McAfee’s Hypothesis (plus contest results!)

In a happy coincidence, blogger-who-needs-no-introduction Robert Scoble wrote about attributes of email just a few days before my Wednesday post on the same topic. Scoble’s succinct conclusion was that “email sucks,” and that Google Wave might well be worse. He makes an interesting argument, and I urge you to check it out.

Scoble lists the tools he uses for collaboration, and as I read through them I realized that I’d left an important item off my own list of email’s strengths. Scoble uses, in addition to email, at least six tools: Skype, Twitter, Friendfeed groups, a document repository like SharePoint or Dropbox, wikis, and domain-specific collaboration tools like ConceptShare.

He doesn’t describe any problems with this state of affairs, but I can only imagine what would happen if a similar collaboration suite were proposed at the consulting company I mentioned in my previous post. If a CIO or collaboration specialist told the partners that they’d soon be using seven collaboration tools instead of one, that person would very soon find himself exploring other career opportunities (I’d say “fired on the spot,” but the company I’m thinking of is too classy for that).

Like a lot of executives, consulting partners are in almost constant motion, very busy, and pulled in about eight directions at any time. They keep a death grip on their inboxes for one main reason: because it’s the one place they can go to find out what’s new and what the current state of affairs is, and also to respond, react, and initiate. Email is perfect for none of these purposes, but it’s perceived as good enough for all of them. As a result, it’s currently used for all of them; it’s one-stop shopping for collaboration at lots and lots of companies.

I want to be clear: I agree with Scoble, Luis Suarez, and many others that it’s possible to much better than all email, all the time. I’m trying to make three points with this post and its predecessor. First, that all email, all the time yields many problems but also one benefit: one-stop shopping for all collaboration activities. Second, that that benefit is highly valued by busy senior managers. And third, that these managers get to call the shots for the collaborations they’re involved in.

Let me sharpen that last point by floating a hypothesis about digital collaboration and immodestly naming it after myself:

McAfee’s hypothesis: Within organizations, collaboration technologies are dictated by the most powerful person involved in the collaboration.

This hypothesis only applies to technologies used for collaboration, which is defined by Merriam Webster as “work[ing] jointly with others or together especially in an intellectual endeavor.” So blogging, tweeting and retweeting, tagging, voting, linking, and trading in prediction markets aren’t really collaborative activities, while working as a team to prepare a client presentation or develop code clearly are.

A couple implications follow from McAfee’s hypothesis if it’s true. First, email’s going to be around for a while yet, and to continue to be the main collaboration tech in many (if not most) corporate settings for some time to come. As the incumbent technology, it’s the beneficiary of the 9X effect and the status quo bias, both of which are part the basic psychological wiring of most people and so hard to overcome. And as long as powerful people value the status quo and one-stop shopping, email will persist as the engine of collaboration. A lot of us might not like this fact, but there’s not a lot we can do about it, at least in the short term.

Second, blogging, tweeting, tagging, &etc. can take off in an organization even without the involvement of powerful people. This is because, as discussed above, they’re not collaboration technologies, and so less subject to the preferences of the powerful. It’s easy for me to imagine a big consulting firm deploying microblogging software, having it take off among junior associates, and realizing a lot of value even if no partners get involved.

As I wrote in my previous post, the continued dominance of email is in no way a death blow for Enterprise 2.0. In my book I describe six business benefits from Enterprise 2.0: group editing, authoring, broadcast search, network formation and maintenance, collective intelligence, and self-organization. Of these, only group editing aligns closely with the classic definition of collaboration. The others are all examples of technology-facilitated interaction among people, but as we all know there are many types of interaction.

A third implication is that email-light and email-free collaborations like the ones Scoble describes are absolutely possible, but only if the involved powers that be want to work this way. Even big traditional companies, teams in the IT department use wikis heavily for project management and bug tracking. This occurs because the head geek (term of praise, remember) likes wikis and wants to use them, and often says “I’m not reading emails about project status; use the wiki for updates.”

The hypothesis further implies, though, that if a more senior manager gets added to the project and wants to get all updates via email, then this is what will happen.

There’s a lot more to be said on this topic, I’m sure, but let me stop here and ask for feedback. Does McAfee’s hypothesis make sense? Does it correspond to your experience and intuition? Have you seen glaring violations: situations where a collaboration technology flourished despite the wishes / preferences of the most powerful people involved? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.

