Caveat: I will confess up front that I have a personal bias regarding collaboration. I had the privilege of working in possibly the most effective virtual collaboration community ever. There have been articles written about this community and many books written about the company in which it developed. If you are interested, you can read more about it here.
But suffice to say, I am a true believer in the power of collaboration, and a zealot when it comes to spreading the word about how it can improve all of your knowledge management abilities.
Information Science – isn’t that in many ways the very essence of what universities like Harvard stand for? Harvard is sought after as a rich source of knowledge and information. As caretakers and purveyors of knowledge, could there be any doubt that the way we disseminate that knowledge is anything less than the most effective means possible?
Thanks to computer technology and the Internet, our cup runneth over with more information than we can possibly hope to deal with. But that is in many ways our core mission, and so we have an obligation to do the best job we can when it comes to gathering, cataloging and distributing that information.
Historically, we know that email was developed early in the evolution of computer technology, at a time when transmission rates and storage capacity enforced severe limitations on communication protocols. And yet, 40 years after the first email was sent, email still constitutes a huge percentage of the information exchange on the Internet.
There’s no need to elaborate on the critical importance of point to point transmission. Email, or some descendant of it, will always be with us. But as soon as the first email was sent to more than one address, we began the search for new ways to communicate with larger audiences.
Mailing lists, web sites, blogs, wikis, shared bookmarks, and to some extent much social media is about reaching larger audiences.
But all of these methods have one common characteristic – they are driven largely by an initiator.
Practically every web entity will have some sort of response feature. Sometimes it will simply be a reply-to email address, but many blogs, wikis and bookmark sites feature a response or comment area. Those who discover the information source can comment on it, and have their comments in turn read and commented upon.
But these are all still part of a “push” initiated dialog. Someone posts a blog entry, and others (hopefully) respond.
But no one will revisit the blog, or wiki, or whatever without a very good reason, usually related to the original post. Following a commentary on a blog is a singularly short-lived event. The commentary may last and serve many others, but it is largely static, and rarely outlives the initiating event for very long in terms of dialog. And in fact, often as not, a post to an older blog or forum will be met with derision, rather than an answer. A blogger blogs, and responding to commentary is usually a secondary, fleeting endeavor.
But one method of internet discourse that predates the formal adoption of TCP/IP has stood the test of time as a means of interactive dialog. Internet newsgroups, known as the Usenet, have provided a means for Internet users to pursue the “Great Conversation” since before the IBM PC came out.
Newsgroups, and their natural descendant, the forum, have evolved continuously into a rich repository of information on the Internet. Many attempts have been made to catalog and index general information, Google being one of the more notable ones. But interestingly, when questions arise on a specific subject, very often the Google results take you not to a wiki or a blog or web site, but rather to a thread in a discussion group.
This isn’t hard to understand. An adage since the early days of computers is that, if you can think of it, someone has already done it. The corollary is that, if you can think of a question, someone else has probably already asked it. And often they have posted their question in a forum, and it has already been answered.
This makes sense. As much as other venues on the Internet encourage feedback, forums and newsgroups exist for discourse. Their value often is not as much the original post, but the discussion by interested individuals regarding the post.
But there is more to the dynamic. Email, even to a mailing list, is a “push” technology. Certainly, the recipients of the mailing list had to opt-in (usually) in the first place. But its a very passive opt-in at best. Like a magazine or newspaper, there is an expectation of a “type” of expected communication, but no guarantee as to specific content. Mailing lists are generic, as are most forums, to some degree.
But there are two significant differences. The first is that forums are a “pull” technology. Although some support the ability to email subscribers to alert them to new activity in the forum, or to activity in specific topics, for the most part, it is left to the recipient to follow a thread that they find interesting. If the thread has no value to an individual, then no matter how vigorous the discussion, they will never hear the first reply, because they must visit the forum in order to do so, and then may cherry-pick only the topics of interest.
The second difference, and the counterpoint of the first is that should one not have time to follow the thread at its inception, the dialog will persist, and can be followed as time and resources permit.
These two differences remove what may be seen as email’s (and mailing list’s) two biggest drawbacks for generalized collaboration: their lack of selectivity and their lack of persistence.
When you subscribe to a mailing list, you subscribe to everything that passes through it. You may be able to elect for digests, but basically, whatever goes to the list goes to every member. And it goes “now”. If it arrives in your inbox at an inopportune time, whether it is of interest or not, it may or may not be possible to participate in the dialog just because of its timing.
