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- To: <us>
- Subject: Electronic Cancers
- From: Marc Stiegler <marcs>
- Date: Mon, 27 Nov 89 17:40:48 PST
I have been reading ACM's transactions on Office Information
Systems slowly but surely for several months, since they have
numerous articles on collaborative software. I recently ran into
an article which has inspired another chapter for the Proponent's
Manual, the document I foresee shipping with the Infofactory
to tell a novice groupware installer how to interface the software
to the group. I am sending my note for the chapter out to everyone
because it might be relevant to AMIX's corporate product as well
as the Xanadu InfoFactory, and because it is at least mildly
amusing. Alas, it is not particularly surprising:
Chapter XYZ: Electronic Cancers
In the ACM Transactions on Office Information Systems, October
1988, Volume 6 Number 4, J.D. Eveland and T.K. Bikson tell a
tale for our times in the article, "Work Group Structures and
Computer Support: A Field Experiment." They had 2 40-person teams,
drawn randomly from the same group of workers, tackle the same
report-writing task. The only observable difference between the
2 groups was that one group had electronic mail, whereas the
other group had to rely on older, less modern tools. Each group
had to write a report that would advise people on the verge of
retirement on how to plan for their futures.
The good news is that the electronic team was very pleased with
its results--there was a great deal of job satisfaction.
The bad news is the electronic team's product. The electronic
team created a 70 page report, mostly in the form of
tables. The manual-work group, by contrast, created a 15 page
report, mostly in the form of anecdotes.
According to Eveland and Bikson, both reports were good. However,
let us be honest with each other. Which of these
reports is more likely to be read by real retirees--the 15 pages
or the 70 pages? And which is more often remembered--the point
at the end of the anecdote, or the point in the middle of a dazzling
array of columns of information?
One can only conclude that the group without electronic support
created a more useful and effective product, even though the
electronic workers felt greater pride in their result!
Of course this was only one study, with just one outcome. But
the way in which the electronic group failed is very suggestive.
With the advent of electronic tools, it becomes much easier to
create more material--and with the improved communication among
team members, it becomes more difficult to delete material without
a larger group consensus. So the report grows and grows. Furthermore,
it grows in ways that are conveniently supported by electronic
tools, such as tables and pie charts. It seems quite likely that
the electronic support itself contributed to the failure of this
40 man team to create a readable document.
How can you avoid these problems? There are two key components
to preventing cancerous, tumorlike growth in your group writing
Step one is to constrain the number of people working on the
report--rather than having 40 people working on the study, put
only 10 people on the task. Let the ten principal participants
consult others as needed--but do not require them to consult
others on a regular basis, and do not allow others to force more
material upon them.
Step two is to correct the reward system in your group, so that
people who REDUCE the size of a finished product are honored
as much or MORE than the people who enxpand it. Take every opportunity
praise teammates who find material to delete (particularly if
they find ways of deleting material they themselves created).
For large, critical projects, give awards for concise phrasing.
Make sure that everyone understands WHY shortness of presentation
is praised above other factors. And appoint an editor, who has
the explicit job of deleting material--and let the editor's judgement
Even with these incentives, an electronic team will inevitably
grow a large body of collateral material. Frequently, the collateral
documentation is good, but just too extensive to be readable--you
must remove it from center stage lest the stage grow to the size
of a football field.
Hypertext, of course, supplies the natural place to put such
related material. Run links to the collateral information, allowing
the reader the choice of whether to read it or not.
Indeed, when using Inclusion Lists, it makes perfect sense to
compose all such related material together into a second document--a
document that in paper formats would be called an Appendix. Going
further, the separately composed Appendix can then be included
by reference into the original report, and printed when desired.