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Welcome to WikiSym, Welcome to the Future

After the fun and excitement of AoIR 2007, I've made the quick but painful overnight trip to Montréal for the two-day International Symposium on Wikis, which takes part here in association with the much larger OOPSLA conference (in case you're wondering as I was: apparently this stands for Object-Oriented Programming, Systems, Languages, and Applications). Happily, Montréal is enjoying a very pleasant Indian summer which is a welcome break from Vancouver's incessant drizzle... Naturally, the WikiSym conference also has its own wiki, which should be worth checking for comments on the presentations over the next few days.

The opening keynote at this conference is by Jonathan Grudin, who begins by noting the emergence of a second generation of technologies and technology users which puts a focus on a new range of skills and behaviours now becoming commonplace - from multimedia authoring to multitasking, from emotion and engagement with others in online spaces to the growing need to develop skills in searching, browsing, assessing, and synthesising information. An earlier generation of interactive technology users, starting perhaps with students' and office workers' use of email in the mid-80s, operated under a context of limited access which offered communciation only with friends whose email addresses were known, of non-interoperable email clients, of ephemerality as storage costs for email were prohibitive, of informality as formal content was still transmitted via printed memo, and of organisational distrust of email as a medium for conversation and chit-chat.

Today, tools like instant messaging are in a similar position as email was then, but like email are also likely to become far more widespread and ultimately universal; their use is spreading rapidly, there is pressure to remove technological limits and pursue greater interoperability; recording of IM conversations is becoming more common, and use is becoming more formal and even mission-critical. Human nature, on the other hand, does not change very quickly - we have been used to work in smallish groups for millions of years, but not necessarily in larger and more complex organisations and communities, and yet technology change is increasingly pointing in that direction.

About every ten years, a completely new platform has emerged and gained dominance in the computing field - from vacuum tube computers (1950s) to transistor-based mainframes (1960s), mini- (1970s) and microcomputers (1980s), hand-helds (1990s), and embedded devices (2000s). New fields of research have also been associated with this - human factors and ergonomics (1950s), management and information systems (1960s), office systems (1970s), computer-human interaction (1980s), ubiquitous computing (1990s), and more. Growth, as predicted by Moore's Law, has been non-linear and perhaps exponential, and therefore perhaps difficult to understand intuitively; the rapidity of change as the exponential really takes off also makes it virtually impossible even for experienced researchers to make informed predictions for the future. (Jonathan uses the rise of the GUI as an example here.) Additionally, of course, technology availability does not necessarily mean market uptake, for a variety of technical and especially also social reasons.

Historically, impacts of hardware changes were felt immediately in hardware research and development, then in software R&D (from the 70s onwards), in user R&D (in the 80s), and later in consumer behaviour (now) and organisational and institutional behaviour in the not so distant future), Jonathan suggests. Emerging technologies will further affect this - multiplayer games, for example, highlight the dynamics of group behaviour and offer new ways to form and organise groups (possibly exclusively online), new ways of viewing the world (from an immersed perspective), and new (gamelike, trial-and-error) approaches to learning; wikis, as another example, offer important new opportunities for organisation in the workplace. Wikis are lightweight and accessible, but provide challenges of motivation and management; there are ideal niches where there is a recognised need to communicate and a clear division of labour between participants, for example. Blogs, too, are increasingly used in the workplace, even if they continue to be popularly recognised still mainly for their diaristic or citizen-journalistic functions; in corporations, there are 'incoming' uses for blogs in event coverage and in monitoring comments on a company's product, 'externally facing' uses which offer a tremendous ability to put a human face on the corporation, and 'internally facing' uses which offer a new approach to project visibility and knowledge management within the organisation.

Some such emerging technologies may be used to address common organisational problems of managing information and knowledge: digital documents are difficult to find (as adding metadata is work, and people disagree on labels); documents are difficult to assess where the context is missing; and people therefore often bypass the document system altogether (and expertise locator system designed to address such problems hasn't succeeded). Solutions to such problems may lie in unstructured tagging (which is lightweight, visible, and bottom-up - taxonomic ontologies may be overrated); in project Weblogs which link to document repositories (acting as a kind of project read-me file or annotation system); and in search technologies which tiee into existing browsing skills amongst users.

Web-based community software is thriving as more of our lives has moved online, and software is engaging, lightweight, and inexpensive; organisations are slower to adopt, however out of a worry about takeup by older user populations, problems with security concerns and firewalls, productivity concerns, and a critical mass barrier which means that in smaller social units a larger percentage of users need to start using a tool for it to gain a critical number of users.

There is a matrix of group functions which can be outlined here (drawing on McGrath, 1991). Groups are always in one of four modes of activity: inception, problem-solving, conflict resolution, or execution. At each stage, measures for the quality of production, group well-being, and member support can be established (these are the three key functions of group work). Production functions move through stages of production demand and opportunity, technical problem-solving, policy resolution, and performance; group well-being functions through interaction demand and opportunity, role network definition, power and payoff disribution, and interaction; member support functions through inclusion demand and opportunity, oposition and status attainment, contribution and payoff distribution, and participation. Much of the group work evaluation models focus on only one or a few of these aspects (for example on performance).

We are today moving from a history in oral and literate cultures to a new formation as a digital society. Oral societies are aggregative, redundant, homeostatic, traditionalist, situational, and empathic in their engagement with cultural content; literate societies, on the other hand, are analytic, sparse, cumulative, experimental, abstract, and objective as they deal with information. Digital societies, on the other hand, are characterised by synthetic approaches to information gathering; their content is multiform and dynamic; most of all, they must learn to be tolerant: activities at one place and time can and will affect developments at another - our actions follow us, and new frontiers and fresh starts are gone. Actions are no longer informal, local, and situated, but globally visible; we act on a world stage. These developments have been a long time in coming, but digital technologies significantly accelerate such changes.

The only alternative to such tolerance is repression - on the one hand, there exist beliefs about how people behave or should behave, laws, regulations, policies, procedures, and social norms; on the other, there is ample information about how people actually do behave, and this greater visibility exposes inconsistencies, violations, and the uneven enforcement of applicable rules. Which side will win out remains to be seen - will we adjust our behaviours to existing rules, or adjust rules to suit emergent behaviours? As technology is ever more deeply integrated into our lives, our flaunting of rules is becoming ever more visible, and top-down enforcement of rules is increasingly shown to be inappropriate and ill-suited to specific contexts (yet some emerging products still continue to increase the ease with which policy compliance can be technologically enforced on a blanket basis).

Sometimes, then, behaviour is going to be constrained to fit policy; sometime, more nuanced rules will emerge. Overall, Jonathan believes, our understanding of and tolerance for the ways in which people actually do work will, perhaps must, increase, however - the only alternative to this is an ever greater amount of time spent on policing and enforcement. Teams, groups, organisations have a crucial role to play in developing such more tolerant approaches.

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Axel: Glad to see you are blogging about WikiSym, and I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts. For now, and everyone reading this: WikiSym takes three days, so don't forget the Workshops and Open Space day! It is an integral part of WikiSym.