For example, I believe the original ABCD topic that spawned this blog arrived at the end of the spring semester and the beginning of vacations and failed to gain the groundswell needed to keep the dialog going despite interest in the topic.
It is true that the second point, persistence, is a feature of some mailing lists through archives, which have some value. But archives, not unlike the images the name conjures, are more for historical record than for information storage and retrieval.
Which is the dilemma of the mailing list. Finding something in an archive of a mailing list (or in your personal mailbox) isn’t always easy. There is no organization to the information other than chronological. And it is more cumbersome to try to extend a thread there from an archive, because the context, though available in the archive, isn’t part of the continued dialog without some effort on the part of the person trying to obtain or provide more information.
Forums are largely self-organizing, and a dialog can be resumed at any time without loss of context. And yet, unless you have subscribed to a thread, you won’t be troubled by new replies. But were you interested, the forum software will remember your interest and let you know if the conversation ever resumes.
Forums are not the ultimate collaboration tool. Not all forums can push, especially if the push feature is disabled by the individual members, so if you need to reach out to a community “now” for an immediate need, there is no assurance that the community will “hear” that request in a timely manner. To that extent, I don’t think that it makes sense to try to replace the ABCD mailing lists.
And, although from a pragmatic point of view, there is little difference between mailing lists and forums in terms of “publicity” and “visibility”, for some reason forums tend to attract more verbose, long-running dialogs than email. That can be an advantage or a disadvantage, depending on your objectives. Email especially to large communities, can discourage large posts.
But there is no doubt that the two forms of dialog are different, serve different purposes, and overlap somewhat. Just not to the extent that either is disposable.
Moreover, the advantages I see are that forums are:
- less disruptive – because they are a pull technology
- have more continuity – because topics are threaded and don’t interrupt other topics
- are more accessible – because the question and answer format makes them self organizing and more easily searchable
There are other nuances to forums. Posts can be edited for those inevitable times when you make a mistake or forget something. Or you can even make a follow-up post without concerns of irritating your fellows, whereas you might be hesitant to send yet another email to the entire ABCD community because of a typo or minor omission.
Forums can have attachments, photos, etc. without clogging up people’s in-boxes. I’m not sure I’d ever consider making an ABCD emailing with an attachment, but at the least I’d do so judiciously.
Forums can be reorganized. Sub-forums can be added and removed easily (unlike mailing lists) and topics can be easily split, migrated and moderated as needed.
And contemporary forum software can offer a wealth of capability that is simply beyond the scope of email. Forums can even act as mailing lists for subscribers.
There are potential downsides, and the elephant in the corner is the “rant” or “flame war”. You can’t have heard of forums without being aware of the emotional discussions they sometimes precipitate. My observation is that forums, perhaps because they are less direct, sometimes are prey to less than circumspect postings and replies.
Although I’d love to say Harvard is immune, I actually got to see a flame war in the ABCD mailing list a while back – the first in the three years I’ve been here (I printed and kept all the cartoons, which were great!).
But frankly I consider this more of an advantage than a disadvantage. In fact, I consider it the more essential advantage. In the time I have been a member of ABCD I have seen limited activity in terms of dialog, and its been mostly extremely reserved. I haven’t seen it as a source of discussion and interplay. I haven’t seen much there in the form of inspiration.
Perhaps, I hope, the sort of dialog I find lacking in ABCD is taking place in other ways and other places that I am not a part of. But that in itself I consider to be suboptimal. Synergy among members of the community requires more than a monthly question about printer cartridges.
Yes, I understand that ABCD was conceived initially as a means to achieve cost savings. And perhaps the feedback will be that ABCD is not the venue for the sort of discourse I envision.
But I personally feel a need for more. More dialog, more exchange, more synergy, and I think I’ve sensed that from the ABCD community as well.
The word I would use is “serendipity”. Although some eschew forums because they can wander off-topic, it is indeed this sort of wandering that can lead to new important discoveries. Such dialogs answer the questions that you didn’t know needed asking.
In just the time since I posted to ABCD about this blog, at least one person in the medical school discovered collaboration tools there he never knew existed – and he was actively pursuing information about them!
Consequently I think Harvard in general and ABCD in specific would benefit from such collaboration tools.
I’m also aware that, unless I’ve simply misjudged a burning need for collaboration from the community, that starting one won’t be easy. Even if you have participated in forums before, creating one for the Harvard community will be new, novel and perhaps… unsettling.
At first. But I believe that given time and encouragement, we may be able to move our collaborative capabilities to the next level.
I hope you join me in the discussion about our needs and their possible solutions, and see if we can pioneer new options for empowering our virtual community.