When companies successfully design for online discovery, people are delivered the information they need before they realize they need it. But as Facebook’s newsfeed experiment reminded us, the challenge is to engineer a sense of serendipity without invading users’ privacy. Jay Patani, an analyst at EC1 Capital, imagines a path forward.
I encountered Here On Biz, a new business social network, that is trying to leverage the mobile lifestyle as a point of entry to this somewhat crowded market place.
Here On Biz leverages the location of your mobile device (currently only iPhone) to set context for an immediate set of contacts to communicate with. The app connects with services like Linkedin, Twitter, and Facebook, so you can pull in existing contacts, although they have to be using HOB as well.
The UX is relatively simple. Here’s the main landing screen, if in fact you are somewhere with other users nearby. In my case, in Beacon NY, I saw no one nearby. I will give it a try when I am next in NYC or San Francisco. I don’t know what radius around the user they are using, but I wish I could choose, like I could with the now deadpooled Brightkite. In my case, I could push the radius out to 60 miles and see people in NYC.
If you were lucky enough to have connections, you could find out more about them by clicking on their avatar:
And then you could chat with them:
I loved Dopplr, the innovative ‘ships passing in the night’ application that was acquired by Nokia and left to slowly die. You could use it to find out who of you connections was in the vicinity right now — at least down to the city granularity — its strength lay elsewhere, allowing users to share travel plans and discover who would be around when you landed in London or New York City. I think that this is one of the most interesting use cases for Here On Biz as well.
While the real time aspect is interesting — and is the ostensible reason they are partnered with Virgin America on a promotional launch that allows people on VA flights to connect and chat — the best reason for this app — after people have gotten connected to a reasonable number of actual business (and personal) contacts — will be to reconnect with people you already know. The Tinder-like opportunistic business serendipity side of things makes for a better demo than any enduring value, I think.
One last observation: HOB feels like a mobile chat-oriented version of Brightkite, which was an app I really liked and used daily, but which was deadpooled years ago.
I saw a demo of Spreadd in Lisbon this morning. The tool is a very interesting application, a social appliance that runs in the background, automatically building user profiles based on the use of foreground apps, like email, Dropbox, Jive, SugarCRM, and almost any tool with an accessible API. Spreadd builds up a tag cloud for each user, based on the content in the files, emails, and other information provided to the foreground apps.
The automatically generated profiles are potentially useful in themselves, but Spreadd operates as an agent of serendipity, introducing people who might be of interest via email. For example, if I send an email on the topic of XYZ Corporation, Spreadd might introduce me to others who have XYZ Corporation in their recorded interests.
I find the tool very compelling. It reminds me of Visible Path and Tacit Knowledge, which did some of this in their solutions, both now in the dead pool.
I don’t have any screenshots, but there is a video on the website.
I don’t mean gambling, exactly. But people at many companies are trying to take a chance on others, by setting up programs the increase coincidensity: fostering chance interactions by not leaving the just to chance.
For example, Sylvia Ann Hewlett recently wrote about the US arm of Boehringer Ingelheim, a pharma company:
Like many good ideas, this one was born of frustration — in this case, when David Thompson, scientist turned social media strategist, went looking for someone to have lunch with only to realize that his usual group of colleagues wasn’t available and he didn’t know anyone in the company cafeteria. “The sense of exclusion was palpable and galling,” he recalls. Driving home that evening, he came up with the idea of a web application that would randomly pair people throughout the organization for lunch. He emailed Christopher Tan, a marketer with an interest in mobile technologies and experience building applications, and within 36 hours, they had come up with a prototype. They then sent it out to a select group of colleagues and invited them to participate.
The process is simple. People sign up and say which cafeterias are convenient for them, a date that works, and then the tool comes up with suggested lunch partners, dates and times. As Hewlett points out, all work is personal, and creating new connections is a necessary precondition for serendipity.
In the UK, Nesta, , has tried to do the same thing around shared coffee breaks, and here’s some takeaways:
After four months of RCTs [Randomized Coffee Trials] at Nesta, we are in the process of conducting an informal survey of the 60+ staff involved in the initiative. The feedback has been incredibly positive and staff responses thus far have indicated that they like RCTs because:
- Provides legitimacy to chat to people about things that aren’t directly work related. Although every time there have been direct beneficial impacts on various projects and programmes.
- Totally random conversations, as well as some very useful work related conversations. Breaks silos at Nesta in a really effective way.
- Offers the chance to make time to talk to people they should be talking to anyway, and to meet people who they won’t be directly working with but it’s nice to know who they are!
- It’s a really good way of revealing links within the organisation and encouraging us to collaborate. It’s interesting that being part of the wider ‘RCT’ banners gives permission to spend and honour the time. Less likely to cancel a catch up if it’s an RCT coffee than a social catch up on a busy day.
- They like the prompt to talk to someone new (or someone they already know), and the permission to take 30 minutes just to see what’s going on, without any particular agenda or goal.
At the most basic, programs like this legitimize the idea of seeking new connections as having a business value: not just for the individuals involved, but for the company. Secondly, the new behavior, once started, will seep into everything.
So, once people are exposed to lunch or coffee roulette, they will actively seek out opportunities to connect with others in the business, and find a rationale afterward. This is a critical shift to opportunity-seeking behavior and a relaxation of the hold of risk avoidance. Companies should do whatever is necessary to decrease the sense of risk associated with becoming more connected. Ultimately, becoming connected should be riskless, and anything short of that is a failure of culture.
