Last week's post by Jim McGee Managing the visibility of knowledge work kicked off a nice conversation on Observable Work (using a term introduced by Jon Udell) including: my blog post expanding on a comment I wrote on Jim's post; Brian Tullis's Observable Work: The Taming of the Flow based on a comment Brian made on Jim's post, which he found from a Twitter update by @jmcgee retweeted by @roundtrip; a Twitter conversation using the hash tag #OWork (for "Observable Work"); John Tropea's comment back to Jim from a link in a comment I left on John's Ambient Awareness is the new normal post; Jim's Observable work - more on knowledge work visibility (#owork), linking back to Mary Abraham's TMI post and Jack Vinson's Invisible Work - spray paint needed post, both written in response to Jim's original post; followed by Jack Vinson's Explicit work (#owork) and Paula Thornton's Enterprise 2.0 Infrastructure for Synchronicity.
That's a bunch of links! But I include them for a reason. [ For anyone who finds the presence of inline links distracting, see Apology to the Easily Distracted, below. ]
This modest trail is not only observable - it's spread over about a dozen posts on eight unrelated blog servers using unrelated software, loosely coupled by conversations, links and hash tags observable in the Web commons known as Twitter. The only things that connect this trail are links, search, syndicated feeds and serendipity. In the words of Ted Nelson this is an intertwingled trail - although not very deeply intertwingled, and not that easy to follow.
That brings three points to mind:
1) The fact that "intertwingle" is an amusing word can obscure an important idea I believe Ted Nelson is a Casandra-like inventor blessed and cursed with a rapier wit and the ability to invent concepts and coin terms that stick deeply in peoples minds. Hypertext one of the terms Ted coined and concepts he invented - working independently from Doug Engelbart at about the same time - inspired by the work of Vannevar Bush.
One of Ted's mantras: "EVERYTHING IS DEEPLY INTERTWINGLED. In an important sense there are no "subjects" at all; there is only all knowledge, since the cross-connections among the myriad topics of this world simply cannot be divided up neatly." Ted Nelson, Computer Lib / Dream Machines, 1974
Although I think it's useful to believe in the existence of subjects, in the past, conversations could only be intertwingled across paper memos, faxes, written reports and email. Until the advent of the Web it wasn't possible to intertwingle conversations, networks, analysis and work in near-real time and global scale. Now that's trivial and essentially free with basic Web access.
2) The Web does what it's intended to do, so long as content is addressable and findable. The trail on observable work isn't stored in one specific place - but with a little effort it's possible to follow the flow and join the conversation.
The fact that blog posts and comments are created and served by different content server systems is irrelevant, so long as the content is addressable using basic Web standards. How the different servers store the addressed content internally is likewise irrelevant so long as they deliver the content using Web content standards.
The fact that you don't need a single common place to contain all trails is an advantage of the Web, not a disadvantage. It makes finding and linking harder, but the creation and association of trails infinitely easier than trying to force the world into a common "Observable Work" space you create in Lotus Notes, forum, Wave or whatever.
The Web succeeds succeeds by making it possible for anyone anywhere to create a trail which others can find, follow and join using nothing more than their own Web browser, Web search layered over the basic Web, and a place like Twitter (one of many places where anyone can easily create visible, Web indexed trails).
The Web doesn't guarantee that you'll be aware of conversations on observable work going on in other trails unless you search or stumble upon a link which leads you connect the two. I don't follow discussions on LinkedIn, but might be alerted to something interesting there by someone I follow in a commons like Twitter where I do participate.
The fact that everything posted publicly on Web is potentially observable doesn't lead mean you have to deal with Too Much Information shoved in your face - or into your email box.
You choose who and what to follow, augmented by Web search and your ability to jump in and join or forget about and a trail at any time - although you might hold on to a link so it's easy to find the trail again if you change your mind.
3) Business context makes intertwingled work easier to create, discover and use. Unlike the public Web, work in a private or public organization has a purpose and context that can make intertwingled work easier to discover and talk about. Work and discussion in an organization generally take place in the context of broad business activities like sales, product development, research, finance or administration, and the finer grain of a particular case or transaction. Context in an enterprise can be represented as a place where work and conversation happens, with reliable privacy aware search, tagging, linking, comments, status updates and activity streams.
I believe the important point is supporting business context - not business process in the sense of transactional workflow or automated systems. I believe that functionally specialized transactional systems in an organization will likely remain silos of structured information - but market forces will drive vendors to make their content addressable using simple Web standards and services - with consistent authentication and visibility based on context dependent business rules.
