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by Christopher Allen

From the Fall 1990 issue of Applied Groupware © 1995 Consensus Development Corporation -- All Rights Reserved

There is a facet of groupware that is important to keep in mind when designing collaborative applications. In simplest terms "balance communication and conversation."

I define communication as a method of transferring ideas from one person to another, and then verifying that the ideas have been transmitted. Effective communication tends to be more formal, and has the purpose of transferring specific knowledge.

Conversation, on the other hand, does not have a specific goal in mind. Instead it is a less formal way of browsing through the possibilities of future communication between parties. When a common interest is discovered, people change over to a more purposeful form of communication.

A groupware system that is too formal (too oriented toward communication) tends to be narrow and dry. It is like reading an encyclopedia -- useful, but often stifling to creativity and innovation.

A groupware system that is to informal (too oriented toward conversation) tends to become chaotic. As it is communication that "pays" for the system, too much conversation lowers the perceived value of a system. Eventually such a system is not used because fewer conversations become communication.

A good groupware system has a balance between communication and conversation. You may be able to exchange information efficiently, and be able to chat informally as well.

For instance, take an old groupware system -- the company: If a company is too formal, information gets stovepiped into vertical lines of communication. At each exchange point (salesman to sales manager to director of sales to vp of marketing to president) certain kinds of information are often lost. Control over this kind of system is effective -- that is why the military uses this form of communication. However, the cost is stifled innovation.

If a company is too informal, it takes too long to make a decision because of the amount of time it takes to reach a consensus between many parties. In a small company this can be ok, but in a large one it can take so long to resolve a crisis that the company can fail.

The best companies keep a balance of formal communication and informal conversation. There is a reasonably efficient method of control over decision making, and enough chatting and conversations between individuals supplant the information gathering that affects decision making.

I think this is part of the reason that companies like Apple have been effective. On one hand Apple has a structure with John Sculley at the top. In addition to this formal organization there is abundant informal structure. People throughout the company are peers: John Sculley can be seen jogging outside the Apple campus in the mornings, and wears informal clothes. People can complain to John by email. Weekly beer bashes, ping pong, popcorn, and espresso in different buildings allow all levels of people to chat. With Apple's formal organization being reorganized every few quarters this informal structure is in many ways a more consistent one, as it survives the changes.

The price Apple pays for this informality is that it sometimes takes too long for Apple to reach a consensus (one of the causes of some of their more recent troubles.) Yet Apple is admired for its innovation and creativity, supported by the informality of the organization.

A software example: The first version of The Coordinator (1), a PC based electronic mail system, uses a formalized communication structure based on "Speech Act Theory." (2) When released it met mixed acceptance. Even a positive review offered that "The Coordinator is a bit stern for my taste" and a negative review declared that "it succeeds in creating structure, but it also succeeds in making me feel uneasy as it tries to form my human exchanges into cold contracts." (3)

In a six month academic study of The Coordinator at Pacific Bell using technical professionals "The basic finding was...the stoppage of use by a majority of subjects. In this sense their actions spoke louder than their words. When questioned, they stated that the format of their interaction pattern encouraged by the software was 'unnatural,' 'uncomfortable,' and 'made no sense' to them." (4)

Some researchers argue that The Coordinator's problems are due to separating the Speech Acts into different forms of text, and that communication is a whole from which no part should be differentiated. Others, myself included, have the opinion that the software falls down not because of its textual differentiation, but because it has excluded the informal side of conversation.

In more recent versions of the product, Action Technologies has addressed these problems by allowing less structured conversations. This appears to resolve many of the objections to The Coordinator, but, the bad press from the initial version of the product still haunts the company.

When designing a groupware application, build both the formal communication and the informal conversation channels. Structure is important, but so is the ability to work freely around it. Look for the right balance.

(1) The Coordinator is published by Action Technologies, Inc. 1145 Atlantic Ave., Alameda, CA 94501, (415) 521-6190.

(2) For more information on "Speech Acts" read the book Understanding Computers and Cognition by Terry Winograd and Fernando Flores, published in 1987 by Addison Wesley Publishing Company. $12.95 from most academic or computer bookstores.

(3) Both quotes are from the October 1988 issue of PC/Computing.

(4) Grantham & Crasik, from The Phenomenology of Computer Supported Cooperative Work, published in 1988 by Interpersonal Software, Berkeley, CA (out of print.) Contact the editors about copies.



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