The time is right
Megan Moyer 110000GJAE firstname.lastname@example.org | | Tags:  research social-business social_business
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IBM Fellow and Director, Collaborative User Experience
Business has always been social. That became apparent to the academic research world back in the 1980s, when office automation was all the rage. In addition to the upsurge in productivity analysis to prove the value of word processors and the like, we saw an influx of anthropologists coming into the office to observe and report on what they saw. They had a lot to say about workflow and formal work processes. As forms began to move on-line, they watched how remaining paper forms were passed from hand-to-hand, and noted how much of the "work" was done in adjustments to the flow from a brief conversation at the hand-off. As spreadsheets were transferred over networks for consolidation, they'd find that the person who used to carry floppy disks around had been stopping to do other work-related errands on the way, not even conscious of them. The result at one organization was that network-based consolidation led to a severe shortage of supplies in one department, as a regular stop at the supply closet had been eliminated. And even as computer technologists sought to embed formal processes in on-line systems, the anthropologists could find example after example of places where, in practice, the formal procedures were at best guidelines, adapted to reality by people in the ground.
These stories were first related as cautionary tales about all the things that could go wrong if you simply automate. Slowly over time, system designers learned how to incorporate watching people into the design process (because people can't always report accurately what they are really doing). With careful observation you could anticipate and compensate for some of the casual interactions. These observations were largely the basis for Computer-Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), an interdisciplinary research field created in the mid-1980s dedicated to understanding the interplay between technology and people, and inventing new systems that take both into account.
As a founder of CSCW, I'd love to say that it was the research that "solved" the challenge of fully taking into account the "informal" in formal work processes. But the reality is that the passing of time has mattered at least as much. The biggest difference between the workplace of today and that of the 80s is the amount of social interaction that can - and does - happen on-line. It happened gradually, starting in the consumer space, and crept into the workplace (just as the basic work processor and spreadsheets came in through personal purchase in the 80s). What it means is that now, the formal and informal really can be integrated on-line. We don't have to consider it a trade-off between automating or empowering people. Technology can do both, and can therefore finally realize it's potential for efficiency, effectiveness and, yes, even transformation.