Why collaboration hasn’t changed much—yet

Sheldon Laube focuses on the essentials that still need to emerge to create real improvements in enterprise collaboration.

Interview conducted by Alan Morrison, Bo Parker, and Bud Mathaisel
Photo: Sheldon Laube

By the time this issue of the Technology Forecast is published, Sheldon Laube will have retired from PwC, where he most recently was chief innovation officer. His career has included stints in C-suite positions at CenterBeam, USWeb, and Novell. Between 1985 and 1995, he was CIO at Price Waterhouse (PW) and was behind the firm’s decision to license the first 10,000 copies of Lotus Notes ever sold to an enterprise. After his return in 2003 to what had become PwC, as chief innovation officer he led the US firm’s iPlace webbased idea-sharing initiative.¹


PwC: How do people collaborate better and more effectively, especially as teams get larger and more distributed? People on one team often need help from another team in a different place, in a different unit. Maybe these teams don’t even know each other.

SL: That’s the problem of collaboration. The general problem case is that we’ve made no fundamental progress over the past 30 years in using tools that help that group of people do their jobs better, other than e-mail.

PwC: How does social networking help solve that problem?

SL: The jump to solving that problem through things like Facebook and Twitter just is not obvious to me. Get rid of the words “social network.” Forget that for a second, because when you say it to anyone else who is not in our conversation, they think Twitter and Facebook.

That’s why companies get confused. The question is, how do you make teams more effective through the use of technology?

PwC: That’s why Notes was brought in back in 1990 or so.

SL: That’s why Notes was brought in, and that’s what [web pioneer] Tim Berners-Lee had in mind. The web was initially a collaboration environment. The world of collaboration was set back by a mere 15 or 20 years because the web turned into a one-way publishing environment, instead of a collaboration medium.

Back then, there was a domain: computer-supported collaborative work. There were conferences. But soon, all of the money got sucked into a one-tomany publication model.

So what’s happened is that because of social media, with people interacting on a more peer-to-peer level, people have started asking about web collaboration once again.

Milestones

PwC: Every time you try and get off of e-mail, you find yourself inexorably held back.

SL: There have been some attempts. Google Wave was a good example, and now there are new ones. What’s being attempted are dynamic communities that are sensitive to your temporal work. In other words, the community would change as you move from task to task.

When I’m doing my timesheet there’d be one community, and when I’m working on a project, there’d be another.

PwC: In 1990, what was the aspiration and how was that aspiration informed by the experience with Notes?

SL: In 1990, remember, most companies did not have e-mail. You dialed up and logged onto a bulletin board system. CompuServe started coming out, but there were bulletin board systems and AOL had just been started.

PwC: The WELL [Whole Earth ’Lectronic Link] had been around.

SL: The WELL had been around, and there had been these places you could go—such as CompuServe and some others like that—and the notion was always exactly the same. It was, “I would like to be able to share something that others could easily see.” Those notions were all one to many, or many to many.

Things like the WELL facilitated discussions. You’d read through the posts and maybe somebody had an answer to your question, much like threaded discussions now. That hasn’t changed dramatically.

The thing was, I couldn’t set up my own discussions very easily. In other words, if I just walked into work and said that I wanted to set up a bulletin board system to discuss the latest tax news, that was not a lightweight operation. From a technology point of view, you’d get a PC and put in a card that had multiple connections to modems so people would dial in. You had to be pretty savvy just to run one of those.

And from an enterprise point of view, it wasn’t scalable. The biggest bulletin board systems you could buy maxed out at 64 simultaneous users because the PC had only eight slots—you put these cards in, and each card could support eight modems and whatever it was. There was a pretty clear limit, and of course the notion of security and access never existed.

Ray Ozzie’s vision [Ozzie led the development of Notes, and then Groove, which was acquired by Microsoft. He was one of Microsoft’s CTOs and then its chief software architect until the end of 2010.] was always about collaboration. It was never about e-mail. The point was, how do you allow people to selfassemble into working groups?

PwC: Notes was the do-it-yourself WELL?

SL: Yes, but Ozzie’s vision was bigger than the WELL because it was aimed at companies. Back in 1990, everybody was starting to understand the power of a database, dBASE. That was one of the top popular products. That’s what people did with computers. But dBASE was a one-user database.

By comparison, Notes was this magical thing that allowed you to do everything you could do in dBASE, and with no effort it became a completely distributed database that everyone could see and you could simultaneously update it. It was an amazing vision for 1990.

