Google's Matthew Glotzbach on Consumer Collaboration - InformationWeek
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Stowe Boyd
Stowe Boyd

Google's Matthew Glotzbach on Consumer Collaboration

Matthew Glotzbach of Google Enterprise gave a mercifully light-on-the-Powerpoint presentation at the CTC today that provides a dramatically different insight into the future of collaboration. In a nutshell, he suggests that today's workforce is dominated by a new sort of person, the self-directed innovator. This person is very different than the knowledge worker of the '80s and '90s.

They have the following traits: 

  • they're not process driven -- their work flows, rather than being a bunch of boxes and arrows in a process diagram
  • they collaborate with a broad network of collegues -- and want to remain connected to them at all times
  • they intermingle personal and work lives -- the new "blendo" reality, where there is no firewall between work and "private" life
  • they need information even when not at a desk -- they flow like their work, and need information even if working at Starbucks
  • do not spend majority of time in a single application -- they flow from one sort of work to another
  • they're impatient -- they don't want to spend a lot of time in meetings, or work with idiots [my words, not his]

Basically, Matthew is corroborating the arguments I laid out in The Individual is the New Group:

Spread throughout my recent writing, a certain latent idea is lurking, incompletely articulated, which I summarize in the title: the individual is the new group.

About a decade ago, the one of the then-current terms of art for social tools was groupware, and the term was intended to impart the core metaphor: groups need to collaborate, and tools need to be defined with that in mind. As a result, we saw the rise of application platforms like Lotus Notes, intended to counter the flaws of operating systems and applications that were organized around an earlier, less group-oriented metaphor of use.

The central motif of groupware solutions was the need for groups to have a shared repository for online documents, and a collection of communication and collaboration tools to enable a distributed team to collectively accomplish goals. These tools included email, group calendaring, discussion forums, shared to do lists, and real-time support, in the late 90s and early 00s, for instant messaging, chat rooms, and web conferencing.

This model of group collaboration has become the basic form factor of work in many large organizations. However, I have come to believe that this model is being eclipsed by a new epicenter of social context: the individual, rather than the group.


So the groupware model of collaboration, where neatly partitioned worlds are created, and individuals are made to shift context in order to shift from one social thread to another, seems unnatural to me. The primacy of groups and group membership in old-school groupware is outmoded.

The shift to the individual changes everything, and in revolutionary ways. Moving from groupware premises to "soloware" shifts the dialog about standards and interoperability. In the old groupware model, a company would buy a groupware platform and applications, and roll it out across all the users. It was standardized because everyone was using the same rev of the same product. When the issue of interoperability and standards were brought up, it was approached from the perspective of inter-company communication, or different sites within the same company. But in the soloware model, individuals may be using completely different tools, and share nothing in common but certain standards. But the glue that connects the dots in the soloware world are standards like RSS, IM interoperability, and blog trackback conventions: standards that allow individuals to do their thing, but to allow bottom-up aggregation of their artifacts along social connections. The groups are there, but latent, implicit in the gestural relationships of crosslinking, tags, comments, and blogrolls.

I envision a time where even in the largest organization, our lives as individuals will define the norm for computer-assisted work. The model of soloware will displace the 90s ideals of groupware in exactly the same way that the pre-groupware assembly line models were dethroned in the 90s. In our work lives, even in the largest, most conservative companies, we are instantaneously involved in dozens of projects, with teams of people that are constantly changing, with outside consultants and partner companies, and there is no end in sight. When everything fractures away from stable, long-lasting, closed teams toward the exact opposite, what is left are individuals in contact with each other, through soloware: individual needs first, group needs second, by extension.

We are, first and foremost, individuals. The concept that whenever we do something it should be intentionally in the context of a specific well-defined group is outmoded, and was always an approximation of what is really going on, socially. We are involved in social relationships, and what we do with others is always social, but not necessarily part of a group, or only of one group. So, let's put aside groups, and focus on the individual. The groups will follow.

Matthew takes us down the Google path following this idea of "soloware", based on three principles:

1. Redefine the inbox.  He showed a bunch of the features that Google has built into Gmail as an indication of how smart add-ons (like presence, instant messaging, PDF, and calendar integration) can make the plain old inbox a source of collaboration

2. Search as the navigation paradigm. There is too much for any fixed map to work, so just surrender to the void, and throw away ther notion of taxonomic organization of the web, your email, or your harddrive

3. Power of the cloud. Web 2.0 mashups, and global collective intelligence is the only way that we can innovate fast enough to build the collaborative solutions we need.

I am an absolute believer in a generation of collaboration that focuses on the individual, and it seems that Google is headed in that direction.

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