In the 1980s, long before the rise of online social networks, Irene Greif helped found the field of computer-supported coöperative work (CSCW), which explores how technology helps people collaborate. Today Greif is an IBM fellow, the company’s highest technical honor, and director of collaborative user experience in IBM Research. Jodi Slater, who worked with Greif at Lotus Development after it was bought by IBM in the 1990s and later cofounded the business consultancy MarketspaceNext, recently spoke with Greif for Technology Review about why some of the hardest collaboration problems have nothing to do with technology.
TR: How are today’s technologies that help employees collaborate different from those that existed before, such as Lotus Notes?
Greif: What got researchers interested in starting this field [CSCW] was that anthropologists went into offices and started seeing the kinds of things that break when you automate too much. Mostly that happened because the automation was online, people were not involved, and personal conversations were eliminated. The automation “process” handed off a form to someone. It might notice they were on vacation, it might tell someone, and it might not.
These were cautionary tales: “Don’t get too excited about automating, because you could break things.” [One problem was that] the informal things [about office interactions] were offline and the formal were online. That is what really has changed the most. So much of the informal is online now that we can try to bring them together. More and more we are trying to link formal workflows and informal information, and we have an opportunity to act instead of just worry as we did in the ’80s.
What about knowledge management, which sought to create central repositories inside companies for information that would otherwise be scattered around? Why was that not more successful?
Knowledge management focused on asking, “How do we get information out of people’s heads? How can we force them to write it down?” That just didn’t work. Now, social software is drawing people in, and they are contributing information. It is happening so much more naturally.
How has this played out in IBM?
We started by taking ideas that were working on the Internet and bringing them into the company. We wanted to see whether those ideas would take off naturally inside a company. Dogear was exactly that kind of experiment because we were taking something that had existed [on the Internet] in Delicious for sharing bookmarks [to items of interest online] and brought it inside. People had to use their real names, and they could bookmark things inside and outside the company. For searches on the intranet, people liked what they got from Dogear better than what they got from the regular intranet search that relied primarily on text analytics. Now it is a standard feature and the CIO has put it on our search page.