James Farmer - Deakin University
James Farmer is a designer, educator, writer and technologist living and working in Melbourne, Australia.
Centred Communication: Weblogs and aggregation in the organisation
Over the last decade business, educational and community organisations have attempted to enhance their operations through utilizing the web. A significant amount of this effort has been directed towards the development and management of internal communities, employee knowledge and organisational information. To this end, complex and powerful tools have been sourced, developed and implemented to create intranets, learning management systems, community sites, portals and virtual team spaces.
However, while many organisational communication processes have been revolutionised by direct interpersonal communication through email and Instant Messaging (IM), only limited successes have been achieved through the use of these web-based environments. It is argued that this has occurred as a result of the limitations in design of tools brought about by a tendency to embrace tree-like and centralised principles and their associated technological solutions.
In light of these arguments, this paper outlines an alternative, centred (as opposed to centralised) approach to online communication. In doing this, an organisational online communication model based around the use of weblogs and aggregation is presented and discussed in relation to its application in a large, distributed and complex setting. Key to this model are the assumptions that ownership, control, independence, choice and design for subversive use are critical in establishing conducive, motivating, authentic and effective online communication and knowledge environments.
Semilattices & Trees, ‘artificial’ and ‘natural’ environments
Writing 1965 in relation to the flawed principles inherent in the design of ‘artificial’ cities the celebrated architect, Christopher Alexander, commented that:
‘In a traditional society, if we ask a man to name his best friends and then ask each of these in turn to name their best friends, they will all name each other so that they form a closed group. A village is made up of a number of separate closed groups of this kind.
But today’s social structure is utterly different. If we ask a man to name his friends and then ask them in turn to name their friends, they will all name different people, very likely unknown to the first person; these people would again name others, and so on outwards. There are virtually no closed groups of people in modern society. The reality of today’s social structure is thick with overlap - the systems of friends and acquaintances form a semilattice, not a tree’ [Alexander, 1965, part I]
‘Artificial’ and ‘natural’ cites (such as Brasilia, Columbia and British new towns compared to Siena, Liverpool, Kyoto and Manhattan), Alexander argued, are distinguished primarily by a tree-like design of the ‘artificial’ as opposed to the semilattices seen in ‘natural’ cities. A tree-like design insists that each element is either wholly contained or totally disjointed from other elements whereas a semilattice sees elements overlapping each other and that overlap being common to both elements and the whole. A tree, to Alexander, is a system where ‘no piece of any unit is ever connected to other units, except through the medium of that unit as a whole’. It is the easiest and perhaps the default vehicle for complex thoughts and consequently pervasive in complex design.
The damage is done when this structure is applied to the cities we inhabit. It is when we ignore the overlapping reality of social and physical relationships in favour of a simplistic, graspable, tree-like structure that things start to go badly awry:
‘The city is a receptacle for life. If the receptacle severs the overlap of the strands of life within it, because it is a tree, it will be like a bowl full of razor blades on edge, ready to cut up whatever is entrusted to it… If we make cities which are trees, they will cut our life within to pieces.’ (Alexander, 1965, part II)
The particular relevance of this observation can be found in the growth of another ‘receptacle for life’ over the last 10 years, the internet. Communities have grown, domains have been inhabited, businesses have sprung up, intranet and learning management systems have been introduced at a stunning rate of development. As jobs follow communications and move increasingly onto the web, virtual communities and relationships become more and more a staple of life and as we do our work, pay our bills, book our flights, read our news and talk to our friends and family through the internet we develop our strands of life online.
Hence, to at least partially make the conceptual leap from the design of cities to that of the online environment is not particularly difficult. Indeed, to take Alexander’s sociocultural observation of relationships in traditional contexts compared to those in 1965, and to apply this to relationships throughout and between the complex organisations of today, is equally feasible.
Given this presupposition, this paper argues that as with these ‘artificial’ cities, it can be observed that many ‘artificial’ organisational online communication and knowledge environments are significantly lacking in their capacity to facilitate and accommodate semilatticed relationships and are in fact worryingly tree-like in their structure. It goes on to propose and outline how these environments can in fact be designed to facilitate the development of ‘natural’ relationships through the development of centred communication which, through its focus on the individual as part of an organisational context, might free us from some unnecessary cuts.
