As I read this post by Dick Hirsch on the ESME blog, it reminded me how important it is to put technology into an historical context at times. The quote "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" seems relevant. Far too often, when I read lofty articles on the current crop of "right answers" (blogs, wikis, social networks), it get the impression that people are unaware of the history being collaboration tools - we tend to focus on "the shiney new thing". Sometimes, you get the impression that collaboration tools are either something new (they're not), or that past attempt to improve collaboration via e-mail, forums, etc were failures (which is an over-simplistic argument - at the time, these tools garnered similar praise as today's 2.0 tools). A decade from now we might look at wikis with the same disdain as we do today with email.
While it's important to avoid locking yourself into the past, or letting the past bias your view of current and emerging tools, it is also important to avoid forgetting about the historical lineage of collaboration tools and the complex problems those tools attempted to address. What's insightful about this post is the realization and acknowledgement that the past is relevant to the future (when it comes to micro-blogging in this case). I wish such a perspective was adopted by more "2.0" vendors - such insight might be the difference between surviving (Lotus Notes has shown that older solutions can adapt and evolve over time) - or not (as in the case of DEC and VAX Notes).
What the story about VAXNotes tells us : ESME
Dennis Howlett recently sent the ESME team a link to a long article about VAXNotes which was a collaboration tool that was active in the 1980’s (!) at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). I was reading this article and had a real case of Deja Vue. The article provides an excellent description of the use cases involved in the use of the tool as well as the corporate culture that was necessary for its widespread usage within DEC.
As I read this article, I realized that many of the use cases that micro-blogging tools are meant to solve are actually problems that have been around a long time .....
Thus, microblogging tool vendors should examine in more detail knowledge management research and the associated case studies to get a better feeling for these requirements. Although we always assume that such vendors are on the cutting edge of the technology, the problems that they hope to solve have been around for a long time.
The Camelot of collaboration
The case of VAX Notes
Before knowledge management, there was a company in which a collaboration technology transformed how its employees worked in a way that today’s CKOs can only dream of. Patti Anklam describes the technology and the environment it enabled, one in which employees across the world relied on the existence of communities for business, professional and personal support.
Imagine. You work in a global high-tech company with more than 100,000 people. Research and product development organisations are distributed around the world, as are the sales, marketing, and technical support groups that interface with customers. There are many complex products at varying stages in their life cycles. You have been in the company for a month, and a customer has just asked you a question about the technical capabilities of a product you haven’t even heard of. You promise the customer an answer by the next day. You are 95 per cent certain you will have the answer.
This scenario has been discovered, revealed and addressed by many vendors working in the knowledge management arena – and for good reason. The ability to find a subject matter expert quickly and get the answer to a question or assistance in solving a problem, is a key KM priority. It saves time (and money), enhances customer relationships and ensures that knowledge transfer happens to the right person at the right time. And yet we also know that tools are not the whole answer. Even the best tools will not give you a return on investment unless the employees of the company are committed to helping one another.
Employees of Digital Equipment Corporation worked in an environment that got this combination of technology and culture about right, back in the 1980s. The technology was a simple collaboration tool called Notes that ran on Digital’s worldwide network, supported by the company’s VAX/VMS software development tools group. Among the people who worked at Digital during that time, the nostalgia for that tool and the culture it enabled (and that enabled its success) assumes Camelot-esque proportions. Ask them what they want in a knowledge management system and they simply say, ‘Give us VAX Notes!’
This article looks at the success factors – the technological infrastructure and cultural conditions, the adoption patterns, and the tipping points – for VAX Notes.