New employee orientation

Once in a blue moon I find myself sitting in a new employee orientation. Today, as on other occasions, I was struck by how hard it is for the benefits people to explain their offerings. The presentation is necessarily general but everyone’s circumstances are particular. There’s no good way to bridge that gap in a large group session.

My guess is that a lot of the folks who were in that session today will, upon joining their teams tomorrow, ask for advice about various health and investment options. But team members won’t necessarily be the best sources of advice, because similar work circumstances don’t map to similar life circumstances. What new employees really need is to compare notes with other employees in similar life circumstances.

Benefits people and coworkers often won’t be in a position to meet that need. But a social application that matched up employees in similar life circumstances could be a great way to transfer highly particular kinds of benefits knowledge.

Ambient video awareness and visible conversations

A few years ago Marc Eisenstadt, chief scientist with the Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute, wrote to tell me about a system called BuddySpace. We’ve been in touch on and off since then, and when he heard I’d be in Cambridge for the Technology, Knowledge, and Society conference, he invited me to the OU’s headquarters in Milton Keynes for a visit. I wasn’t able to make that detour, but we got together anyway thanks to KMI’s new media maven Peter Scott, who was at the conference to demonstrate and discuss some of the Open University’s groundbreaking work in video-enhanced remote collaboration.

Peter’s talk focused mainly on Hexagon, a project in “ambient video awareness.” The idea is that a distributed team of webcam-equipped collaborators monitor one anothers’ work environments — at home, in the office, on the road — using hexagonal windows that tile nicely on a computer display. It’s a “room-based” system, Peter says. Surveillance occurs only team members enter a virtual room, thereby announcing their willingness to see and be seen.

Why would anyone want to do that? Suppose Mary wants to contact Joe, and must choose between an assortment of communication options: instant messaging, email, phone, videoconferencing. If she can see that Joe is on the phone, she’ll know to choose email or IM over a phone call or a videoconference. Other visual cues might help her to decide between synchronous IM and asynchronous email. If Joe looks bored and is tapping his fingers, he might be on hold and thus receptive to instantaneous chat. If he’s gesticulating wildly and talking up a storm, though, he’s clearly non-interruptible, in which case Mary should cut him some slack and use email as a buffer.
Juxtaposition

Hexagon has been made available to a number of groups. Some used it enthusiastically for a while. But only one group so far has made it a permanent habit: Peter’s own research group. As a result, he considers it a failed experiment. Maybe so, but I’m willing to cut the project some slack. It’s true that in the real world, far from research centers dedicated to video-enhanced remote collaboration, you won’t find many people who are as comfortable with extreme transparency — and as fluent with multi-modal communication — as Marc and Peter and their crew. But the real world is moving in that direction, and the camera-crazy UK may be leading the way as seen in the photo at right which juxtaposes a medieval wrought-iron lantern and a modern TV camera.

Meanwhile, some of those not yet ready for Hexagon may find related Open University projects, like FlashMeeting, to be more approachable. FlashMeeting is a lightweight videoconferencing system based on Adobe’s Flash Communication Server. Following his talk, Peter used his laptop to set up a FlashMeeting conference that included the two of us, Marc Eisenstadt at OU headquarters, and Tony Hirst who joined from the Isle of Wight. It’s a push-to-talk system that requires speakers to take turns. You queue for the microphone by clicking on a “raise your hand” icon. Like all such schemes, it’s awkward in some ways and convenient in others.

There were two awkward bits for me. First, I missed the free-flowing give-and-take of a full duplex conversation. Second, I had to divide my attention between mastering the interface and participating in the conference. At one point, for example, I needed to dequeue a request to talk. That’s doable, but in focusing on how to do it I lost the conversational thread.

Queue-to-talk is a common protocol, of course — it’s how things work at conferences, for example. In the FlashMeeting environment it serves to chunk the conversation in a way that’s incredibly useful downstream. All FlashMeeting conferences are recorded and can be played back. Because people queue to talk, it’s easy to chunk the playback into fragments that map the structure of the conversation. You can see the principle at work in this playback. Every segment boundary has an URL. If a speaker runs long, his or her segment will be subdivided to ensure fine-grained access to all parts of the meeting.