That Alexander also pointed in a more recent article, ‘The fifteen properties of life’ [Alexander, 2001], to the importance of centres in relation to architecture is no coincidence. In this he reiterated the key fifteen structural features he had initially identified in 1976 as being common to all things that are ‘alive’, and developed on this by noting that:
‘I finally recognized that it is the field of centers which is primary, not these fifteen properties, and that the properties are simply aspects of the field which help us to understand concretely how the field works.’
Taken in an organisational sense this could be interpreted in a number of ways. Significant to this exploration, however, is that interpretation which sees the importance of a strong ‘centre’ at the heart of an organisation and guides the implementation of policy, strategy and communication technologies appropriately. While this is certainly a centred approach it is, however, centred in a obstructive way on a macro level of the organisation which then works its way down. It may be intended that this ’strong’ centre positions the organisation well in the broader sense of it’s relationships with the market and competitors and yet it can also be argued that this takes away the life and force that drives the organisation from the roots. From Alexander’s perspective this might be seen as operating in a ‘cookie cutter’ fashion by ignoring the strands of development and the interrelationships with the organisation, the world around it and other organisations (the modern organisation is far from the traditional village). This interpretation centres half way up, slicing off both clients and employees.
In order for something to have ‘life’ for Alexander, and in this proposal for an organisation to succeed in online communication, it must start with the very elements that make it up, namely the individuals who use the environment. If an environment allows for them to express themselves, communicate and form relationships with other individuals and groups within that environment then that environment could be said to be centred, to a degree.
This is not, however, the sole prerequisite of a centred communication environment as can be seen in the limited use of many communication tools based on the identification of links between trusted friends, also known as Friend Of A Friend (FOAF) sites. For example, the testaments of FOAF tools Orkut (http://orkut.com) and Friendster (http://www.friendster.com/) users writing on the web has indicated a ‘lapsing’ of use after an initial spurt of enthusiasm for the services and a lack of ‘traction’ of these services has been noted in the media (Glasner, 2005). This indicates that while there is a significant attraction in the use of these FOAF networking tools, these might not be considered to necessarily offer sustainable models of communication.
Of significant interest in this case, however, is the widely successful service LiveJournal (http://livejournal.com). As documented by Paolillo and Wright LiveJournal operates a FOAF across its 4.5 million users which is extensively used on a continuing basis (Paolio & Wright, 2004). LiveJournal is, however, not simply a FOAF service but rather a blogging tool which allows for each user to keep his or her own blog. This is arguably key to the success of the FOAF model as users have more than a simply ‘form based’ representation of themselves on the web. They have a space in which they can choose and customise their own template, write and post text, images and audio on a regular basis and retain ownership and control over their ’space’ on the web. Equally so the FOAF tool and the incorporation of RSS into each blog allows individuals to browse and aggregate communication in an entirely individual manner and through various applications. In essence a users experience in the LiveJournal environment is centred around that users personal online presence which is developed over time and is able to be subverted and controlled to a large degree by that user.
This success of LiveJournal and this papers interpretation of ‘centring’ can be developed upon by Mejias’s observations that there is a significant difference between reduction of physical or geographic distance caused by technology (i.e. Our ability to communicate across distances) and the epistemological distance which remains (Mejias, 2005). For him, communication technologies allow us to experience distancelessness of a sort but do not necessarily change the fact that we are communicating ‘about’ rather than ‘with’ other actors. Indeed, to experience the ‘ontological reintegration of the individual to the world’ cited from Bholar (1992) is only possible, Mejias argues, if we are to change ‘our immediate surroundings, and ourselves’. What makes LiveJournal stand out in this respect is that through it’s primary function as a blogging tool it allows a representation and relocation of the ’self’ into the online environment and a consequent communication ‘with’ other users who have consequently become near.
In relation to this particular example then, centred communication online is achievable when the environment is centred in the individual and where the individual communicating is able to:
-Subvert and design their presence and it’s operation to suit individual needs (beyond simple choices)
-Represent themselves as a unique individual over time and retain ownership over that representation
-Select and control the medium and manner in which they access and participate in the environment
How these principles are and are not evident and applied in established communication practices helps to develop on these points.
Uncentredness in the intranet
In 2002 in the introduction to his doctoral dissertation Dick Stenmark noted that:
‘In less than 10 years time, intranets have gone from being perceived as a spelling error to be one of the most widespread organisational technologies… However, although the dissemination of intranets has been successful and the access to the technology is high, actual usage seems to be limited… Instead of users actively sharing knowledge on a peer-to-peer level, the intranets have become one-way communications channels for corporate information.’ [Stenmark, 2002]
In 2005 the sentiment is quite possibly stronger with an ever increasing number of intranets and arguably little in the way of dramatic change with, for example, ‘discussion boards and collaboration tools’ and ‘discussion boards and community’ featuring as the single peer-to-peer communication considerations for the leading intranet design awards since 2001 (Nielsen Norman Group, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005).
