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4.2 Collaboration Technologies and the Milieu

Under the umbrella of collaboration technologies fall the applications devoted to manage information sharing (semi-structured information and documents), communication (threads of conversations) and partially business processes (structures of coordinated activities).[1] The market offers off the shelf solutions that can be grouped under the Web 2.0 keyword[2]: these solutions can be customized to make their typical social networks functionalities fit different organizational settings, from general network of interest up to more structured distributed organizations. Since our goal is to articulate how these technologies impact the milieu for knowledge creation it is useful to make this analysis using the dimensions/facets of social capital that have been introduced in the previous section. We agree with (Huysman & Wulf, 2006) that most of the functionalities of the Web 2.0 applications are oriented to the structural dimension. Actually, accessibility to multimedia information and to people through different devices is the main goal as well as the notification of a series of events that concern them (update, modification, presence and the like). Very often these applications are introduced into the firms for sake of Knowledge Management as if searching, retrieving and reaching information and/or people would suffice to this aim. More rarely, the resulting Corporate Social Networks[3] are introduced with the by far more realistic motivation (and ambition) to trigger best practices that could play the role of an enabler of more effective knowledge sharing behaviours among the network's members (Alberghini, Cricelli, & Grimaldi, 2013).

The true problem with this class of technologies is that it is oriented more to the accumulation of information than to the construction of a context for its interpretation. This latter requires paying attention to the local practices, to identify specific application domain requirements, to reflect on the adopted design strategy: in other words, it requires an effort that is not limited to a shallow customization of general purpose and nowadays standardized functionalities.

An example of this more articulated approach can be found in the IBM project that, starting from the observation of this complex organization and from the “practical techniques that have to do with the cognitive and social factors that come into play in the creation and communication of knowledge”, conceived a series of technologies, among which one that is called Babble, and that was deployed within the IBM itself (Thomas, Kellogg, & Erickson, 2001). This technology falls under the structural dimension of social capital as it handles synchronous and asynchronous communication; however, its innovative functionality is devoted to what is called “social translucence”, that is “the creation, exercise and mutual observation of social behaviour”. Babble supports the ongoing conversations by making visible in a visual way the level of people's participation, the involved topics and the current messages; moreover, Babble supports asynchronous communication by memorizing conversations and by making them accessible through a timeline that shows the communication peaks, who was involved as a speaker or a listener in the hot topics. This persistent and situated representation of the conversations is a resource for a reflection on what was going on: this reflection could foster a more aware participation in the collaborative processes as well as in the learning process of how topics were handled in a more or less successful ways.

Examples of technologies that refer to the cognitive and relational dimensions are more difficult to find: this is not surprising since these dimensions have to take seriously into consideration the context where these technologies are put to work. In consequence of this, these technologies are more dependent on the application domain (although some generalization could be possible if they are suitably designed), if not unique to the situation for which they have been conceived: hence, usually they are not widely spread and sometimes their description is not accessible at all, unless they have been constructed within research projects that document them.

An interesting example of a technology that has been demonstrated for a specific application domain is EDC (Envisionment and Discovery Collaboratories), although its architecture could support the translation of its main functionality in other application domains (Arias, Eden, Fischer, Gorman, & Scharff, 2000). Two are the main intriguing features of EDC whose combination supports the so called “action-reflection” loop, that is an elaboration of the “reflection-in-action” principle (Shoen, 1992). The first feature allows the actors to blend the physical and the virtual representation of the problem at hand (Fig. 1). Problem solving happens around an interactive table that is able to recognize physical objects positioned on it. In the experimental case, the issue was an urban planning problem, the table offered a map of the target territory and the objects were the typically involved entities: houses, bus stops, plants, gardens and the like.[4] This blended representa-

tion allows an easy interaction among interdisciplinary experts by supporting a “problem solving by playing” with the physical objects and by testing the current solution through the (software) simulation of its consequences on the overall environment. Actually, the technology let them focus on the common action (basically, a try-and-error approach) as a means to overcome the disciplinary differences and reduce the hopeless alignment of the different languages and the endless discussions about the premises of an optimal solution (e.g., a priori domain models). Here again, the underspecification of the blended representation plays a fundamental role in knowledge creation and innovation.