The chunking also provides data that can be used to visualize the “shape” of a meeting. These conversational maps clearly distinguish between, for example, meetings that are presentations dominated by one speaker, versus meetings that (like ours) are conversations among co-equals. The maps also capture subtleties of interaction. You can see, for example, when someone’s hand has been raised for a long time, and whether that person ultimately does speak or instead withdraws from the queue.

A map of a conversation

I expect the chunking is also handy for random-access navigation. In the conversation mapped here, for example, I spoke once at some length. If I were trying to recall what I said at that point, seeing the structure would help me pinpoint where to tune in.

Although Hexagon hasn’t caught on outside the lab, Peter says there’s been pretty good uptake of FlashMeeting because people “know how to have meetings.” I wonder if that’s really true, though. I suspect we know less about meetings than we think we do, and that automated analysis could tell us a lot.

The simple act of recording and playback can be a revelation. Once, for example, I recorded (with permission) a slightly tense phone negotiation. When I played it back, I heard myself making strategic, tactical, and social errors. I learned a lot from that, and might have learned even more if I’d had the benefit of the kinds of conversational x-rays that the OU researchers are developing.

Virtual worlds with exotic modes of social interaction tend to be headline-grabbers. Witness the Second Life PR fad, for example. By contrast, technology that merely reflects our real-world interactions back to us isn’t nearly so sexy. For most of us, though, in most cases, it might be a lot more useful.

In Redmond next week

My new job at Microsoft starts Monday, and I’ll be on campus in Redmond all week. The first 1.5 days are all HR stuff I’m told, but after that I’ll be available. I’m setting up various meetings, but of course I don’t know many of the folks I ought to meet. So if you’re one of those folks, would like to get together, and are within earshot of this blog, speak up. We could maybe coordinate right here in comments, or if that’s too weird, then email me at my permanent address, judell at mv dot com.

A case of suspected fraud

I had an odd experience a few weeks ago, related to the conference I just attended. The Australian organizers had volunteered to book my Boston-London flight. Then one afternoon I got a call from Charlotte, a travel agent who works in the U.S. branch of the organizers’ Australian travel agency. She thought the booking was probably fraudulent, and cited three reasons:

  1. The booking was issued in the name of one of the organizers, but I was listed as the traveler.
  2. The fare was unusually high.
  3. The email address, which concatenated the organizer’s name with the name of the travel agency, seemed odd to her.

She: “I’m pretty sure this is bogus.”

Me: “How would it be in someone’s interest to fraudulently book me a flight?”

She: “Who knows? It could be anything. When you’ve seen as much of this kind of thing as I have, you give up on trying to figure out people’s motives.”

Suddenly the whole thing felt wrong to me. I recalled how sparse the conference website had been when I’d last visited it the week before. The keynote speakers, including me, were listed, but everything else was placeholders. So I went back to the site and…nothing was there. Holy crap! Was it conceivable that the whole deal was some kind of malicious prank? That unlikely conclusion began to seem disturbingly likely when I googled around, found the organizer’s site and an affiliated academic site, and discovered that they were dead too.

Finally I found a page listing advisory board members, and called the person who lives closest to me, an academic in New Jersey. She verified that the company and conference were real. When I went back to recheck the websites they were up and running again, and the suspiciously sparse schedule was now fully populated.

My post-mortem analysis of this strange combination of circumstances raised a couple of interesting points:

Eyeballs on transactions.
After things got sorted out and the flight was booked, I had a long conversation with the travel agent. It seemed unusual that she had personally reviewed this transaction and, on her own initiative, flagged it as suspicious. Was that company policy, I asked? No, she said. The company mostly uses an automated system. It just happens that, in her remote branch office, Charlotte sees all the bookings, is motivated to review them, and brings substantial energy and intelligence to that task.

She told me she catches real fraud attempts every week or so. To the company at large, this is just spoilage. It gets written off as a cost of doing business. We assume that eyeballs on transactions are uneconomical. But is that really true? After this experience, and in view of my conversation with Paul English about the practicality of human-intensive customer service, I wonder if we should revisit that assumption.