While it is not in this papers scope to consider in its entirety what constitutes a successful intranet, it is reasonable to assume that one significant criteria for effectiveness is that the solution encourages ‘actively sharing knowledge on a peer-to-peer level’ as Stenmark puts it. Indeed, while not diminishing the importance of content management, dissemination and key organisational functions it is difficult to see any intranet succeeding past functioning as an information management system without the capacity for effective communication. With this in mind then, the design of the online environment in which this communication is to take place is undoubtably a key factor in the success or failure of any project. Hence, as previously mentioned, it is to the discussion board and ‘collaboration tools’ of today’s intranets that we must look to determine whether these communication environments are capable of succeeding and if not, why.
In a ‘typical’ intranet environment, given the prevelance of discussion boards, it is reasonable to assume that the majority of organisational online communication takes place through these tools. Alongside these, synchronous ‘chat’ facilities and other collaborative tools (mostly built into word-processing & other applications) are most likely also deployed in order to allow users to communicate and collaborate with each other.
In this environment there are several significant challenges. Firstly the user is forced to ‘re-invent’ themselves in each new online context they work in, there being little or no capacity for the development and transference of an online persona from one context to the next with the exception of an identifying characteristic such as an email address or photo. Secondly, and to a degree as a result of this lack of presence or persona, the user is not communicating in this environment from within themselves but rather outside of themselves in an isolated manner (as Mejias would put it ‘about’ rather than ‘with’). To bring this back to the metaphor of cities there is no real overlap. Even between systems (for example, a discussion board could be tied to a collaborative document), there is often no overlap between the user and the communication environment. Further, whatever content the user creates and whatever utterances or discussion they have, this material does not belong to them. Almost invariably boards are archived, deleted and documents files without any ongoing ownership of this material by the individual. Users are not able to represent themselves, own their expression, subvert their environment or select or control their experience of it.
This is in marked contrast to the use of email and more recently IM in organisational contexts, communication channels which have developed almost organically with little thought for design and with much success. The significant difference being, as the contrast between the diagrams above and below illustrates, that whereas a discussion board or collaborative application focuses on communication outside of an individual, centralised around the discussion, these tools allow for communication between individuals that is centred on them (communication ‘with’ each other):
As an emailer or instant messenger, a user has control over the communication environment which develops around them. While each email and instant message might not contain much information relating to a users persona and presence, more often than not it is part of a series of utterances through the medium. Each act of communication in controlled by the sender and is sent to and controlled by the recipient as they see fit. There is no need for a user to visit a particular website or authenticate themselves as most instant messaging and email application run automatically on the desktop, as much part of a users everyday communication toolkit as a telephone.
However, from an organisational perspective, while these communication tools play an absolutely key role there is little that can be said for them as tools for ‘knowledge management’ from an individual or an organisational perspective and little that assists transference of that individual and knowledge throughout the organisation. IM holds many similarities with conversation in it’s immediacy, emotional content and structure and email is plagued with spam, structural difficulties (when it comes to organisation) and the fact that invariably, knowledge stored through this medium is an ad hoc collection sourced from multiple individuals tacitly held together by the recipient and of little value in an organisational sense. While there is significant potential individually in the ‘data mining’ of Instant Messaging records (provided for example by Google Desktop Search - http://desktop.google.com/) and significant organisational discussion has taken place through listservs (which has then been recorded in the manner of a bulletin board), frequent users of these tools will undoubtably recognise the limitations within them.
Invariably, thus, the discussion board has become in many ways the default online communication tool as it allows for structured online asynchronous communication. It can be deployed by the organisation to facilitate the sharing of knowledge between teams, the capturing and management of this knowledge by the organisation and in a learning and development sense the type of (observable) robust discussion and reflection sought by practitioners (Farmer, 2004). Equally invariably, despite the occasional integration of email and RDF Site Summary (RSS, also known as Really Simple Syndication) the strict, isolated, centralised environment within which these are often couched has meant that in fact these boards have become used widely and successfully arguably only truly in a support capacity where users log questions, problems and requests which are dealt with by support and then stored, for the benefit of other users searching for answers, in the system.