Now for some fun on a Friday. In my October 2 post, I threw out a challenge: “How many… English words can you come up with that are derived from the names of people in myths and legends who are neither gods nor the children of gods?”

A few word geeks self-identified by posting responses.

SamW made the sharp observation that “the hard part is remembering whether someone was a god or related to a god or not. I’m pretty confident about: arachnid, odyssey, narcissism, tantalize… less so about: echo” Excellent work all around. Arachne was a woman who committed the unpardonable sin of hubris, boasting that she was a better weaver than Minerva. For this, she was turned into a spider, thereby giving her name to an entire class of eight-legged invertebrates, the arachnids. “Odyssey” comes from the hero Odysseus, who had a long strange trip home.

SamW is also smart to be less sure about Echo, who in myth was a nymph who fell in love with the beautiful boy Narcissus, who only wanted to look at his own reflection. Unrequited love caused her to pine away until only her voice remained. However, since nymphs are commonly considered minor deities she doesn’t count, although he does; narcissism is now a word for excessive self-regard.

I thought tantalize was a great answer at first; he was a mythical Greek king who tried to fool the gods into eating human flesh. Zeus saw through this right away and killed him, then gave him a nasty eternal afterlife. As Wikipedia puts it, “Tantalus’s punishment, now proverbial for temptation without satisfaction (the source of the English word “tantalise” – US “tantalize ), was to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches raised his intended meal from his grasp. Whenever he bent down to get a drink, the water receded before he could get any.” The only problem here is that Tantalus was himself a son of Zeus, and so disallowed for this challenge.

Carl Frappaolo proposed narcissistic, herculean, echo, and homeric. Hercules, though, was also a son of Zeus (who really got around), and so disallowed. “Homeric,” meaning heroic or epic, is tricky. If Homer was an actual person he’s disallowed (the question is only about figures from myth and legend), but his existence is very much in dispute. So let’s accept “Homeric.”

Digiphile went with “Narcissism. Sisyphean task. Chimera. Delphic. Labyrinth.” “Sisyphean,” meaning endless and ineffective, is a great answer. It comes to us from Sisyphus, a Greek king and jerk so epic that he displeased the gods. They condemned him to roll a rock up a steep hill; the rock would always roll back down, and he’d have to do it again, over and over for all eternity. “Delphic” and “Labyrinth,” though, refer to places, not personages, so they’re out. And a chimera (modern meaning: an organism or organ made by grafting or genetic engineering) was a monster, not a person. So no dice.

Jmcaddell proposed “Titan, odyssey, jovial, atlas, bacchanalian, martial, herculean, nymph, music, lyric” Digiphile (who was really into this challenge, evidently) responded with “John, you’ve got a fine command of language …but nearly all of those are derived from gods or their children. Titan was an old school god, jovial refers to Jove or Zeus, martial is from Mars, Hercules was the son of Jove and the Muses were minor deities.”  So there.

After I thought about my own challenge, I came up with:

Stentorian, meaning very loud, from Stentor, a herald on the Greek side in the Trojan war.

Procrustean means rigidly conformist or “marked by arbitrary often ruthless disregard of individual differences or special circumstances.” Procrustes was a bandit who, according to Wikipedia, “had an iron bed in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith’s hammer, to stretch them to fit. In later tellings, if the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fit the bed exactly because secretly Procrustes had two beds.” Wikipedia also tells me, though, that he was a son of Poseidon, so I lose on this one.

Adonis was a beautiful man born from the myrrh tree (in most versions). His name is now a generic term for a mimbo.

Pander, meaning to provide gratification for others’ desires, was the best one I came up with. It comes from Pandarus, who faciltated the illicit love between Troilus and Cressida. Googling around taught me that that story is not actually part of Greek mythology, but instead was invented in the 12th century. I’m still giving myself full credit, though, because Pandarus does appear as a character in the Iliad, and his name does give us that verb. Plus, it’s my challenge, and I’m still mad about ‘procrustean.’

A very smart friend of mine said “Are we confined to Greek and Roman myths and legends? Because if not, I propose ‘maudlin.'” Maudlin, meaning overly sentimental, is an alteration of the name of Mary Magdalene, who in some Christian writing is portrayed as a reformed prostitute who weeps much as she seeks forgiveness. A brilliant answer, and I’m giving it full marks even if Mary Magdalene was a real person.

Let me know if there’s appetite for more word geek challenges. If so, I’ll see what I can come up with…