Research Topics in Collaboration

Phil Wolff

21 October 2009

1. Introduction ..............................................2 2. Collaboration in Skype’s Roadmap ............3 1. 2. Until now… ................................... 3 Skype will commoditize minutes and Make Skype minutes more valuable ................. 3 Collaboration Research will show how to make Skype minutes worth more ..................... 4 Collaboration is a competitive edge .......................... 5

7. 8. 9.

Decision Making and Decision Support ........................ 12 Collaboration Afoot .................... 13 Situational Awareness ................ 14


10. How Collaborators Use Search and Personal/Collective memory....... 14 11. Gestures of Tomorrow ............... 15 C. Cross Boundaries ............................. 16 12. Intergroup Collaboration ............ 16 13. Earning Trust and Using Whuffie ...................................... 16 14. Collective Presence and Project Presence/ActivityStreams ........... 17 15. Transparency and Collaboration.............................. 18 16. Backchannels.............................. 18 17. Scaling Collaboration from Tasks to Projects to Programmes ............................... 19 4. About Phil Wolff ..................................... 21


3. Research Areas ..........................................6 A. Get Started ......................................... 7 1. 2. 3. Ridiculously Easy Group Formation ..................................... 7 Group Goal Forming...................... 7 To Do Lists, Calendars, Personal Time Management, and Getting Things Done Together ....................................... 8 Fame and Reputation .................... 9

4. B.

Be Better Together ........................... 11 5. 6. Augmenting Inline Conversation............................... 11 From Discovery to Action ............ 12

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Introduction I’ve been blogging about collaboration since 1998. If the 1990s were about personal productivity, and the 2000s were about connecting the world, then this next decade will be about working together. I’m happy the new Skype Labs is working on the future of collaboration. What don’t we know? What can we learn about conversations that result in work product? What can we learn from failures? What knowledge could unleash the collective power of five hundred million Skype users? In this paper I outline areas of study that could shape the design of collaboration tools and technologies. Before outlining a few areas I’d love to investigate, let’s look at how collaboration fits into Skype’s future.

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2. 1.

Collaboration in Skype’s Roadmap Until now… I see two stages of Skype’s product innovation in its first six years. Skype made VoIP easy and reliable. Then it poured the network into many operating systems, mobility and devices. Now everyone has more access to the Skype network. [Somewhere along the way Skype played with video, games, commerce, and public voice forums. Some failed; others, like video, are here to stay.] These innovations gave Skype a large, growing user population. Sadly, its rate of growth is slowing.


Skype will commoditize minutes and Make Skype minutes more valuable Skype’s next major stage of product innovation does two opposing things at the same time. On the one hand, Skype is commoditizing its infrastructure. Skype has been opening up its network and telephony services to third-party distributors and developers. You can see this in Skype For SIP, Skype for Asterisk, and the web platform being built on Skype Lite. So while Skype sells minutes, third-parties innovate with vertical applications.

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On the other hand, Skype will add value to its core talk service. Skype will pursue adjacent markets like voice, video, and web conferencing. Skype will compete by being cheaper and more convenient than the incumbents. Competitors with their own network effects will add Skype-like features. So Skype must learn how to add value in the work context beyond cost savings. Skype will want to design and engineer services so Skype conversations become more fun, satisfying, productive, and effective than having those same conversations without Skype. 3. Collaboration Research will show how to make Skype minutes worth more How? The way to make Skype minutes better than other minutes is to enhance Skype’s inherent support for collaboration. Multiple people getting things done together. These research areas will provide the insights, measurements, and experience Skype needs to make Skype the best brand for conversations that produce results. If Skype’s first slogan was “It just works,” its next could be “You just work!”

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Collaboration is a competitive edge Many of Skype’s serious competitors fall into three categories. Low cost telephony and IM, VoIP and unified communications appliances, and conferencing services. While they differ in modes, marketing, and value propositions, they all offer communications transport and some light directory service. They don’t make you a better communicator. A better collaborator. A better teammate. A better leader. Skype could. Skype could advance the best collaboration practices and technology. And with Skype’s distribution (one billion accounts by 2013), could easily become the tool of choice for producing results, enjoying your job, and building economic security.

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Research Areas Themes within these research areas:  Talk is a component within larger relationships  Talk systems are part of a larger interconnected network of information systems  Work adds constraints that help focus conversation  Collaboration as collective productivity These research areas fall in three clusters:  Getting started  Being Better Together  Crossing Boundaries

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A. Get Started
1. Ridiculously Easy Group Formation Ridiculously Easy Group Formation1,2 is a knowledge management term. It refers to forming groups from informal organization, as opposed to a formal organizational process, and using social media tools to eliminate barriers to people finding each other for collaboration and developing community. As our social circles become more connected through many systems, what strategies will find the best people to invite to a given group? What can we do to further reduce the effort and increase the quality of recruiting? How do we help a good mix of psychologies, experience and talents balance a new group? What can be done during the recruiting process to socialize the members to speed the time to work and readiness to engage? 2. Group Goal Forming How do groups work?


