Archive for March, 2008

Doing Business in the Digital Age

March 30, 2008

Last week, I attended a conference in Baltimore on business portals, content, and collaboration that was hosted by the Gartner research organization. Although geared primarily toward information technology professionals, I found it incredibly useful – and relevant to this week’s readings – from a communication professional’s perspective.

The overarching theme of the conference was how to successfully implement Web 2.0 technologies in the business environment in a way that fosters an organically collaborative environment. Just as Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams say in their book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, the speakers at this gathering continually emphasized that industries and firms need to harness mass collaboration to create real value for their employees.

Much of what is beginning to happen in the business world, as was made clear through case studies presented in the book, by the speakers at the conference, and even in today’s newspapers, has come about because the men and women now entering the workforce view communication and collaboration in a new way. Unlike what has occurred in the past, when technology made its way first from the business world and then to the public at large, technological change is being pushed from the public onto businesses.

The experiences younger workers today have with programs such as MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, or Wikipedia have given them very different ideas about privacy and greater trust in shared collaborative knowledge. They expect the same type of open, transparent structure they have grown accustomed to in their personal lives – and access to the same technology they use at home – to be just as readily available in the workplace.

This consumerist view that the new workforce brings to the office poses new challenges to businesses and other organizations. Not only do businesses have to rethink how they interact with their clients, vendors, and customers, they also have to think about how to relinquish control within their organizations. Businesses need to understand that the new tools will have tremendous implications for how people work, and that the line between the workplace and personal space is already blurred.

As much as Tapscott and Williams extol the virtues of the collaborative and open work environment that make up their idea of Wikinomics, enabling transparency among departments and breaking down internal silos of information can be tricky to accomplish even without the digital technologies now available to businesses. For companies that do attempt to implement social networking, blogs, wikis, and other collaboration tools, it can be a challenge to let these tools develop and grow organically. The traditional, hierarchical organizational structures and the communication channels that have developed to work in that environment need to be set aside entirely, which is a step many will find hard to take. There are, for example, legal, regulatory, and other compliance issues that are at stake.

Culturally, particularly for global organizations, implementing social and collaborative technologies can be even more difficult. Some cultures may take offense more easily over what others may see as simply regular online give and take. Language differences could slow down communication between countries, leading to misinterpretation over a medium that favors instant messaging and real-time communication.

Unleashing this type of environment should therefore be done gradually and with clear guidelines for employees – just as with any new system or workflow we have discussed in this class. Understanding your organization’s culture as well as its business product can help with this process. Moving from collaboration as a step in the work process to an attribute of the business as a whole requires new management, governance techniques, and process designs. Companies should identify the devotees to new technologies and let them evangelize to the others in the company.

Most important, companies need to target suitable groups first, link the new work environment and tools to existing business structures, but then let the new structure grow organically, understanding that using these new tools enable emergent processes to develop in unexpected ways. This is, after all, the point of the new digital age – in business and in our daily personal lives.

Smart Mobs

March 25, 2008

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, by Howard Rheingold, deals with the social, economic, and political changes that have evolved along with technology. In his book, Rheingold coins the term “smart mob,” which he defines as a form of “self-structuring social organization through technology-mediated, intelligent emergent behavior.” According to Rheingold, smart mobs are an indication of the evolving technologies that empower people.

Rheingold remarks that smart mobs can take on all kinds of forms, from benign Thumb Tribes in Tokyo and Helsinki or the meet-ups among teens and young adults at raves or other social gatherings, to more coordinated and organized protests or political movements, such as the World Trade Organization mobs organized in Seattle or the protestors in the Philippines who used text-messages to coordinate demonstrations that were in part responsible for overthrowing President Joseph Estrada.

Smart mobs are indeed incredibly empowering. Rheingold is quick to point out, however, that smart mobs and the technologies that enable them can be used both for good and for bad. Anyone, regardless of motive or intent, can leverage this new capability. As we have seen throughout history, people have used their talents for cooperation to organize atrocities as well as to further science and society.

