Filtering, curation and familiarity

There's a world of difference between empty containers and spaces and full ones, and software is no exception.The materials we create as we work together accumulates rapidly and can quickly become clutter, filling up containers and clogging up the communication pipes.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

There's a world of difference between empty containers and spaces and full ones, and software is no exception.

The materials we create as we work together accumulates rapidly and can quickly become clutter, filling up containers and clogging up the communication pipes. This thought popped up in my mind at San Francisco airport's recently opened new Terminal Two, a fresh piece of interior design I've been passing through quite a bit recently. Compared to the battered older destination terminals at the other end, Terminal Two seems crisp and airy, a feeling many also get when embarking on the road of installing software within which people will work together.

The empty 'rooms' in the software are not unlike the experience we get when house hunting - either oceans of space in an empty structure or 'staged' interior design content. A tasteful vase and mirror here, a logical, well ordered conversation in a project group about an exciting topic with accompanying pictures and videos. Shiny and new is great fun, like unwrapping a virginal new laptop devoid of anything on its hard drive but the latest operating system.

We all know what happens next - we notice how battered the interior of the terminal has become over time, how jammed up with all our imported old file folders the laptop got and how tough it is to find anything in the home we inhabit that seemed so large before we moved in. For every David Allen and zen like clean desker there are dozens of pack rats, and when you get people working together the default organization tends to not be pretty unless someone has imposed a strong logic on proceedings.

Sharepoint is notorious for this content management problem, with endless nooks and crannies where people have squirrelled their stuff away, but the reality is it's people who do this, not the software.

In modern software terms, familiarity breeds contempt on a number of levels. The new environment loses its allure over time, whether moving into a swanky new office with your annoying old co workers or moving into an online environment with them. The excitement of understanding how Twitter can work for you tends to wear off as some of the people you follow become irritating to you; the same is true in other activity streams such as Linked In, Chatter and so on,  just as the exciting new bar you discovered inevitably loses some of its appeal the more time you spend socializing there.

We have now reached a critical mass with consumer social software and are at something of a tipping point. Facebook as a social hub reminds me of a wedding party - all the generations in the same room, with toddlers running around on the dance floor under Granddad's feet and clusters of people you'd never expect to commingle sharing information awkwardly, and with the nosy eavesdropping on conversations.

The easy come, easy go attitude to 'free' consumer data mining services such as Facebook and Twitter tends to pervade use models of Enterprise 2.0 technologies within enterprises unless uses are well defined. These mass media technologies have trained people to dip in and out of them from a purely selfish perspective within their personal leisure time frames, consuming information about their online 'friends' and contributing as they choose. From an enterprise perspective organizing people to collaborate effectively together after the shiny software newness has worn off can be challenging - particularly if they have been encouraged to take a tire kicking, 'suck it and see' pilot project stance.

This voluntary software 'adoption' model can be akin to voting for your favorite performer on a TV talent contest - an arbitrary first impressions reaction rather than an understanding of the best way to achieve given business objectives together. Who we choose to inhabit a space with has a significant impact on how much we enjoy it (as the folks in the boat image above would probably agree). There's a world of difference between being told performing your job well entails behaving in a certain way and by putting information in the appropriate places online and showing up and participating on an ad hoc basis.

Most people like structure in their lives rather than self organizing - Terminal Two at SFO and planes running on time springs to mind - and a weakness of many promising 2.0 business environments has been 'full vessel' syndrome. Unless there is some specific business logic communicated for how you want people to work, as new users start using collaborative software, information and files start building up.

For those paying close attention, such as those whose job it is to run the collaborative space, there is a rhyme and reason to the information flow, but to the average participant finding information in the new environment can quickly get harder.

The issue of the age is very much filtering, whether on the public internet or within work environments.

The noise level created by 'following' large numbers of people or topics without differentiating them into channels can quickly become overwhelming. This type of organization is time consuming and in a collaborative environment needs to have consistent logic across all participants. Similarly, curation of information in order to stimulate enduring use of systems which are no longer shiny and new but very useful as an everyday work tool, which should be the long term goal, is an important activity to keep things findable.

Just like the boat above, the spaces we live in need to feel comfortable and we need to be able to have what we need at hand in order to continue to stay in them. If the noise and over crowding gets too great we tend to leave, and it can be a bigger challenge persuading us to return to take another journey based on our past experiences.

Image: North African immigrants arriving in Sicily

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