[unrev-II] Ubiquitous Collaboration

From: Lee Iverson (leei@ai.sri.com)
Date: Mon May 21 2001 - 13:34:35 PDT

  • Next message: Dennis E. Hamilton: "RE: [unrev-II] Ubiquitous Collaboration"

    I'm in the process of putting together a White Paper, and as part of the

    introduction I've written down a few thoughts about the background for
    understanding and enabling ubiquitous collaboration.

    I'm looking for some feedback on this, especially relevant history that
    I may have missed or misstated and other barriers that people can think
    Ill-formed or preliminary off-the-cuff responses are fine and
    appropriate given that the source material is really of the same form at

    this point.

    Ubiquitous Collaboration

    Collaboration systems have had an uneven relationship with the
    development of personal and interactive computing. Douglas Engelbartís
    Augmentation Research Center (ARC) at SRI International is perhaps most
    famous for developing the computer mouse. It was however a crucible for
    the evolution of computing and succeeded by developing and deploying the
    oNLine System (NLS), a computer system that implemented a fully
    interactive, collaborative, graphical computing and software development
    environment in the late sixties, an era when punched cards and batch
    processing were the state of the art for access to computing resources.
    The system embedded a completely shared working environment at its core
    so that anybody working on any part of the system was always
    collaborating with his/her colleagues, either actively or passively. It
    was a system of ubiquitous collaboration. His system and ideas catalysed
    a revolution in the development of computing environments and personal
    computing. Unfortunately, for many reasons both technical and social,
    much of the work of this group was either ignored or was transformed
    into forms that diminished the role of collaborative work, which was
    fundamentally at the core of Engelbartís goals.

    In many ways, the system that halted Engelbartís collaborative
    enterprise was Email. While simply a small part of his system, it was
    delivered in a much simpler, more evolutionary fashion to the broad
    community of scientists working in the Arpanet environment. It
    presented a just good enough technology that was much more evolutionary
    than the radically revolutionary system Engelbart had assembled. Email
    became the killer app for the early Arpanet and is in some ways still
    the primary collaborative technology in wide deployment today.

    The dream of ubiquitous collaboration still remains today, a fundamental
    part of what Engelbart has called his Unfinished Revolution. Engelbart
    was and is convinced that the only way to really tackle the most
    difficult basic problems that we are presented with as individuals,
    groups and societies is through a kind of teamwork in which the
    accumulated knowledge of the group is necessarily greater than that of
    any individual. An individualís role in the collective enterprise is
    then to augment the collective knowledge base by observation and
    synthesis. The networked computing environment that is now widely
    deployed with the Internet and World Wide Web is but one piece of the
    whole system needed to truly enable this collaborative knowledge
    development. Collaboration is currently a kind of afterthought with much
    knowledge work, with each individual locked in his or her own cubicle
    between group meetings, exchanging a few email messages when necessary.

    We anticipate a work environment in which every person is organically
    connected to a team of common purpose no matter what they are doing or
    what software they might be using. An individualís thoughts, decisions
    and actions become amplified and enhanced by an automatic, seamless
    integration with the thoughts, decisions and actions of others. And the
    collective enterprise becomes centered on a deeply cross-linked
    repository of accumulated knowledge and action, which is completely open
    for exploitation and application to any new team activity. It is only
    with this kind of infrastructure in place that the true potential for
    radical enhancement of efficiency and productivity can be realized.
    This will only happen when the barriers to the accumulation of group
    knowledge and group processes are torn down.


    We need to understand those barriers then. There are clearly both
    technical and social barriers, with corporate and individual motivations
    interfering with collective work. In order to frame this analysis we
    will assume that the ìworkerî we will examine is someone Engelbart has
    called a ìknowledge worker,î someone whose job or avocation involves the
    exploitation, organization and production of knowledge. It is a class
    that includes virtually all white-collar workers and managers as well as
    reporters, researchers, and anyone doing any kind of paperwork. In many
    cases, we are talking about anyone who does or could use a computer for
    performing virtually any task.

    A huge technical barrier is something I will call the tyranny of format,
    the fact that an enormous amount of what could be useful and reusable
    knowledge is trapped inside proprietary or inaccessible data formats.
    Much of this reality is driven by the fact that virtually every new
    application and new version of an application involves the creation of a
    new, incompatible data storage format. The barrier to sharing even the
    products of work, much less the process, becomes one of incompatibility
    of application formats.

    Another problem is the disintegration of knowledge, in which the
    concentration of work on personal, loosely-networked computers with
    distinct data stores means that in many cases the vast preponderance of
    potentially exploitable team knowledge is distributed in a completely
    inaccessible way on tens or thousands of un-indexed and often
    inaccessible individual computers. Many large enterprises attempt to
    solve this problem with central data stores and shared filesystems to
    ensure that the products of work are centrally maintained and
    accessible. Unfortunately, these systems become mandated, imposed
    solutions that often do not significantly enhance the productivity of
    individual users. Networks are always slower and less reliable than
    local storage, so intermediate versions and temporary documents always
    stay on local disks. Moreover the means by which the central stores are
    organized are rarely appropriate or adaptable to the range of work that
    individuals need to perform, so the central store is almost always ìfor
    managementî and not ìfor me.î

    We can identify another barrier as the transience of history, the loss
    of many of the most important pieces of collective knowledge to an
    unrecorded and imperfectly recalled past. Consider the ubiquity and
    importance of meetings in collective work, all the way from impromptu
    ìwater-coolerî meetings to brainstorming sessions to formal meetings.
    Every aspect of one of these meetings which goes unrecorded and thus
    unintegrated into a collective repository, is thus inaccessible to
    anyone but the participants. And even for the participants in these
    meetings, so much that is important to the development of ideas is often
    lost, with much of the process of producing good ideas and rejecting bad
    ones lost to the imperfect memories of only the direct participants.
    Even in situations which are completely computer-centered, the history
    of a document and the connection between email about a document and the
    document itself is often never collected or linked together and is thus
    inaccessible to future collaborators or just someone trying to
    reconstruct an argument.

    Another barrier to the enhancement of collaboration that arises when
    considering meetings is the impermanence of passive knowledge, in which
    knowledge that is not actively and consciously integrated into the
    system is lost. Much of this can be considered to be knowledge of
    history, but in this case the emphasis is on the effort often required
    to ensure that useful dialogues and observations are actually recorded
    and integrated into a collective knowledge base in a useful way. It is
    often simple to record and store meetings either with a human note-taker
    or a digital recording, but without content-based retrieval mechanisms
    and means of exploiting these recordings and integrating them into the
    products that are being produced by the team it is of little advantage
    to do so.

    A more social barrier is the failure of trust, the loss of motivation or
    interest in deep collaboration by the breakdown of social conventions
    that often accompany attempts at collaborative work, even within teams
    of common interest. Some of this breakdown comes from a kind of
    disconnection associated with certain forms of communication, such as
    email. We are all familiar with how easily perceived insults or real
    flames can cause irreparable rifts in relationships when email exchanges
    are part of the relationship. Another kind of problem is that the ease
    of copying and disguising of documents and the lack of adequate audit
    trails can obscure the actual relationships between documents and their
    key contributors and thus stand in the way of an individualís commitment
    the social contracts that lead to contributing to a collective

    If we are to propose a technical solution to these problems, it must
    address each of these technical barriers and provide some realization
    for the kinds of social support needed to overcome those barriers as

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