It is important to remember, however, that technologies that enable such cooperation are not inherently bad. Therefore, a key component of smart mobs should be to make people more aware of the power of collective action – and the consequences of collective action – that they may not consciously participate in. As powerful and empowering as smart mobs are, the opportunity for people to take advantage of or manipulate others via such mobs – whether the manipulators are terrorists or the government – can be significant.

Children and teens are prime among those populations who are at risk of both misusing and being misused by smart mob technologies. The immediacy of the information and the permancy of it is not well understood by youth and so should be taught to them early and often.

When I was in school, as early as the eighth grade, the school curriculum included a unit on how to be savvy media consumers – to read and view the media with a critical eye. We were taught to question what was being broadcast to us and how, to look for subliminal messages within advertising and to identify bias or stereotyping within the news or on television shows.

Then, however, the public were simply media consumers. Now, kids are creators and contributors as well as consumers. It makes it all the more important to incorporate lessons on responsible Internet behavior into the classrooms.

There are already resources available to help parents teach their kids about the dangers of online pornography, but more needs to be done about teaching children and teens about how to use the Internet wisely and to understand the impact they have on others because of the immediacy of the Internet and other technologies and their pervasive natures. And this needs to be more than a one-time school assembly or PTA meeting. Because technology so much a part of childrens’ lives – so much so that it is really almost invisible to them – this type of lesson needs to be a larger part of the school curriculum.

Kids need to understand what happens to the information they post out on their FaceBook or MySpace pages, how permanent that can be, and how text messages to their friends easily can be forwarded through out the school and into the community.

Lessons on how to consume Internet and other online information also should be incorporated into school curricula. Aside from learning how to identify possible online predators and scams, children should be taught how to critically read blogs and news sites, and how to tell the difference between editorial comments made in blogs – even on mainstream media Web sites – and real news. They need to understand how to protect their identities online. Most important, they must be taught how to be savvy consumers and how not to be manipulated by smart, but potentially dangerous, mobs in a new hi-tech era.

Enabling Communication through Semantic Search

March 11, 2008

About a two years ago, I was asked to help articulate to my company the reasons behind the implementation of a series of new IT tools – many of which would require a change in how our researchers worked and collaborated both internally and with our clients. After reviewing all the new tools that were going to be launched, I concluded that, essentially, my company’s IT department was attempting to help the organization know what we knew – to discover what knowledge was resident in our databases, publications, and even our people.

This is why, as I read the second half of Battelle’s book The Search, I found myself drawn to his chapter on Perfect Search (chapter 11). I saw parallels between what he saw as the future of search and what my company was – and is still – attempting to do: find useful information that has context.

But as I read Battelle’s book – just as I have with all the materials I have read and studied in this and all my classes – I had in the back of my mind the nagging thought: This is great, but what does this mean for me and what does in mean for communication?

Clearly, an effective search engine is critical for a research organization such as the Institute for Defense Analyses, where I work. Being able to quickly find relevant information, people, and publications is key to conducting thorough analyses. More important, from a communications perspective, effective search enables the creation of new interactions and communities of expertise.

The evolution of the Semantic Web, in particular, can truly expand the communication reach of all sorts of communities. In essence, the Semantic Web is designed to improve communications between people using differing terminologies, to extend the interoperability of databases, to provide tools for interacting with multimedia collections, and to provide new mechanisms for supporting computing in which people and machines work more interactively.

The current Web provides links between pages that are designed for human consumption. The Semantic Web augments this with pages designed to contain machine-readable descriptions of Web pages and other Web resources. These documents can be linked together to provide information to the computer as to how the terms in one relate to those in another. And, really, isn’t this what people are doing when they use social networks?