These functionally specialized systems will also signal their status using social computing standards that are now starting to take shape. This will push routine reporting and dealing with exceptions from transactional systems into the "social" places where people can stay informed, recognize issues and exceptions and decide what to do. In an ideal world, transactional systems would provide authenticated access to Web addressable content or analysis, signals based on routing activity or exceptions, Web sensible control interfaces - and not a much more. Most human access would be handled on the Web rather than transactional processing side. I believe the Web has become a valid, scalable and secure alternative to proprietary stacks for integrating most enterprise software at the user experience level.
Much of what a sociologist would call "social" behavior when talking about Enterprise 2.0 would naturally center on the sociology of work: how people communicate and interact with others while dealing with questions, issues, exceptions, suggestions and the messy stuff that routine transactional systems can't handle, along with interpersonal relationships that develop in a specific context or as member of an extended enterprise (including customers, suppliers, consultants and external as well as internal stakeholders).
On top of relationships based well-established patterns of work and conversation - Andrew McAfee's strong ties - enterprise social software opens the door to discovering people and groups who most folk in a large organization would never meet face to face.
This offers the same opportunities for serendipitous discovery we see on the public Web, but with privacy in context which enables open discussion and shared goals and purpose that are part of what Peter Drucker calls the purpose of an organization: "The purpose of an organization is to enable ordinary humans beings to do extraordinary things."
Much of what's challenging about using "observable work" principles can be addressed by examples at top, middle and grassroots levels of an organization. What's needed is a willingness to tolerate and encourage observable work in the small under local control, and leadership to make it an enterprise norm.
As Paula Thornton says: "For as much as people want to make Enterprise 2.0 about technologies, then I’m willing to concede this: Enterprise 2.0 is the means by which to achieve Work 2.0 to deliver Business 2.0."
To be continued Jim, Brian, John, Mary, Jack, Paula, Mark, Gordon, Rawn, Jose, JP, Tom, Deb and the rest of the World - over to you. The best way to follow the evolution of the Observable Work trail is Twitter's #OWork tag. All of the participant's seem to use Twitter as a commons linking posts that either directly respond to the Observable Work conversation, or are related in some interesting way, such as Tom Peter's Strategy: Space Matters ("who sits next to whom in your office can make a huge difference"), JP Rangaswami's Musing about learning by doing, Deb Lavoy's Common Operating Picture - share facts, debate possibilities, John Tropea's link to Keith Swanson's excellent slide set, and John's soon-to-be-published post on Adaptive Case Management.
Unfortunately, neither Twitter nor Google's hash tag search seems complete and reliable. So far as I can tell not all Tweets mentioning are found by either service. There's room for improvement on the public Web as well as the Enterprise 2.0 domain.
Apology to the Easily Distracted: Readers who find embedded links distracting don't have to click while reading the paragraph. I apologize if using the Web to source references that would be unimaginably difficult to provide in any other medium is a distraction. I believe it's not hard to exercise a little discipline when reading, then go back and click any links where you'd like to dive deeper based on your interests. I like to put a small number of See Also links at the bottom of posts where you can dive deeper if you choose.
A Fabric, not a Platform - "I believe what's needed is a fabric for actionable work that lives over traditional cloud platforms and services. Not one big box where all the work gets done, but a thin layer of pages, messages, and trails of activity using identity and a work graph to enable people, bots, and AIs to understand what people want to do, how to find the right objects, and how to do it. Transactional and other work done inside a system of record or a selected service platform will still be done using that platform, linked from the actionable objects in the work graph using standard W3C links or vendor API services."
The Work Graph Model: TeamPage style - "...A work graph consists of the units of work (tasks, ideas, clients, goals, agenda items); information about that work (relevant conversations, files, status, metadata); how it all fits together; and then the people involved with the work (who’s responsible for what? which people need to be kept in the loop?)"
Reinventing the Web - Ted Nelson, Tim Berners-Lee and the evolution of the Web. The Web rightly won versus "better" models by turning permanence into a decentralized economic decision.
Reinventing the Web II - Why isn't the Web a reliable and useful long term store for the links and content people independently create? What can we do to fix that? Who benefits from creating spaces with stable, permanently addressable content? Who pays? What incentives can make Web scale permanent, stable content with reliable bi-directional links and other goodies as common and useful as Web search over the entire flakey, decentralized and wildly successful Web?
The Future of Work Platforms: Like Jazz - The social dance of getting things done, dealing with exceptions, and staying aware of what’s going around you
Fixing Enterprise Search - Context and addressable content in functional line of business systems
Enterprise 2.0 - Letting hypertext out of its box - Hypertext and the Web
User Experience Standards for Social Computing in the Enterprise Notes for Mike Gotta E2.0 Boston 2010 panel
Enterprise 2.0 and Observable Work - A riff on themes from Jim McGee and Jon Udell