Monday, April 12, 2010

Enterprise 'Chat Roulette': Planning For Unplanned Collaboration (Part 3 in a Series)

(This is part 3 in the "Contextual Collaboration" series. Read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.)

Series Summary: Modern enterprise collaboration technologies have been designed to address the need for workers to efficiently and productively collaborate using realtime communication solutions. However, despite hundreds of collaboration solutions deployed and used, most businesses are still losing productivity. Why is this happening? In this "Contextual Collaboration" series I explore how the "Loss of Context" in business communications affects and limits the productivity gains promised by business collaboration technologies. With "context" as a filter, the series explores which collaboration technologies are able to deliver measurable productivity gains, which ones actually make the problem worse and what kind of new solutions are needed as the nature of work and life change in the face of a constantly changing enterprise business landscape.

In prior posts in the series I explored the growing realization by all of us that information has become too abundant. Enterprise workers are overloaded by "Too Much Information"(TMI) and we all struggle daily just to sort through it. After all the sorting few of us time left to actually process all the information and effectively act on it. The result is that much of the information we do manage to process can lose it's context before it can be leveraged. Without context, information cannot be effectively assessed and incorporated into some productive action. 

What makes this problem especially acute is many of us now work "remotely" in a "satellite offices" or fully independently in "virtual offices" (VO). In more and more industries a growing population of workers are now classified as "Virtual Office workers" with no official, company-owned office to go to every day to do their work. Virtual office workers often initially like the flexibility and reduced commuting time of "VO". But there significant drawbacks to VO.  VO workers lose the benefit of co-located co-workers that they can conveniently collaborate with to help process and act on the business information tsunami. 

In this post I explore one possible technology idea/solution for this face-to-face collaboration problem. The solution is aimed at recapturing what I call the "unplanned productivity" or "emergent productivity" effect that comes from office workers being able to draw on the knowledge and expertise of co-located co-workers. To get started let me explain a little more what do I mean by "Emergent Productivity.

In the past almost everyone went to an office to work with dozens, hundreds or even thousands of coworkers all in the same building, or complex of buildings.  In that settings you and your coworkers would be would be regularly "running into each other in the halls". It was taken for granted that you were always going to be having both planned and unplanned, face-to-face meetings with your coworkers "at the office". It's been widely known for a long time that the most effective and productive meetings were very often those that were not preplanned. These chance, informal hallway meetings were in many cases the most productive minutes in our whole day. They would often result in punctuated leaps in insight or progress due to the unstructured format of the meetings.

We have all experienced this "hallway effect" in the past and for the most part we took for granted how beneficial those meetings were. This is "Emergent Productivity". Simply put it's "Teamwork". But with the explosion of globalization and distributed teams this kind of "Emergent Productivity" is now almost an extinct animal. How do we recapture this effect without rolling back the clock and re-populating all those empty office buildings we all see with the "Space Available" signs in the windows?

A Solution(?): The "Emergent productivity" solution I'm thinking of is something I call "Enterprise Chat Roulette". This solution would be a business-focused solution based on the popular, though controversial, consumer/personal internet service called "Chat Roulette". Chat Roulette is a free website for people who can, on their personal time, get connected randomly with other Chat Roulette users for webcam-based conversations. At any point either user may leave the current chat, by closing the current session. In doing that another random connection is started. As you might imagine, because of the lack of oversight, transparency and rules, there can be a wide variation in the "quality" and type of interactions that are enabled by this solution.

The idea for "Enterprise Chat Roulette"(ECR) is to take the same basic "Chat Roulette" concept and add in transparency, oversight and rules and apply it in a business collaboration context. The rules for ECR would be designed so each ECR solution could be leveraged in an professional, enterprise setting. Properly designed I believe ECR solutions could be used to recreate some of the benefits I discussed above that come out of unplanned face-to-face interactions in the workplace.

The main class of ECR solutions I'm thinking of would be used by businesses to automatically and intelligently connect distributed team members into semi-randomly generated audio/video/whiteboard chat sessions. These sessions would happen at semi-random times throughout the day of each worker. There could be no set agenda planned for these chats, or the system might have very broad topics set for a given chat session. This could simulate and stimulate a completely off the cuff and ad-hoc, face-to-face conversation of the type we used to experience when we all worked together in office buildings. It's perhaps a "non-PC" way to put this but it would be something of an "e-Harmony Speed Collaboration" service for co-workers who are not co-located.

The possibilities here are extensive. For example: The system might be designed to automatically schedule a certain amount of time for every team-member on their daily calendar as "virtual hallway" time. The users would sign in to the "ECR-bridge" and then be connected by the system to one or more co-workers via multimedia session. Before a session starts the system might display to each participant some basic data on the person(s) you are going to be connected to including initially name, role, etc. It could capture how many times you had spoken in the past and a summary of topics discussed on those past ECR conversations.

The system would also then provide some context on what the person or persons are working on in their role for the team. The two or more people brought together on the ECR chat would enter the chat sessions and start talking and/or typing about work topics of interest. Discussions on general personal topics would likely be welcome and even encouraged as part of the team building process. ECR sessions could even be scheduled at lunch/dinner/breakfast times of day if the team members are in timezones where meal times line up. In those cases participants could actually have a "virtual meal" together while chatting. For example you may have one person eating breakfast and another dinner if they are 10 hours apart. The chat sessions could be set for a variety of lengths depending on the desired collaboration and could be extended by certain amounts by mutual agreement if participants have a lot to discuss.

This really is an online, automated version of the practice some businesses had in the past of doing "quad/trio lunches". These were lunches that were planned by randomly picking 3 or 4 coworkers in a large office to go to lunch together. The choices would be made randomly from a pool of workers in an office that signed up for the program. This would give coworkers who aren't normally "lunch friends" a reason to go share a meal and get to know each other better. The goal was to build strong coworker relationships and thereby build a stronger and more productive team.

I believe that ECR collaboration solutions like these could be designed and implemented to recapture some of this same value using modern collaboration technologies. What do you think? Could you see yourself signing up with your virtual coworkers in an ECR pool that would automatically and intelligently help you build and maintain work and even work/personal relationships across  continents, cultures and timezones?

What are some of the other scenarios you can think of for using this ECR concept to help you, your team and your company more productive? 

Looking forward to your ideas and comments.
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