I was talking with Jennifer Magnolfi, a leading proponent of the new thinking behind workplace design and its impact on innovation, creativity, and work culture. Since I had her on the line, I thought I’d get her take on Marissa Mayer’s motivations for the recent Yahoo ‘no remote work’ edict.
Stowe Boyd: I wanted to take a minute to get your thoughts about Marissa Meyers ‘no remote work’ edict. it’s not in effect yet, it will be going into effect in June. There’s all sorts of controversy about it but I think the biggest question is does it represent a step backward to the panopticon notion that workers have to be watched in order to be productive?
Jennifer Magnolfi: Yes, of course I’m familiar with the case. There’s been a storm online of responses: critics and supporters alike have shared their opinions. From my perspective I wouldn’t attribute to this business decision to a broader statement of about the way we should work in the 21st century. I would imagine this to be a more specific business tactic, serving a near-term strategy to reinvent and bring the company forward to a degree of innovation that hasn’t been present there in a while.
Boyd: I think that’s the most generous interpretation I’ve seen. Various entrepreneurs are saying she has a problem, her house is on fire, and she has to put it out. The fact that she believes pouring water over the building is the best thing to do now doesn’t mean she wants it soaking wet for the rest of all time.
Magnolfi: I just got back from Las Vegas where I worked with another business leader of a tech company who is making a very specific, conscious investment in the importance of the physical environment of the culture. At Zappos, Tony Hsieh sees that as having strategic importance for the future of the business. It is widely known that this is what Tony has brought to his company. And to the world of business management — from a purely research-based perspective — it sounds really contrary to the mainstream view. And many people outside of Yahoo think companies benefit from the concept of worker mobility.
This is one of the biggest shifts in technology, and that has caused shifts in business culture, and in the social contract between employees and employers. From a purely research perspective there is no doubt that the potential for increasing knowledge creation, or the probability of increasing knowledge creation (which just means the creation of new ideas) is much higher when you are able to combine digital space interaction and physical space interaction. When you can combine the serendipity or the seemingly random knowledge streams you have online to offline, and to develop a ‘community of work’: it’s obviously a tremendous asset.
Boyd: I agree to the extent that you are looking at it micro-economically, relative to a single business for a short period of time.
Magnolfi:: I don’t think Yahoo’s internal strategy has been disclosed. I certainly haven’t come across it. It strikes me that it makes sense that one of the tactics that Mayer is deploying — at a specific moment in time — to reignite or accelerate a certain type of performance. I just can’t imagine the company or certainly Ms Meyer isn’t aware of the potential mobile technology has. Given her previous track record, I’m a little less shocked by this. For a quite a bit of time now, I’ve been studying the potential and actual benefits of certain types of interactions being augmented in the physical environment.
Boyd: The term I use is concidensity: by increasing the density of people you are increasing the probability of coincidence, or serendipity.
Magnolfi: That’s a really good term, it’s a really fun term. I think if you are in that position, why wouldn’t you leverage that asset? I guess that’s the question I would ask, not knowing the internal context. I guess I’m not as harsh a critic of that, since it’s a tactical move. I don’t think it means more than that at this point.
Yes, I think coincidensity is a useful (and fun) term, one that I stole outright from Matt Biddulph, formerly of Dopplr. And I have to grant that Mayer is trying to make a cultural shift: specifically trying to get a culture that has been running in a fast-and-loose, networked way to a more tight-and-slow, collective mindset.
Mayer thinks that sort of culture is what is needed to turn the boat at Yahoo, and, grant you, she might be right. But it is running cross-grained against a number of newly instituted cultural work norms related to the value of higher individual autonomy, results-oriented work, and application of social and mobile tools to support distributed, disconnected, and decentralized work.
The Janus Friis-backed serendipitous browsing tool is now available and, based on a pre-launch play-around, there really is something new and interesting in there.
The way that social-media tools like Twitter, Foursquare and Instagram have changed our lives is often taken for granted, but the way that they can inject some much-needed serendipity into our lives is often overlooked — even by those who use them a lot.
Media guru Clay Shirky once famously said that the problem of the modern age isn’t information overload at all, it’s “filter failure” — and many new services have been built to help with that. But Eli Pariser says the cure could be worse than the disease.
Like many of us, I spend quite a lot of time on the web and come across a staggering number of interesting things. In Clearing The Cache I pull out some of my favorites and share them with you here.
With the holidays here, and perhaps some free time available, jkOnTheRun points us to some Good Old Games for your netbook.
Slash7 shares a Jump Start Credit Card Processing Cheat Sheet – thanks Amy.
Andreas Gohr shows you how to Setup DokuWiki in <15 minutes.
Wayne Smallman tells us Why we need a blogging code of conduct. What do you think?
Like many of us, I spend quite a lot of time on the web and come across a staggering number of interesting things. In Clearing The Cache I choose a theme, pull out some of my favorites and share them with you here.
The Windows Vista blog team announces the Best Vista Website
Simple Help teaches us How to install WordPress on your Windows PC
Zoho sponsors Cloud Avenue blog to focus on online business applications
Smashing Mag offers up a WordPress Developer’s Toolbox
Serendipity is a powerful, feature filled weblog application and a worthy WordPress alternative.