When I first talked about Notes to people here in the firm, I would stand in my office in New York [at Price Waterhouse]. As people would walk down the hall to the chairman’s office to pay homage to the chairman—I was on the same floor just by random chance— I’d grab them and say, “Come and take a look at this.” And I’d show them Notes on my desk because it was the only copy running.

After five minutes people said, “You know, we could share information like this.” I could put in a question and the community could come together and answer questions. Tax people would look at it, and intuitively they understood this notion: There is some community that is thinking about the stuff we’re thinking about. How can we tap into each other and share knowledge or collaborate?

Our philosophy in the early days of Notes was anybody could create a database. This was a lightweight operation and it was so simple. The original Notes was like dBASE, just a form, and you basically lay it out and you say, this is a field, and it’s either a number or it’s a character, or it’s a rich text field. So it was very easy for anyone in the firm who had an idea like this. It was very easy to throw together a database and with the press of a button, anybody on any desktop had access to it, without any IT involvement.

It also had enterprise-level security, encryption, and scalability—all of that was in 1990, in the first version of Notes.

Notes use at PwC

Sure enough, it went wild, and with nobody doing anything, other than us getting it out there, we went from no databases to about 200,000. At the great purge of five years ago, there were something like 900,000 Notes databases.

The knowledge management people said, “Oh, this is out of control, it’s wrong.” It was all about informal knowledge. They said, “How do you know what’s right and who is saying what to whom?” A lot of it was out of date, except for the fact that there were people using it in valuable ways—otherwise it wouldn’t exist.

You get to 900,000 databases—and those are all mini collaborations—that was the aspiration and it worked. What happened, and it happens over and over again, is the IT people said, “We’ve got to get it controlled, and then you need to add all of these enterprise application features.”

PwC: By 2000, what were the collaboration aspirations?

SL: In 2000, the web itself—even though it was one to many—faced the same set of issues. There were an unlimited number of websites with many individuals—lots of one to many—but when you get a lot of ones, that’s still a big number.

In the age of the web, these issues became even more acute to everyone else in the world, because 900,000 websites ain’t nothing. I remember when there were still 300, when you could go to wherever the directory was, and each week you’d see more added, right?

But the web really put this problem in relief because you can think of each website as a database, as a wiki, or whatever, just conceptually. It faces the same set of issues. How do you find the right ones? The problem isn’t any different.

Back then, there was a domain: computer-supported collaborative work. There were conferences. But soon, all of the money got sucked into a one-tomany publication model.

So what’s happened is that because of social media, with people interacting on a more peer-to-peer level, people have started asking about web collaboration once again.

Then there was search. Google and others have shown that through pure computational force you can get pretty good about allowing a lot of people to find information that’s useful to them. We can argue about how good it is, but while there might be half a billion people on Facebook, there are billions using the web and Google every day and getting useful—at least in their minds— information out of that.

 

“Then there was search. Google and others have shown that through pure computational force you can get pretty good about allowing a lot of people to find information that’s useful to them.

We can argue about how good it is, but while there might be half a billion people on Facebook, there are billions using the web and Google every day and getting useful—at least in their minds—information out of that.”

 
 

PwC: Although search inside of enterprises remains very difficult…

SL: Because it’s the scale problem in reverse. There’s not enough information to allow the techniques that the Google search people developed. The way Google PageRank works is the true law of very large numbers of people independently choosing to link to X, Y, and Z.

Enterprises don’t even allow that. It’s exactly contrary to their belief. The only links are the ones they approve, right?

PwC: With a social layer of data, there could be a human-assisted element that you could just search. That’s what Cisco and other vendors have been talking about.

SL: That’s an interesting hypothesis, but there’s no empirical evidence that that will get you a good answer.

PwC: If you look at ranking and reputation and all of those qualitative attributes we try to assign to people and things, there is a way to fill the gap that exists when you’re not doing the very large numbers.

 

“Social technology brings people back in around the unknown, which is why it’s interesting.”

 
 

SL: I think you’re right. That’s a good insight. What we’re learning is that social technology lends itself more toward the unstructured problems. In other words, with all of the brute force sorts of things—search, just for example—you’re looking for an answer that’s a definable answer, that’s a small range of answers. The social stuff gets you a range of options about the future or even about today.

What will Egypt look like in five years, for example? The answer is indefinable, but Twitter is very useful in helping you form a thought about that. You watch this stream of discussion and comment, and it lays out a probability cloud of what’s happening there, and that gives you some insight.

So social technology brings people back in around the unknown, which is why it’s interesting.


¹ See “PwC iPlace—Six Factors Behind Our Success” at the PwC Innovation Blog (http://pwcinnovate.wordpress.com/2010/07/23/pwc-iplace-six-factors-to-our-success/) for more information on iPlace.