Facebook as a Collaborative Architecture
Unpublished - March 2008
The rise of Facebook has not gone unnoticed by our large corporations – some of whom are apparently considering moving their intranets over to the platform. There is an argument for Universities abandoning expensive virtual learning environments and instead maintaining contact with students through Facebook. In general these movements reflect a philosophy of going to where the people are rather than trying to make them come to you. This paper argues that large organisations would do well to compare the architecture of Facebook with their existing systems and consider how the architectures promote collaborative working. The extent to which the systems are able to demonstrate responsiveness to user requirements and have a positive impact on working life is argued to be a key factor in promoting trust and demonstrating shared goals across the organisation. The paper argues that architectures and application programming interfaces have a significant contribution to make towards the development of participative cultures in organisations.
That the virtual age has brought about a new focus on collaborative working is no surprise. The potential, in an ever more wired world, for the development of systems of every kind to meet more and more requirements in a widening range of organisations and enterprises exists.
Rigid structures and procedures imposed from above face challenges from the flexible and digitally empowered classes at the front line of service deliveries in the same way that in an earlier era monopolies and military regimes were challenged by the ways of markets and democracies. The ‘soft’ world approaches collaboration from a completely different position to the ‘hard’ world which speaks of compliance and paper in contrast to the local and electronic of the virtual world. This paper explores parallels between the thinking and experience behind the development of systems for the stimulation participation in a number of spheres. Current perspectives on the design of systems to enable collaborative working in enterprises – both real and virtual – are considered.
Writing in 1945 Friedrich Hayek observed “If we can agree that the economic problem of society is mainly one of rapid adaptation to changes in the particular circumstances of time and place, it would seem to follow that the ultimate decisions must be left to the people who are familiar with these circumstances, who know directly of the relevant changes and of the resources immediately available to meet them.” (Hayek, 1945).
60 years later this logic has seen the collapse of a superpower and the fall of a wall in Berlin. In that time information and communications technologies have advanced to the point where 43.4% of Europeans (Internet World Stats, 2008) are Internet users. Today, it would appear that we have the technologies to harness local knowledge in the development of responsive systems. In the political sphere there is much work on e-Participation and e-Democracy. In New Media there is an increasing focus on collaborative working and systems to stimulate and support it. Large organisations have centrally driven systems which can be unresponsive to user needs and there is Facebook with 8.5 million users in the UK alone. (BBC News, 2008). In all this there are lessons emerging from different disciplines which are suggestive of a pattern. In this paper three factors are examined which emerge, in some guise, in different but related literatures as having a bearing on the effectiveness of systems designed to harness human participation, engagement and collaboration. These factors are 1) Trust – the extent to which users have confidence that engagement will not have undesirable consequences outweighing benefits; 2) Shared Goals – the extent to which users and system sponsors are perceived to be seeking to bring about the same thing and 3) Impact – the practical benefit the user gains, could gain, or expects to gain from participation. Through an examination of a range of systems applied in different contexts these broad factors are considered for their value as explanatory variables.
3. POLITICAL PARTICIPATION
Lester Milbrath in his 1965 overview of scholarly work on the factors associated with political participation around the world (Milbrath, 1965) concluded, in essence, that important variables explaining participation were: Male Sex, Age, Length of Residence, Education, Involvement, Status and Exposure to Media. In 2005 we read: “In the last half-century the public has become better educated, more confident and less deferential to remote authorities. Only 27% of people in the UK say that they tend to trust Parliament, while 24% trust Government and only one in five (20%) trust the European Parliament.” (Coleman, 2005). Also “70% agree that ‘The people who govern this country are not likely to be interested in my opinions.’” (Coleman, 2005).
Levels of trust in political systems are low and so are the perceived benefits of participation. Concepts of E-Government, E-Participation and E-Democracy are being explored which may help stimulate participation – see, for example, DEMO-net - a major project funded under the European Commission's sixth framework programme (DEMO-net, 2008) which supports a rich diversity of work in the area.
Christian Rupp (Rupp, 2003) categorises opportunities on a continuum from Information through Communication to Transaction in both government and democratic terms. Thus web sites may deliver information on government services, provide access to forms to start an administrative process or, further, allow for a transaction to be completed online. The democratic parallels might lie in access to a manifesto, electronic contact with representatives and actual voting.
The distinction between the administrative and the political is well made. In commercial applications of Internet technology we saw first the provision of information, then systems for communication and finally wholly electronic transactions. Those familiar with commercial electronic transactions may be more likely to engage in administrative and political transactions online. Work by Prosser (Prosser, 2006) supports this notion and participation (meaning discussion and deliberation) is distinguished from democracy (voting/decision making) and the research shows a greater interest in what we might call the transaction, the decision, the vote.
In a wider sense the capability of an individual to engage in a transaction – a bargain – has been seen as a hallmark of real democracy. Until you can really change something, buy something, get something, withdraw something – real participation may be seen as limited: “A basic income would also support citizens’ participation in collective self-government by opening up opportunities for citizens to develop their political capacities and skills. A guaranteed standard of life would mean that participation in social and political life would not require heroic efforts on the part of any citizens.” (Pateman, 2004).
We have seen then that in the political sphere New Media is recognised as tool to be exploited in increasing participation, that trust in political institutions is low and that relatively few people see significant benefits in engagement with them. New Media technology may indeed have much to offer in changing some aspects of this and fundamentally new ways of representing political argument such as argument maps (Elliman, 2006) which seek to address the particular difficulty evident in the political arena – namely the lack of shared goals. In the commercial area the scope for development to the transaction level is eased by the nature of the relationship between the system and the user. The parties do not need to agree what is the best book – only that one party can supply it and the other wants it, trust is established that one will deliver and the other will receive and, crucially, all parties benefit from the transaction. There is a two-way relationship, a deal, a bargain. Trust, shared goals and impact run both ways.