The second intriguing feature of EDC is the space for reflection that is separated from the space for action and at the same time is connected to it through the memorization of “experimented” solutions and the recovery of the (new) configurations produced by the reflection. Hence, action and reflection have the

Fig. 1 The action-reflection space in EDC (Arias et al., 2000)

same relevance in problem solving: the former look for a solution by applying existing “codes”; the second elaborates the proposed solutions and feeds the creation of the next one, possibly changing these codes. The reflection can be individual or collective; therefore this change can be the object of a negotiation: in any case it is a contribution to the evolution of the solution, that is a reflection-inaction.

There is an evident tension between the costs and benefits of an ad hoc-solution and those of the customization of a general purpose technology: one might wonder if a compromise can be reached. A possible way to find it is to reinterpret the role of some functionalities that are offered by the general purpose technologies (specifically, the above mentioned WEB 2.0 ones) in the light of the reflection-in-action principle, that is in the light of constructing a space that creates a context for interpretation and reinterpretation.

The introduction of WEB 2.0 technologies within the firms was motivated by the need to make the organization members actively contribute to the contents of the shared information space, typically to collect their work experiences: this is usually done by asking users to tell the story of the more significant episodes of their working life. The available means for this purpose are in general based on almost unstructured texts (produced as uploaded documents or constructed through any sort of writing tool of the platform) that are sometimes difficult to read and surely impossible to retrieve and compare in an efficient way for sake of re-use: the problem at stake is that action is fully separated from reflection, that is without any temporal or logical direct connection. A possible way to overcome this limit could be to define some general structures for these stories that take into account the goal for which they are told, their internal narration and plot, and how each story can be put into relation with other stories (as an enrichment, as a counterexample, as an evolution, etc.). To this aim the above mentioned IBM project aimed at defining a Story Markup Language (StoryML) by which to annotate the story contents according to these criteria. This is an interesting idea that however can generate all the problems that any sort of standardized conceptual scheme is likely to raise (as already discussed). A by far less problematic solution would acknowledge and leverage the fact that work practices are often flanked by the usage of artifacts of the kind we have already described. Then, why not to tell the story “around” those artifacts leveraging a very common habit, that is adding annotations? Actually, almost all WEB 2.0 platforms support them with a dedicated functionality that allows one to share annotations among the platform users. Of course, this functionality should be reinterpreted in the light of the new goal: currently, annotations are supported as a marginal content that is not worth being valorised and made persistent, that is as a sort of scaffolding that has a limited usage and value.[5] On the contrary, they are a powerful means to keep trace of important pieces of information in a contextualized way though the links connecting them with the artifact in use; this is the case also when annotations are added after the use itself as the information inscribed in the artifact is able to recall in the mind of the competent actors the situation that was contextual to the inscription. In the light of this interpretation, an adequate functionality should allow a rich set of ways to link annotations to the source artifact and also to link annotations with other annotations (Cabitza, Simone, & Locatelli, 2012): this second possibility could be exploited to express conversations about a topic thus allowing a collective reflection, a negotiation of meaning; or to express stories when each annotation describes a particular frame of the overall story: in this case the links can generate an open-ended set of narrative structures, far beyond a predefined markup language.[6] Moreover, as annotations can be constituted of semantic tags (that is elements of predefined taxonomies) they can express relationships among the annotated sources and build a rich and annotated web of documents. Finally, as (semantic) annotations can have associated threads of conversations (as alluded above) they could support the collective definition of the meaning of those tags: in so doing, they help alleviating the rigidity of any conceptual model, however expressed, by creating a local context of usage of those tags.

  • [1] Nowadays, business processes management is a component of an information system. Here we consider a light version of it, that is the management of processes that are embedded in other collaborative applications and have in general a reduced complexity
  • [2] Actually, we could also mention the Web 3.0 solutions that endow the former with Semantic Web functionalities, that however show the same criticality mentioned before regarding conceptual modelling, specifically ontologies
  • [3] A Corporate Social Network is in general a WEB 2.0 application that is implemented on a platform that guarantees secure and constrained access rights compliant with the corporate's policies
  • [4] The current technologies could implement the same ideas in an easier way form the technical viewpoint; however the idea is still innovative and poorly supported by general purpose platforms
  • [5] Typically, the annotation interface contains a cue (a tick icon) to check the annotation and make it disappear as “approved” or as “irrelevant”, by the way without distinguishing between the two opposite meanings
  • [6] Some available platforms allow one to associate a forum or to add a thread of comments to a resource (e.g., a document): however it is evident that this is a banal reuse of functionalities that have been conceived for other purposes and are quite rigid with respect what is proposed here
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