05 August 2010

Google Wave and Group Communication

I believe that a good social networking tool to facilitate group discussion could be very successful, but now that Google Wave has been abandoned we still seem to be some off having anything that meets this need. There are probably many reasons for the failure of Wave, but the first was the inept way it was launched. Group discussion tools have many applications, but the most obvious in the workplace is as an online alternative to the conventional office meeting. To be usable however, it is necessary for everyone to have access to the facility, as well as some familiarity with using it. Launching Wave by issuing invites to a few people who had expressed an interest, pretty much guaranteed that most early users would assess it and then put it on the back burner until such time as it could be used for real discussions. Early users did not correspond, for the most part, to any groups that actually wanted to talk to each other, and in particular this made it almost impossible to assess it for use in the workplace where the chances are that most people in a work group would not have access to the service. Eventually more invites became available but by then many of the early adopters had lost interest and had stopped monitoring the site.

Even if they had handled the launch better, Wave may not have succeeded as it probably had too many radical ideas to get widespread acceptance. The only system I have used which I think successfully addresses the closed group communication market is Yammer. It is specifically targetted at organisations, and access is controlled by membership (and an email account) of a domain. Although you can use it for free, to get administrator control of the domain you need to pay a fixed amount per user. Yammer is much less ambitious than Wave but what it does do works very well. A major limitation is that more general groupings (for example groups of people from several different organisations) would be very difficult, if not impossible, to set up in Yammer - Wave was better in this respect. There are other commercial systems (Basecamp for example), but in general they have trouble dealing with arbitrary groups of people across different organisations.

What would it take to produce a successful group communication tool? I would suggest the following:

  • It needs to come from somebody with a clear idea of the target market
  • That almost certainly means not Google - they are good at coming up with ideas but seem uninterested in listening to user feedback. If you do not buy into their vision they lose interest.
  • It needs to be free to use at least the basic facilities - Yammer's pricing model rules it out for most educational establishments and public bodies.
  • A way needs to be found to overcome the natural conservatism of some users: many non-IT people are reluctant to adopt new computer-based ways of working. The use of a computer-based discussion tool for group discussion typically requires 100% take up. If, for example, you have a project involving 10 people and 2 refuse to take part in the new technology, then it will not get used. In effect a conservative minority can often mean that new communication technology will not be used. Yammer appears to have been successful in companies where the management decided to both install it, and require their staff to use it: this is difficult or impossible for many organisations.
I have previously written about the inadequacies of email for discussions, and conventional office meetings have obvious limitations, but with the demise of Wave we seem to be no closer to getting a viable alternative.

08 May 2010

Voting Reform

In my last blog I said that in the UK only the votes of about 10% of the electorate actually matter as a result of our voting system. Now the election has happened we have no party with an overall majority, and the the subject of voting reform has come to the fore as the basic unfairness of the system has become clear to everyone. All the smaller parties know that without proportional representation they will always be grossly under-represented in parliament, and conversely the two largest parties know that the current system can deliver them absolute power with only minority support from the voters.

This election dramatically illustrates how unfair the current system is with the Liberal Democrats getting only 8.7% of the seats with 23.0% of the vote, whereas the Conservatives got 47.1% of the seats with only 36.1% of the vote. With these figures I find it hard to accept that our first-past-the-post system can even be counted as democratic. The Conservative share of the vote means that 63.9% of the voters voted against them, so their claim to have the right to rule is tenuous at best. The other parties have even less claim to rule alone: the voters have in effect voted for coalition.

Our voting system has two main faults: you can only vote for one candidate and this encourages tactical voting, or voting for a major party even though one of the minor parties may be the first preference (the "wasted vote" argument). Secondly the number of votes received nationally has a non-linear relationship to the number of seats won. A small percentage, such as UKIP's 3.1%, delivers no seats when it should have resulted in 20. The first problem can be fixed easily, without a radical change to the current system, by introducing single transferable voting (usually called the Alternative Vote System when applied to single member elections) to the existing constituencies. By allowing voters to place their preferences in order, the need for tactical voting would go and everyone could vote naturally without feeling that their vote was wasted if they did not put one of the two major parties as first choice. There is no real argument against the single transferable vote, and it should have been introduced a long time ago, but unfortunately it does not really address the non-linearity problem: only a proportional representation system can do that.