Locality of trust.
This was an international conference, and the members of the advisory board live all around the world. The one I chose to contact, though, is the one who lives closest to me. Of course I’d be unlikely to call overseas first, because of long-distance tolls and time zones. But there were various folks in the U.S. I could have called, yet I picked the person who lives in New Jersey. Why? In retrospect I believe that’s because New Jersey is closer to my home than Illinois or California. Of course it’s completely irrational to trust a New Jerseyite more than a Californian for that reason. And yet, at a moment when nothing seemed certain, I acted out that irrational behavior. Trust shouldn’t diminish as the square of distance but, in our unconscious minds, I think it probably does. I’ll bet Jim Russell would agree.

All’s well that ends well. The conference organizers turned out to be really pleasant folks. (I’m downplaying their identities here, though you could triangulate them if you wanted to, because they’re naturally a bit embarrassed about what happened.) I enjoyed giving my talk, I met interesting people, I got to see Cambridge for the first time, it was a good trip. But for a couple of hours on that afternoon in December things were really weird!

Future tailors

I’m at the Technology, Knowledge, and Society conference in Cambridge UK, where I spoke this morning on the theme of network-enabled apprenticeship. It’s a topic I began developing last fall for a talk at the University of Michigan. I don’t feel that I nailed it the first time around, nor this time either, but it’s provoked a lot of interesting and helpful discussion.

My argument is that for most of human history, in tribal life, village life, or farm life, it was common to be able to watch people do their daily work. Kids who grew up on a farm, for example, saw the whole picture — animal husbandry, equipment maintenance, finance. They understood more about work than kids who only saw dad go to the office, do nobody knew what, and return at the end of the day.

To the extent that we now find it culturally acceptable to narrate our work online, in textual and especially in multimedia formats, we can among other things function as teachers and mentors. We can open windows into our work worlds through which people can find out, much more than was ever possible before, what it is like to do various kinds of work.

I claim this will help people, in particular younger people, sample different kinds of work and, in some cases, progress from transient web interactions to deeper relationships in cyberspace and/or in meatspace. And I suggest that those relationships could evolve into something resembling apprenticeships.

There are plenty of holes in this argument, and James Governor, whom I met for the first time yesterday in London, drove a truck through one of them. It’s nice to have loose coupling and lightweight affiliation, he said, but apprenticeship was always a durable commitment that involved submitting to a discipline. It wasn’t about window-shopping. Point taken.

Today on a walk in Cambridge I met Andrew Jackson, a bespoke tailor who’s just opened up a shop here, and we had a great conversation on this topic. Thanks to Thomas Mahon’s English Cut, which is a great example of work narration, I know a lot more than I otherwise would about this craft. When I asked Andrew if he’s having trouble bringing people into the business I touched a nerve. It’s a huge issue for him.

Maybe, I suggested, online narration of aspects of his craft would be a way to attract worthy apprentices. But he was way ahead of me. Among other things his firm trains tailors in other countries, and they deliver that training over the Internet, using video. That’s not the problem, he said. The problem is that young people just don’t want to do the work. They want to be rock-star fashion designers, not cutters and tailors, and they will not submit to the discipline of his trade. What’s worse, he added, is that little or no stigma now attaches to unemployment.

Andrew Jackson has a good job that nobody else seems to want. The same holds true, he says, for the guy who fixes all the lead-framed windows in Cambridge. He’s been doing it forever, he knows everybody in the town, he does lucrative and socially rewarding work, and yet he cannot find anyone who wants to help him and eventually step into his role.

So, back to the drawing board. I do think that online narration of work will be a necessary way to attract new talent. But it may not be sufficient. It may also be necessary to demonstrate the non-monetary rewards of doing the work. The window repairer, for example, may enjoy low stress and much autonomy, may see and hear a lot of the interior life of the town, and may enjoy pleasant relationships with long-term customers.

If he told you his story, or if someone else did, those rewards might become clear to you. Admittedly there’s no guarantee that outcome will occur. But if nobody tells the story, we can pretty much guarantee that it won’t.

A conversation with Graham Glass about the future of education

This week’s podcast is a conversation with Graham Glass, a software veteran who’s self-funding the development of edu 2.0, a web-based educational support system. It seems like a big change from Graham’s previous projects: ObjectSpace Voyager, The Mind Electric’s Glue and Gaia, webMethods Fabric. But not really, says Graham. It’s always been about the reuse of components, whether they’re software objects or learning objects.