This is not to say, however, that the tools that are used are by any means wholly responsible for the amount and nature of online communication. An argument along these lines is that patterns are more often than not the result of a particular organisational culture restricting or encouraging the sharing of knowledge and open and recordable information. In essence a conclusion reached in this mindset might state that regardless of the tools used, the culture will determine whether or not communication succeeds. This is also not uncommon in education fields where frequently the assertion that ‘it’s the pedagogy, not the technology’ will satisfy many an academic board to forgo it’s concerns regarding institutional technological solutions.
Convincing and important while this may be, though, it is not without considering our physical environments in much the same way as Alexander that we can accept this point of view. For example, in order to communicate in an online environment such as a discussion board or chat room an individual needs to determine to visit that area and then act accordingly. This is not dissimilar to asking each employee or student to only communicate with each other when in a seminar or meeting, and while employees may have the benefit of knowledge of the others IM or email details, as previously outlined the communications opportunities through these means are of value only in particular (and often personal) contexts. Equally so, when in these meeting rooms participants are not able to ‘own’ any of their utterances in the same way that they would retain notes and the physical knowledge of utterances in a face-to-face environment. Indeed, there is no possibility for a user to present him or herself as anything more than, at best, an avatar in a world that will soon move on and in this, perhaps most importantly, there is no capacity for users to control their their presence, their environment or their experience and record of it. There is no capacity for communication to be centred around themselves by their subversion of the design (Squires, 1999).
Weblogs, RSS and Centredness
The internet, in marked contrast to these systems, has been home to a wide range of online communication technologies that have developed and grown outside of centralised constraints save for those imposed by the technology available. In many ways it has also been an ultimately subvertable environments and in particular, since 2002 this has given rise to an explosion in the use of blogs and syndicated content (RSS or Atom) which continues exponentially (Sifry, 2005).
While much online communication prior to this period took place within newsgroups, IRC, discussion boards and MOOs these technologies have been largely eclipsed by the use of blogs and now function mainly for specific purposes (such as support and in synchronous communication events). In terms of media blogs have been seen in the context of journalism (Rosen, 2005), in terms of society they have been viewed as voyeuristic and expressionistic vehicles for individuals (especially teenagers) (Twist, 2004) and in a business context they and have taken on a significant PR role (Horton, 2002).
Frequently in the popular press this is met with a degree of confusion as blogs are essentially translated as simply online journals with lots of links and the emergence of particular groups of bloggers has been put down mostly to the nature of the groups themselves. However, it is the very nature of the medium which has, in my view, been the root cause of it’s success with the groups which now use weblogs share the simple similarity that they have, throughout the development of the internet, been early adopters of technologies such as email, discussion boards and so on. Following on from this it is arguably largely through examination of the design and nature of blogs and aggregation that we can can determine what has given rise to this phenomenon.
To return to the criteria for centred communication set out earlier in this paper there is no doubting that vast majority of weblogs are usually centred around individuals (despite the success of group blogs in attracting a significant readership). Users are able, on the whole, to entirely subvert their presence and it’s operation keeping within the parameters of ‘post’, ‘content’ and ‘time’ (Wikipedia). Over time archives are created and ownership is retained over the body of material, defining the unique writer.
Arguably, however, the most important of these characteristics has little to do with the visual representation, ownership or individual aspects of a weblog (although without all of these it would be, to a degree, irrelevant). It can be seen to be the RSS feed of a weblog and the way in which this facilitates the development of a subscribed, involved and engaged audience for the writer that has perhaps the most bearing on the success of the medium.
As Lee LeFever wrote in 2004, the value of weblogs in an organisation comes not just from the fact that they are motivating as tools for expression and exploration but that they are simple and powerful ways of engaging with individuals in the same area, organisation or mindset as the reader. They provide context:
‘…think about the value of the Wall Street Journal to business leaders. The value it provides is context — the Journal allows readers to see themselves in the context of the financial world each day, which enables more informed decision making.
With this in mind, think about your company as a microcosm of the financial world. Can your employees see themselves in the context of the whole company? Would more informed decisions be made if employees and leaders had access to internal news sources?’ [LeFever, 2004]
It is this context and readability of RSS feeds through individual web-based (e.g. Bloglines http://bloglines.com/), individual desktop-based (e.g. Feeddemon http://www.bradsoft.com/feeddemon/) and collective web-based 3 aggregators (e.g. Drupal http://drupal.org/), together with their capacity for simple syndication in any web-based context that motivates readers who consequently motivate writers. While previously there was little space for more than a few email newsletters in an organisation or content area, the ease of information management introduced through RSS has dramatically increased the capacity of an individual to participate in an online knowledge and communication environment and the consequent motivation to write (and hence, in an organisational sense, develop the online knowledge and communication environment).