4. COLLABORATIVE WORKING
The growing literature on systems to aid collaborative working and the number of available products to support it is testament to the potential many people see in this area. Certainly Wikis and Blogs are now widespread and it appears that MySpace, with 110 million users is now registering an average of 300,000 new users every day (Owyang, 2008). Universities are developing Portals and Virtual Learning Environments to provide electronic interfaces to resources with the aim of increasing the richness and immediacy of deliveries in an age where everything is only a click away. Large organisations are adding web interfaces to their existing enterprise systems which promise to “bridge the ‘cool’ gap between Web and enterprise applications.” (IDG News Service, 2007). The aim, again, is to increase participation. The case of the UK Child Support Agency (axed in 2006) is instructive. In a report to the department of Work and Pensions Select Committee in November 2004 (Blaiklock, 2004) a woeful story of loss of trust, and failure of a £456 million IT system is presented: “This service is more reminiscent of what the old Soviet system was like for Russian peasants engaging with the bureaucracy than the service New Labour promised to deliver.” Agency staff handling calls from distressed parents seeking financial support were driven to falsify data so that an inadequate IT system might deliver it. The story is a classic case of the narrative overwhelming the database. Further to this in many large organisations staff must learn the application - ‘the database’ – go on courses, get certificates - and adjust local behaviours, ‘the narrative’, to match.
The mismatch between the easy systems that people experience on the web at home (Amazon, Facebook etc.) and those on offer in the workplace has given rise to an approach to system development which weighs the narrative more highly than the database. The Manifesto for Agile Software Development includes the following:
“We are uncovering better ways of developing software by doing it and helping others do it. Through this work we have come to value:
Individuals and interactions over processes and tools
Working software over comprehensive documentation
Customer collaboration over contract negotiation
Responding to change over following a plan
That is, while there is value in the items on the right, we value the items on the left more”. (Beck, 2001)
The central point is that by these methods the narrative, the local circumstance, has a better chance of being incorporated into systems. There is a greater opportunity for a sense of ownership to develop among users and an incentive to participate. Work on a range of small systems developed using agile techniques by Sobol and Roux suggests that “Small scale web based data systems created close to the point of use can succeed in enabling collaborative inputs where larger, centralised, systems are unlikely to be as effective.” (Sobol, 2004). Again the argument for the value of trust, shared goals and impact in collaborative projects is supported.
At another level Facebook which exists to capture user narratives literally - thrives – and in May 2007 it opened its doors to outside developers. The Facebook platform represents an architecture which encourages participation and engagement by allowing people to develop their own applications and add to the functions available within the system.
Perhaps this sort of open architecture has something to offer to the world of enterprise systems. Certainly its an age away from the systems deployed at the Child Support Agency. At Stanford University in 2007 a new module ‘Creating Engaging Facebook Apps’ (Fogg, 2007) was launched in which students created Facebook applications. This is a significant comment on the responsiveness of Stanford University and the Facebook platform itself. It may be that the enterprise platforms of the future that are able to harness the intellectual and creative efforts of employees will need just such architectures. These architectures can accommodate difference, show flexibility, allow deep engagement and permit real participation. Essentially what this approach brings is a mechanism for involving others – clearly a key dynamic in the Facebook context but just as applicable in the organisational context where tailored applications, taking into account detailed local requirements might interface safely with centrally held data. Agile methods could find their way into large organisations through such architectures and Application Programming Interfaces. Fogg’s work at Stanford (Fogg, Eckles, 2007) on the Behavior Chain for Online Participation involves phases labeled “Discovery; Superficial Involvement and True Commitment”. In the final phase we see “Involve others” and “Stay active and loyal”. This, it might be argued, is the language of political parties.
In broad terms then it is the two-way communication intrinsic to the web that has stimulated high levels of participation - in the web itself and in the myriad of applications that are delivered across it. Expectations have been raised and older, top-down, centralist models of system provision are showing themselves to be unresponsive and inadequate when it comes to engaging people in collaborative work. Open architectures, that allow people to alter their (virtual) working environments provide mechanisms by which local information might be incorporated into the system development/evolution process. In this there are opportunities for the development of a sense of ownership and for the involvement of others. Trust is developed, shared goals are uncovered and local benefits are more easily realised. There are signs that the IT industry is becoming increasingly aware of this logic: '…enterprises should focus on sharing information rather than just controlling it. Well of course that's true. But it's always been true. So I couldn't help feeling a sense of irony inasmuch as each of those vendors [IBM, Adobe, Alfresco and Oracle] were proponents of the kind of über-centralized infrastructures and enterprisey controls that they are now telling those very same customers are no longer cool.' (Byrne, 2007)
Of course organisastions should take care to ensure the accuracy and security of data which is central to their operations. The issue relates to the best way of doing that. The case of the UK Child Support Agency demonstrates the risks involved in an over-centralist approach. Wikipedia, on the other hand, has massive opportunities for individual participation but the authority and integrity of the dataset is considered questionable in some quarters. In achieving an open architecture that balances these two approaches it may necessary to both strengthen central data control and provide more liberal access to the data at the local level.
Issues relating to the stimulation of participation in a number of spheres have been discussed. New Media technologies have much to offer and this paper has attempted to show that issues of communication, rather than technology, lie at the root of successful approaches. In the workplace effective collaboration might be achieved with architectures that allow for the integration of local knowledge and needs. Here bottom-up approaches (as opposed to top-down ones) are more likely to work. The Internet provides a kind of ‘perfect market’ in information which offers the possibility of considerable liberation. In organisations open architectures may be needed to release collaborative potential.
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