Graham and I share a passion for project-based learning, and in the podcast he refers to an EdVisions video on that subject which you can find here. I also (again) referenced the extraordinary talk by John Willinsky which I discussed and linked to here.

I know that technologists always say that the latest inventions are going to revolutionize education, and I know that mostly hasn’t been true. Still, I can’t help but think that we’re on verge of a dramatic overhaul of education, and that systems like the one Graham is building will play a key role in enabling that to happen.

Trusted feeds

As several folks rightly pointed out in comments here, a community site based on tagging and syndication is exquisitely vulnerable to abuse. In the first incarnation of the photos page, for example, a malicious person could have posted something awful to Flickr and it would have shown up on that page. Flickr has its own abuse-handling system, of course, but its response time might not be quick enough to avert bad PR for elmcity.info.

My first thought was to attach an abuse-reporting link to every piece of externally sourced content. It would be a hair trigger that would — in a Wiki-like way — allow anyone to shoot first (i.e., remove an offensive item immediately) and enable the site management to ask questions later (i.e., review logs, revert removals if need be.)

I’m still interested in trying that approach, but not as the mainstay. Instead I want to promote the idea of trusted feeds. There are currently two on that photos page, one from Flickr and one from local blogger Lorianne DiSabato. I know Lorianne and I trust her to produce a stream of high-quality photos (and essays) about life in our community.

After reviewing the Flickr photostreams of the people whose recent photos match a Flickr search for “Keene NH” I decided to extend provisional trust to them, as well, so I put their names on a list of trusted feeds.

Then I restricted the page to just those feeds, and added a note explaining that anyone who sends an email request can join the list of trusted feeds.

Of course anything short of frictionless participation is an obstacle. On the other hand, based on my conversation with Paul English about customer service, there’s a lot to be said for a required step in the process that forms a human relationship — attenuated by email, true, but still, a relationship.

I think it’s even more interesting when the service, or site, is rooted in a geographical place. On the world wide web, I’m always forming those kinds of relationships with people I will never meet. But on a place-based site, I may already have met these folks. If I haven’t yet, I might still. Trust on the Internet has a very different flavor when the scope is local.

A couple of years ago I was on a panel of media types at a local community leadership seminar, where I was the token blogger. The topic was how the community gathers and disseminates news. NHPR’s executive editor Jon Greenberg said what needed to be said about blogging, which was helpful because it was more credible to that audience coming from him than from me. Even so, there was a lot of pushback. When it was suggested that people could consume a richer and more varied diet of news, they balked. “It’s your[the media’s] job to sift and summarize, not ours.”

Similarly, when it was suggested that people could produce news about the local issues where they are stakeholders and have important knowledge, the pushback was: “But you can’t trust random information on the Internet.”

I found that fascinating. Here were a bunch of folks — a hospital administrator, a fire chief, a school nurse, a librarian — who all know one another. What they seemed to be saying, though, is the Internet would invalidate that trust.

Now I assume that they trust emails from one another. Likewise phone calls, which are increasingly carried over the Internet. And if the fire chief wrote a blog that the school nurse subscribed to, there would be no doubt in the mind of John, the school nurse, that the information blogged by Mary, the fire chief, was real and trustworthy.

Until you join the two-way web, though, you don’t really see how it’s like other familiar modes of communication: phone, email. Or how the nature of that communication differs depending on whether the communicating parties live near one another.

If feeds begin to flow locally, it’ll be easy to trust them in a way that’ll supply most of the moderation we need. The problem, of course, is getting those feeds to flow. Bill Seitz asked:

So you think the “average” person will have Flickr and del.icio.us accounts in addition to joining your site?

No, I don’t, though over time more will use these or equivalent services. So yes, I also need to show how any online resource that’s being created, anywhere, for any purpose, can flow into the community site. It only takes two agreements:

  1. An agreement on where to find the source.
  2. An agreement to trust the source.

In the short-to-medium term, those sources are not going to be friendly to me, the developer. So I’ll have to go the extra mile to bring them in, as I’m doing on the events page.