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.