tested technique for making significant inferences from communications. The method is used widely in academia and by intelligence analysts, but not much (yet) within business contexts.
The table of contents of Tomorrow’s Company: The Role of Business in the Changing World: Interim Report – The Case for the Inclusive Approach by Goyder was used as the organising taxonomy for what must have been one of the world’s first virtual conferences.
Its top-level sections were:
The changing horizon;
The immediate position;
The stakeholders: business and its changing relationships;
Current UK thinking and its limitations;
Making the choice.
Sections break down one more level, as in:
The stakeholders: business and its changing relationships
- Customers and suppliers;
- People and employment;
- Providers of capital.
Under customers and suppliers is an example of the final synthesis of what the inquiry-network members thought.
The stakeholders: business and its changing relationships
a. Customer acquisition and retention
An ethical bonding
This will be a "key predictor of profitability" as loyal customers spend more and are cheaper to administer, but to acquire them and keep them loyal, they will have to be "astonished, surprised and delighted".
Summary: Customer loyalty is seen to depend on relationships like trust, co-creation, innovation and continuous learning with a high regard for questions of ethics and values. The warning is given that "drastic" changes in customer needs are a threat to these relationships.
Responses: The phrase "astonished, surprised and delighted", used to describe the desired reaction of a customer to a product or service, is seen to be only possible if the culture in which we reside actively seeks "innovations, technologies and design", although the phrase is said to be "an extreme response to customer acquisition" and "becoming meaningless as phrases like this are overused".
Other key factors that appear to be addressed by the text are the need for a "switch from adversarial to long-term collaboration [using] high technology", and "conditions where UK businesses satisfy this criteria". The relationship between customer and supplier was perceived as "important in the context of trying to provide continuity and security based on trusting relationships between company, employees and customers", and a need to understand the relevance of "continuous learning", "co-design", "co-marketing", and "customer knowledge". The challenge for management in this arena is said to be the urge to be "authentic and then to (actually) make it happen", and "be aware of drastic changes in customer expectations", while only "existing to fulfil customer needs". It is predicted that "customers will first turn and then return to those companies they respect for their ethics and values".
A growing phenomenon
Closer relationships will involve customers and suppliers in the design and delivery of products and services in order to enhance each party's competitiveness.
Summary: The perception is that partnership relations are already beginning to dominate the supply chain.
Responses: Although it is noted that "partnership in supply is with us already", there is, for the most part, agreement that collaborative relations will increase. The comments are made that "the concentration should be on wealth creation", and "the forces behind it should be information, communication and knowledge" as "sources of competitive adaptation", as well as "closer relationships", "joint ventures" and "exclusive partnerships". However "supply networks will dominate the marketplace".
Not for everybody
Customers want to be treated as individuals with offers targeted personally at them.
Summary: Although the ability to customise is seen to be increasing with the adoption of information technology, it is not perceived to be universally appropriate. There is disagreement on whether the pendulum will continue to swing towards greater choice and individualisation of products.
Responses: Respondents tended to suggest that customisation is a "matter of strategy and compassion", and "a matter of general education and information, but not a value to be pursued by everybody". Customisation should, it is said, "vary between industries, but companies need to take advantage of technological or other opportunities for increasing customisation". It is believed that customisation "will grow as information technology copes with the management control of the 'variety' required". Although some respondents felt that "the pendulum will begin to swing the other way from (individual-based) society", others were confident that "products will also be built to order, not for stock, allowing for more customisation", which will be achieved by "high quality design, operation and maintainability of products".
d. Consumer concerns
"Vigilante consumer" to take over from government
Companies will understand and address these, thereby reducing the need for regulation.
Summary: Competition and supplier relationships are seen to be critical in addressing consumer concerns, as are environmental and green issues. The need for government regulation is accepted, but the "vigilante consumer" is expected to keep company behaviour ahead of government regulation.
Responses: It is emphasised that "companies must address" these concerns and implement competition in "high quality design, operations and maintainability, plus reliability of products and after sales service". The "supplier relationship" is seen as "equally critical" because the focus should be on "the market place", representing the need for the concerns to be "fed into a continuous design update process". It is said that "environmental/green issues will become more important". It is thought "doubtful" whether there is a need to "eliminate regulation" in the areas of "financial, environmental and human resources". The idea is put forward that "companies will [have to] strive to do better than the minimum of regulatory requirements in response to the vigilante consumer".
e. Additional questions
Q. Is the customer relationship the defining relationship for tomorrow's company?
Summary: Seen as the "starting point", but not a defining relationship.
Responses: Most respondents believed that the balance of defining relationships will be "different for each company", but "so will relations to government, employees and local community" and links to the marketplace. The "supplier relationship" is also seen in this context as "equally critical". The customer relationship, however, is regarded as the "starting point for the company".
Q. Are there other major changes occurring in the customer relationship?
Summary: Customers are more informed and independent minded but less loyal.
Responses: "Increasing competition and choice" as well as "increased willingness to walk away and buy elsewhere" are the perceived factors that might "weaken customer loyalty". It is said that the customer is joining the "information age", and will, therefore "become more informed and a more active part of the processes of the marketplace", allowing "customer involvement in the enterprise through bonuses linked to participation". The point is made that "customers are beginning to remember that they are also producers\employers\members of society as well as consumers".
For the full collection of Network Views see www.trendmonitor.com/commissions-RSA/index.htm. The views collected here were well ahead of their time, and were even more relevant to our times now.
For a full overview and guide to taxonomies, see Ark Group’s ‘Taxonomies: Frameworks for Corporate Knowledge’ www.ark-group.com
Jan Wyllie is managing editor of Trend Monitor and author of Ark Group’s report Taxonomies: Frameworks for Corporate Knowledge. He can be contacted at email@example.com