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From Tocqueville to Software Design. Part 2: How software design can be used to incentivize open knowledge sharing and collaboration.

November 4, 2017

In part one we have seen how be inspired by Tocqueville’s analysis of the raise of American Democracy to build “corporate townships” and promote empathy and collaboration between teams.

 

I will now try to explore how software and communications systems can help building another kind of corporate township, decentralized, ad-hoc and unstructured. 

 

Sidewalks and coffee machines

 

In her seminal book “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”, Jane Jacob consider the sidewalk as the most important infrastructure of big cities: by allowing ad-hoc encounters as trivial as asking for directions, getting advice from the local shop, saying hello to a neighbor or flattering his dog, the sidewalk facilitates the emergence of a feeling of community among people that are generally strangers to each other.

 

In large corporations, the beloved coffee machine can be seen as the analogue of the sidewalk of great American cities.

In their ability to generate contacts, both the sidewalk and the coffee machine can be seen as some kind of “Soft corporate township” that is fundamental to an organization equilibrium.

 

But with the raise of internet and the increase of the time we spend on screens, we are less open to our physical environment, and a question has appeared: where are the sidewalks and coffee machines of the XXI century?

 

Instead of going back to the way things were, can we move forward and promote this ad-hoc encounters in our computers? Can we imagine a software infrastructure the same way Jane Jacob considered the sidewalk as a communication infrastructure?

 

I think so. Although it will never replace the warmth of coffee machines conversations, a software could help create connections, and eventually facilitate real encounters.

 

 

Before defining what would be the mechanism of such system, I will start by developing two points on how software design influences our perceptions and behaviors.

 

1.     Information bubbles

 

After the 2016 United States presidential election, Facebook has been blamed for creating a so called “information bubble”. Let’s say you liked a video on Facebook that was in favor of the republicans, Facebook will then categorize you as a republican. It will then only show you content in this direction and will very rarely offer contradictory point of view.

 

This phenomenon may be new in the public sphere but it is very well known in corporation management systems, albeit under a different name: “information silo”. If you are in the operations service you will mostly receive information linked to your department and rarely get to know what is happening, for example, in marketing, how it will affect you and how you could contribute to it. During my career, I have seen two teams working at fifty meters distance on the same project without knowing it, and after six months presenting two different solutions to the same customer.

 

If we get back to the second requirement of corporate township (it is transversal), information bubbles and silos are an obstacle to this need for transversality.

 

 

 

2.     “Day by day, what you do is who you become” Heraclitus

 

Software design influences not only the information we are exposed to but also the way we behave. Let’s take again the example of Facebook. We often complain that Facebook relationships are superficial. Now think about what you do most of the time on Facebook: you like. A “like” is a very basic and superficial signal, it is binary: 0 or 1. It is not really a surprise that there is a feeling of emptiness in it. Now you could argue that Facebook have enriched the “like” button to “reactions”. But again here we are talking about a limited set of emotional reaction: like, love, haha, wow, sad, angry. There is limited space for more rational reactions such as “factually correct” or “biased”.  This does not mean Facebook is bad, it is fun, and you can always comment, but it is incentivizing a certain kind of reaction. It is just limited, and limiting.

 

The same is true for collaboration software at work. Enterprise enriched social network like Yammer, Slack or the recent Microsoft Teams. They are great for team discussion but by focusing people attention on chatting they incentives noise instead of strategic thinking or transversal knowledge sharing.

 

“Different media designs stimulate different potentials in human nature. We shouldn’t seek to make the pack mentality as efficient as possible. We should instead seek to inspire the phenomenon of individual intelligence.” Jared Lanier

 

If we get back to the third requirement concept of “corporate township” (it has impact), there is a need for collaboration software that incentivizes thinking, deep knowledge sharing and strategic production instead of reaction, emotions and noise.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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