“Making group-forming ridiculously easy,” Sebastien Paquet, October 09, 2002 2 “Groups,” Designing Social Interfaces wiki, February 2009 n

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How does a group work together to establish and define goals that get the biggest collective commitment but also make choices that are right for the group and right for the group’s stakeholders? How does iteration and feedback improve or damage the quality of a group’s goal setting? What can be done to turn tacit hopes into explicit goals? How is goal setting different for casual goals (quick, safe, easy) than for serious goals (long term, risky, difficult)? When do participants find review of prior goals and results more useful than starting fresh? 3. To Do Lists, Calendars, Personal Time Management, and Getting Things Done Together How do our conversation and collaboration tools interact with metawork resources? Metawork is “work about work;” activities that help us  block out our time  manage our priorities  collaborate with other people to discover  what should be done,
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 who should do the work,  when people should work, and  when we should do things together. How can we smoothly launch conversations from metawork tools? How can we blend metawork tools into our conversations, the better to schedule follow-up and engage the right people? Where does talk (calls, meetings, interviews, chats) fit into popular systems of time management, project planning, personal scheduling, and work prioritization? 4. Fame and Reputation What we say and do informs how others see us. That perception influences how we are recruited for projects and communities, how we are used once inside, and roles and relationships we form within collaboration. How can we measure, visualize, and manage our fame? How do we increase the breadth of our fame? How do we target fame to specific publics?

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For whom is it important to keep their public identities well bounded? (Mr. Smith at the office, Pastor Smith at church, Billy at the pub, BloodyHell in his death metal band) How do we tune the handful of ideas connected to our name and face? How can we better construct tools that draw us to better conversations?

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Be Better Together
Augmenting Inline Conversation Can we make the team smarter during a call? Bots have long been a fixture of IRC and instant messaging. They welcome and announce new members to a chat, search Google, and look up stock prices. What else can they do? Can they “time box” meetings to keep them on schedule and cover agenda points? Can they listen for keywords and pull up relevant links and data, bringing the real-time world into a conversation? How do bots affect participants differently in voice and video conference calls? Can bots improve contextual awareness to facilitate team relationships and focus on goals? Can we identify human problems, emotions and tension, unaired issues that interfere with rapport, trust, and direction? What affordances would be widely useful to designers of inline extensions?

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From Discovery to Action Of a thousand open source projects started, only a few survive their first month. We see this in grassroots politics and at the office. People get excited about an idea but they never seem to hit the tipping point where enthusiasm turns into action. Perhaps this is a good thing, natural selection culling bad ideas. But what if the failure to ignite a group, to turn a gaggle of strangers into a workgroup producing results, what if that failure can be avoided? What if the digital medium gets out of the way? Can user experiences improve group cohesion? Can we make it easier for individuals to psychologically commit and follow through? Can we help teams visualize the work, deliverables, and benefits to come? Can we increase the rates of collective investment and personal resolve? Can we improve the chances of good ideas surviving the early days?


Decision Making and Decision Support Many strategies help teams overcome barriers to making better decisions.

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The loudest person in the room can dominate a conversation and narrow possibilities. The most persuasive, charming or best looking person in the room might have undue influence. Some tools3 add anonymous or “blind” annotation of a discussion with tools for ranking and voting on what’s important, what’s risky, and other elements of decision making. How can we help collaborators avoid groupthink? How can we help deliberators visualize their choices? 8. Collaboration Afoot How is collaboration different when people are walking and driving around? How is field collaboration different than sitting at a desk, when you are able to devote more attention with a bigger visual field? With different distractions? We can look at games in the real world and various forms of field work involving collaboration. How do sports teams and paramedics and SWAT teams train for mobile collaboration? What can we apply to the design of mobile products?

3, maker of ThinkTank, GroupSystems, 520 Zang Street, Suite 211, Broomfield, CO 80021 USA

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Situational Awareness We’re awash in information about what’s going on outside the work context and increasingly inside the work context. What can we do to improve our filtering to find appropriate situational awareness4 before and during project sessions? How do people need their situational awareness to change over the life of a project? Of a working relationship? How can we add social peripheral vision5 to user experience without disrupting productive flow states6?

10. How Collaborators Use Search and Personal/Collective memory How important is it to quickly and easily locate threads of conversation, to locate specific facts and artifacts of discussion? What parts of conversation history help the current collaboration? What design cues and affordances help this?