Significantly, with the use of RSS it is possible not only for blogs to exist in a semi-lattice relationship online but also for users to access their information in a semi-latticed sense where RSS feeds can be rearranged, ordered or, perhaps most notably, received in what the co-creator of RSS, Dave Winer, calls a ‘river of news’ aggregator [Winer, 2005]. As a result of this ease of management of large amounts of information and complete control over subscription to that, the number of potential interrelationships between writer and reader is almost unlimited and drawn from control being centred on the user.
However, this is not to say that blogs and aggregation will not succeed unless they are entirely and utterly in the hands of their uses. For example, with a weblog it is entirely possible to provide a selection of templates for weblogs and promote particular writing patterns. Likewise with an aggregator it is possible to prepopulate through the use of OPML files containing lists of subscriptions which can be automatically integrated into an aggregator. In the organisation, the significant consideration is that users are still able to subvert their templates to fit their needs, choose to unsubscribe to pre-populated feeds and interpret ‘posting policies’ to fit themselves.
A Weblog and Aggregation Organisational Online Communication Model
The model below puts forward one possible model for the use of weblogs and aggregation in an organisation. For the sake of clarity only a few of the interrelationships have been labelled.
As respectively represented by the circle and square each user has their own weblog and aggregator and it is only through these that communication takes place (utilising tools such as comments and moving, where appropriate, into email and IM). Perhaps the most significant difference between this model and that presented earlier in ’standard communication and collaboration systems’ is that all communication is centred on the individuals which is facilitated through the use of aggregators which channel particular information.
For example, User C contributes selected posts (those which she marks as being relevant to the group) to the group A aggregator through a category system. She in turn aggregates this source to keep up to date with important postings (there are some group members not shown on the map which she does not aggregate). She also aggregates from user A and user E directly as she likes their ideas, commentary and, through E, has a minor role in group B’s project. Consequently she also publishes on occasion to her blog and marks the item as relevant to group B’s aggregator. All that she needs to know about group B, however, she gets from User E and hence she does not need to aggregate group B’s Y aggregator or any other group B members.
All posts on all weblogs are aggregated into Z which operates both as a digital object management system and as a portal through which users can view organisational weblog relationships, group aggregators and recently updated blogs as well as search for particular content. Posts relevant to sensitive categories are automatically placed behind authentication systems which mirror organisational access identifications. The organisation employs particular tags for ideas relating to organisational performance, social events, customer relations, health and safety and other topics. These are aggregated through Z for relevant groups and users to access and users are able to subscribe to searches of key terms. Central to all of this, however, is that each user retains complete control and ownership of their contribution in their own blog.
Questions and future directions
Although this paper has sought to deal with, in part, the use of weblogs and aggregation in internal organisational communication it has been particular in it’s focus on theoretical explanations for the rise in use of weblogs and aggregation and the associated implications for organisational online communication. Thus, while there is much value in the discussion of the nature of weblogs, aggregation and other online communication technologies there is much scope for the investigation of these theories in organisational contexts and the examination of the impacts of such initiatives. As, at the time or writing, weblogs are frequently being mentioned as a trend to watch in an organisational sense (Levy, 2005; Hapgood, 2005; Kirkpatrick & Roth, 2005) this type of information may not be long forthcoming.
Further, there is the significant question of ‘extranet blogging’. In many ways weblogs and aggregation offer precisely the ‘conversation’ that the Cluetrain Manifesto (Locke, Searls & Weinberger) called for in 1999 and as illustrated through the much of the literature in this area (especially the references in the previous paragraph) they are becoming the tools of such a movement in the mainstream. If companies are to engage with customers in conversations about their products on the internet using weblogs and aggregation, then the impact on and relationship between organisational internal online communication and this new conversation must be considered.
Finally, perhaps the most critical question is whether centred communication through this medium is able to encourage more communication ‘with’ rather than ‘about’. Whether prevailing organisational and socio-cultural norms mean that there is little that can be done to facilitate effective online communication or whether we are able to, through centred consideration of architecture and design, achieve to some extent Bholar’s ‘ontological reintegration of the individual’, in this case, to the organisation.
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