Saturday, July 13, 2013

Users that care

 One of the benefits of being a web-junkie is that I read a lot of websites (although I really do need to better configure my RSS reader) and stumble across all sorts of ideas, seemingly at random. Today's random idea was at the Center for International Maritime Security, in a post titled Tools of the Trade.

It's a short article about how the Navy is moving towards more methods for collaboration, but even better is that it has a number of links to different collaboration sites (including many I'd never heard of). I saw a sentence though that perhaps best identified why collaboration is often hard to achieve in the first place:

This points to one of the fundamental truths of the collaborative sites: No matter how good in concept or design they are, they can’t help users collaborate unless they have users to begin with (often through command endorsement or enforced use).

I would only change the word "users" to "users that care."

I'm seeing a rift as we speak in how collaboration is viewed. Older generations viewed it as get everyone in a room, talk, and work it out. The "talk" part was often viewed as a battle, hence needing to physically be in the same room. We've all heard the stories of backroom meetings with the yelling/screaming that we so commonly associate with Surface Warfare Officers.

It certainly works at times, but a crux here is that it relies on consensus, and once that fails, the top guy makes the call. This might work well internally, but when you have external folks that don't report to you, it fails completely. I watched this first hand between an air command and cryptologic command on a VTC. The cryppies pointed out that planes were flying with broken equipment and yet were being represented as fully mission capable (FMC), likely because no one ever wants to admit that they can't fly a mission. The air command considered FMC as having engines, wings and landing gear and getting off the ground. In the end, despite an hour of discussion, the air command continued on their merry way.

Younger generations see this and groan. Despite the fancy VTC equipment, despite the hour spent coordinating a VTC, despite the prebriefs and the read-aheads, nothing was fixed. Business as usual prevailed.

Earlier this year in my office I asked a question about who played in a certain movie, and one of my first classes asked me "Sir, do you want me to google that for you?" I said sure, expecting a verbal answer, but to my surprise an email with a hyperlink came up, which apparently was created from this website:

I thought it was funny at the time, but thinking about it later made me realize something:

"Let me Google that for you" is likely a response of a younger generation to an older one about how to view the Internet.

In an older generation, the subordinate spends time researching the answer and brings the solution to the boss. With the internet, this is often only a few mouse clicks away, so the younger generation feels it has more important things to do. Plus, for more complicated answers, it takes more than just a Google search to get the correct answer, but the older generation thinks that everything only takes "a few minutes on Google."

In an older generation, technology simply makes the same process go digital. VTC basically means we have meetings where everyone is in the same VTC room, just not the same physical room. The younger generation sees the meeting itself as a waste of time if everyone has already received a prebrief and no decision is going to be made anyway, and would rather collaborate in an online forum where they can vote, attach pictures, and tag things (if this sounds like Facebook to you, you're catching on).

In an older generation, the boss is presented with COAs (courses of actions, essentially decisions) to pick, and doesn't normally participate in the meetings that came up with them. In a younger generation, the boss is expected to actively participate, using whatever software is available, in the discussion.

The military has, as CIMSEC has pointed out, a nice amount of collaboration tools to really share via the web, but it will all hinge on having users that are willing to learn the interfaces (not that hard anymore), and more importantly, willing to challenge how they think about collaboration in the first place. If we want to truly tap into the collective brain of the Navy, we're going to have to get better at using collaborative tools, and going from being just "users" to being "users that care."