The Jenkins Commission produced a report in 1998 which recommended the Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) system which, although it is not fully proportional, still looks like a good compromise. It does seem that an increasing number of people accept the voting reform will happen - let us hope that it comes sooner rather than later.

13 April 2010

UK General Election 2010

It is general election time again and we have the usual blanket media coverage. The media, and in particular the political commentators, love elections and seem convinced that everyone else shares their enthusiasm. All the partys are busily trying to push what they hope will be vote winning policies, but sadly I don't think many voters trust any of the partys to deliver! Blair promised a referendum on electoral reform but it never happened (although the Lib Dems would definitely deliver on that one). The Conservatives are promising to reverse the planned increase in national insurance contributions, but I suspect that if elected they will say that economic situation is worse than they thought and they will not be able to do it after all.

The UK media is saturated with election coverage, all presumably to inform voters as to how they might use their vote. However I find it hard to get interested as I am one of the 60% effectively disenfranchised by our ludicrously unfair voting system, and am in a constituency which always returns the same party candidate. In the other constituencies only 60% will vote anyway, many of whom will have decided how they are going to vote before the election was called.
Basically around 10% of the electorate will decide who forms the next government.

28 February 2010

Computer Tools for Improved Communication

Social networking tools may be the answer to intra-group communication, but do you have a clear understanding of the question?

The use of social networking tools across wide-area networks is revolutionising the way some people communicate. There is now is a choice of e-mail, forums, social networks (Facebook, etc.), news feeds (RSS/Atom), microblogging (twitter, etc.), Internet Relay Chat (IRC), and instant messaging (IM). The use of social networks has grown rapidly for non-office based communication, and an attraction for many people is that there are no boundaries – the world is your audience. Some of us have investigated using the same, or similar, tools in closed group environments: in the office or in education for example. However in the office one form of communication dominates: e-mail, even though it is far from the best choice for many purposes.

To facilitate discussions information has to be two-way: e-mail is two-way but is not, in my view, ideal for discussions. Micro-blogging and blogging are essentially one-way, although most blog software nowadays allow comments. IM is two-way and Yammer, which can be considered to be a combination of IM and micro-blogging, is suitable for discussions. Examples of one-way communications are news feeds, which usually use RSS and/or Atom.


E-mail is the only tool that has reached critical mass, and in the office environment you can usually assume everyone has an account, and that almost everyone checks their mail at least once a day. The ubiquity of e-mail encourages most people to use it not only for simple messages, but also for file transfers and multi-person discussions. Discussions by e-mail have many problems: in particular the sender of a message decides who is to be part of the discussion and, if others want to join in (assuming they even know that a discussion is going on), it can be difficult to catch up with the messages already sent. E-mail discussions frequently, and often inadvertently, result in information silos and poor intra-group communication.


On-line forums are designed specifically for multi-person discussions, but they seem to be unpopular with many people.


Microblogging (microsharing), and in particular Twitter, is a very different way of communicating. Twitter is in many ways a remarkable concept in that it is frequently hard to explain to a non-user why they would ever want to use it. The basic idea of reporting what you are currently doing (in no more than 140 characters) at any given time seems to many rather pointless, but once you start using it it can become addictive – although some people remain unconvinced even after using it. Because messages have to be short and plain text, it is easy to deliver them to portable devices such as smartphones, and as a result many applications (Twibble, et al) have been released, feeding off the Twitter concept. The only way to transmit longer messages or images, is to upload a file and reference it in the text, and this has resulted in sites such as twitpic.com. Twitter is increasingly being used by service providers (bus and train companies, computing services, etc.) to provide service information such as cancelled or delayed trains. Google have recently released Buzz which competes with twitter to some extent, but has many more facilities. It seems to have attracted a significant following, particularly former users of the social networking site Friendfeed. (Friendfeed's future is uncertain after its purchase by Facebook.)