Semantic Search opens the door to creating new communication connections that otherwise may not exist by allowing individuals to discover new connections with other individuals. Even on a small scale, such as within a single organization, being able to connect individuals, data, and knowledge can have profound effects in terms of productivity and the creation of new ideas and solutions to existing problems.

In light of this, I can see how implementing social networking, which already is using the Semantic Web, would be useful for internal employee communications. A social networking site, such as IBM’s Lotus Connections, could allow staff members to set up a profile and create their own key-term tags, set up blogs, and collaborative work areas. And, just as with the recent establishment on Facebook of an alert system to find blood donors, users could sent out an alert internally among our researchers when they need to find someone with, for example, a physics degree and experience working on radar systems is needed. A Semantic Search also could retrieve other pertinent information from additional databases.

According to an interview with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and now Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, the Semantic Web is already here. Why, then, given the obvious potential this technology has, isn’t being made of this new tool?

Does Convenience Trump Privacy?

March 4, 2008

The details of our lives are now digitized, placed in various databases, indexed and searched; bits that can be pieced together to get a sense of the whole. Google – with its mission statement to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful – sees our lives and the information we create and store as things to be searched and retrieved. For better or worse, it delves into our identities, one piece at a time, from IP addresses, to our likes and dislikes, to what we say in our Gmail messages, to snapshots of us on the street for use in Street Views on Google Maps.

But what does that mean for our privacy? Is concern over privacy even relevant anymore? Each time Google has launched a new service or feature there has been a hue and cry over the potential loss of privacy. Inevitably, this uproar eventually disappears. Have our fears been misplaced? Or do our protests lose steam because the utility of the product trumps those initial privacy concerns?

It is interesting to look back only a few years ago when Google launched Gmail, its free email service that today is used without a second thought by hundreds of thousands of people. At the time, many expressed concern or outright refused to use the free email service because Google would send advertisements to subscribers tailored to the contents of their incoming e-mail, which would be combed by special software. Now, however, few think twice about subscribing to Gmail, either having forgotten about the intrusion into their personal information or having resigned themselves to its inevitability.

This pattern has repeated itself time and again. Last June, when Google launched its Google Street View, which posted thousands of street-level photographs of major American cities as part of its Google Maps, people again complained that the images violated their privacy. Some questioned whether people would feel differently about street-level image mapping if it were done by a government agency. But as with Gmail, the complaints eventually died down.

And only a week ago Google launched its pilot program for Google Health, which allows patients to store their medical records on Google’s servers so that they can be retrieved at any time through the new service. Consumer and privacy advocates claim this service leaves personal medical records open to access by third-party services that are not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. This, critics complain, unwittingly makes it easier for the government or some other legal adversary to obtain the information.

Evidence of this concern can be seen even on our own class’s discussion board, as we debate the merits of the service – the clear convenience of having our records so readily available regardless of time or place – and the obvious drawbacks of such personal and sensitive information potentially vulnerable to hackers or opportunistic third-parties. I believe that once again convenience will trump privacy.

In the past, it was relatively easy to protect your privacy. In the analog world, it took concerted effort to uncover and optimize another’s personal information. Protecting our privacy was therefore relatively easy to achieve, and there was little to be gained by relinquishing it. The technology was not there to capitalize on the information in a way that would be useful for society at large. 

Today, however, truly useful technology requires a level of openness that has never been seen before. To take advantage of the conveniences that are afforded by services, such as those offered by Google, you have no choice but to opt in to the new, open society. Do you want to know how much your neighbors’ houses are worth? Do you want to see what the restaurant you mapped on Google actually looks like? Do you want the convenience of advertisements that are actually pertinent to you, and not extraneous information you neither want nor need? Do you want to be able to have a portable, updated electronic version of your medical file available whenever you want or need it?

To have these benefits, the public has to make concessions. The luxury of opting out is no longer a viable option. We either need to change the way we view privacy – as Saul Hansell suggested in his New York Times blog Bits – or come up with new regulations that may, in the end, stifle technological advances.