4 5 6

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What are the thresholds for quality to make the search worthwhile in this context? How important is it to have search and personal and collective memory inside your communications tool vs. outside (in third party services and tools)? 11. Gestures of Tomorrow What verbal and non-verbal behaviors do people use to let other people know that they are paying attention? Or that they are interested or they are not interested or they like each other or they are still alive? We’ve seen small gestures7 like emoticons and facebook pokes and throwing sheep and vampire bites, invitations to play, sharing of links and other lifestream applications. What gestures are coming? What sorts of gestures might facilitate the various prerequisites for interpersonal behavior in the context of work? How do these gestures build peripheral social awareness?8


“a phatic expression is one whose only function is to perform a social task, as opposed to conveying information.” – Wikipedia,, 9 October 2009 8 See post by danah boyd, Twitter: "pointless babble" or peripheral awareness + social grooming?, 16 August 2009

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Cross Boundaries

12. Intergroup Collaboration My team’s all formed up. Your team’s all formed up. How do our teams come together to play, to fight, to work, to get something done? What are the common mistakes when groups come together? How do those mistakes vary based on the number of groups, sizes of groups, and differences in social norms? What designs help avoid those mistakes? What designs encourage individuals to act well to improve intergroup collaboration? How do we develop common vocabulary and a shared model of the work to be done? 13. Earning Trust and Using Whuffie How is trust formed? How does it show up? How can we measure it? Is trust earned differently in different modes of communication? How do you build the trust and whuffie9 needed to be effective in collaboration? What are the common barriers to trust formation? When do they serve a useful purpose, and when don’t they?

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What can be done to improve the speed at which trust is earned without damaging the quality of that trust? Can you infer from collaborator behavior who-trustswhom and how much? How transitive and transferrable is trust?10 How much does your trust in Mary affect the trust others have in Mary? How much of the trust you earn in prior collaborations is transferable to your next one? What is the rate of decay of whuffie? 14. Collective Presence and Project Presence/ActivityStreams Presence started as the “Do Not Disturb” button on phones, a signal about your availability11. Personal presence is now richer, where you tweet what you’re doing, share how you’re feeling in mood messages, and broadcast questions and requests. This new presence signals seek context-specific responses. How does presence play in collaboration? How do you blend a team’s updates into a useful view of the whole? 12
10 11

Social Software Alliance, Whuffie limitations, “Presence: Six Things to Learn from the Do Not Disturb (DND) Button,” Phil Wolff, Skype Journal, 27 May 2007 12 “Collective Presence Helps Nomads Do The Right Things”, Phil Wolff, Skype Journal, 4 December 4 2008

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How do share that with other teams and stakeholders? How do you bring to the fore the most relevant view of a project’s presence? How do you collect and share presence data reliably across systems? 15. Transparency and Collaboration How important are boundaries that protect the privacy and intimacy of conversations and work in progress? For what kinds of work does transparency help work product? How does transparency improve trust within a team? Between a team and its stakeholders? 16. Backchannels Live conferences add backchannels13 where audiences participate during presentations. Some are closed channels, like a Skype multichat. Others are hashtagged twitter streams updated in real time. They give voice to those forced to listen and a way for presenters to listen to their audience without interruption.


“Backchannel is the practice of using networked computers to maintain a real-time online conversation alongside live spoken remarks.”

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How can we bring backchannels to online meetings and presentations, to help conversations scale with many participants? How much can we improve attention, participation, engagement, and post-meeting memory through backchannels? Can we bring the Law Of Two Feet14 to online conferencing? 17. Scaling Collaboration from Tasks to Projects to Programmes How many people can you keep in your head? With how many people can you establish close relationships? Dunbar Numbers15 suggest we mentally model natural quantum thresholds at 15 and 150 people. These appear to be based on cognitive limits: the number of people to whom we can pay attention, apply our time, and devote our personality. Do those numbers still apply in a highly virtual world? What can we do to manage scale?

“Every individual has two feet, and must be prepared to use them. Responsibility for a successful outcome in any Open Space Event resides with exactly one person -- each participant. Individuals can make a difference and must make a difference. If that is not true in a given situation, they, and they alone, must take responsibility to use their two feet, and move to a new place where they can make a difference. This departure need not be made in anger or hostility, but only after honoring the people involved and the space they occupy. By word or gesture, indicate that you have nothing further to contribute, wish them well, and go and do something useful.” -- Harrison Owen, A Brief User's Guide To Open Space Technology, 15 “The Dunbar Number as a Limit to Group Sizes,” Christopher Allen,

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What qualitative changes to the effectiveness of collaboration come from scale? Collaborations scale up from a single person with an assignment to small teams and bigger teams with projects up to multiple teams working on a project. What communication issues relate directly to scale?

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About Phil Wolff
Phil Wolff Skype:evanwolf | +1-510-444-8234 | @evanwolf | 245 Lee Street 214, Oakland, CA 94610-4209 Phil Wolff is a thought leader in social media and human capital. He is the managing editor and publisher of the independent Skype Journal, established in 2005. Wolff is on the 2009 steering committee for the DataPortability Project, a public interest technology organization, and is active in other technology standards communities. Blogging on management strategy and information technology since 1998, he successfully field tested social media and emergent organization for eighteen months in the 2004 John Kerry presidential campaign, producing one million phone calls to swing states through a local grassroots community. Wolff was an entrepreneur in residence at the world’s largest staffing company, an operations research analyst for the U.S. Navy, an IT architect and project manager for a custom semiconductor company, a corporate sales trainer, channel sales manager, and marketing manager.

Revision 12. 21 October 2009 5:18:29 AM 2576 words. 13525 characters. 52k.

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