Twitter is not really suitable for use within an organisation (although users of CoTweet or Hootsuite may disagree), but other microblogging tools such as Yammer are designed for this market. Yammer provides a communication service for a closed group defined by a mail domain. Users register with their e-mail address, and confirm that they are a valid user by replying to the generated message. Although superficially similar to Twitter, there is no 140 character limit, and messages can be sent to pre-defined groups (similar to chat rooms in IRC systems), or to everyone. Sub-groups within the domain can be private or public , and messages can be sent to IM systems, by SMS, and by e-mail. Although the basic service is free, an organisation would need to pay to get control of the network, and if you do claim your network charging is based on the number of users. Other similar systems include Communote, Present.ly, Nurphy, and Socialtext. All these tools extend naturally to remote working: not only working from home but keeping in contact when away at meetings or conferences for example.

Using a system like Yammer does not by itself provide an effective intra-organisation communication system: it is important to understand the varying ways that people deal with information flow. I would expect most commercial organisations to mandate the use by staff of any system once introduced, but in other organisations this may not be considered acceptable. It would seem inevitable that any closed-group communication system will be less effective if its use remains optional. Either way it is better if staff want to use the system because they feel it is of direct benefit to them.

User Acceptance

People sem to vary greatly in their attitude to IT based communication systems: some avoid using them at all if they have this freedom, arguing that they have not got time to use such systems even if it only takes few minutes each day. Noise (the receipt of messages not considered relevant to the individual) is seen as a major problem by some people, but just a minor irritation by others. It is an example of the glass half-full or half-empty metaphor – some people see the noise and some the signal (useful content). So for a system to be effective I believe it is necessary to encourage people to accept that some noise is the price you pay for being better informed, and for the opportunity to take part in discussions.

Although poor intra-group communication is often recognised as a problem it seems that all too often solutions are adopted in an ad-hoc way with no clear idea of what the problem is that needs solving. This happened with e-mail which was adopted by almost all organisations, and the use of which evolved as people got used to the new tool. Evolution is often a good way to develop, but for communication within closed groups it would probably be better to eventually adopt an agreed strategy.


In conclusion I believe different tools are needed to handle effectively different type of communications. However it seems unlikely that they will be fully effective in the workplace without some agreement to standardise on one or more tools. Yammer meets many requirements but is let down by poor or missing clients (nothing for Nokia or Windows Mobile phones), no plugin for Internet Explorer; although most of these issues are being addressed and the site has just had significant enhancements. Google Wave, which is currently on beta release for invited users, may well be the answers to everyone’s problems. However in my opinion it was released on beta before it was ready, and releasing it initially to just a few users meant it was difficult to try it out for group discussions (you can only have meetings with people who have received invites from Google). It is based on the XMPP protocol and even if Google Wave is not successful I believe that XMPP is the way forward.

Google Wave when fully released and Yammer both seem to address problems with poor intra-group communication; providing, of course, we understand the problem!

An earlier version of this appeared as an invited contribution to Ramblings of a Remote Worker - the UKOLN blog site edited by Marieke Guy

24 February 2010

Google and Family Planning!

The following question is reputedly one of many that Google may ask prospective job candidates:

Imagine a country in which every family continues to have children until they have a boy. If they have a girl, they have another child, and continue until they have a boy, then they stop. What is the proportion of boys to girls in the country? You should assume that there is an equal probability of having a boy or a girl.

The question has been discussed at length on the Internet and this site is one of many that provide an answer. The answer is correct (approximately the same number of boys and girls) but I doubt whether the way it is derived would help to get you a job with Google. There are numerous other similar posts, most of which give the correct answer, but all but a few miss what I believe is the point of the question. It is an example of misdirection; the question describes a strategy for ensuring that all families have exactly one boy and zero or more girls, but what it asks for is the overall distribution of boys and girls in the country as a whole. The way the question is stated leads you to believe that the strategy will affect the overall distribution - but does it? Anyone with some knowledge of probability should then realise that no strategy that involves stopping after a certain number of children can affect the overall proportion, because all births are independent events. In the population as a whole the probability that the next child, born anywhere in the country, will be a boy is 0.5, regardless of how many boys or girls have already been born, so the proportion will be 50:50. Of course the proportion will rarely be exactly equal because the gender of the children are random events, in fact they form a binomial distribution, but for large populations it will be very close to 50:50.

To many people this is counter intuitive - probably because the strategy clearly does affect the make up of every individual family. Consider another country where they adopt the strategy of stopping after having exactly two girls. The only family distribution you would find on both countries would be two girls and one boy (but in a different order); the overall distribution however would still be 50:50.