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.

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