FT: Social Networking: Lessons from a village community

Why would a business spend a fortune to achieve something that a village on the Scilly Isles achieves effortlessly – the passing of information efficiently and reliably to people who need to know it but not everyone else?

“Villages and islands are so improbably efficient at getting information to the right people,” explains Charles Armstrong, ethnographer and chief executive of Trampoline Systems. “Some social network has licked this problem that floors really large companies.”

Inspired by the “amazing dysfunction of corporate information systems” that he has seen in large companies, and guided by a hunch that those systems were interfering with instinctive human behaviour, he spent a year on St Agnes, one of the Scilly Isles, off Cornwall in south-west England, observing communication in action.

He describes what he saw as the interaction of five simple mechanisms. “There is an implicit difference between public and private information: if it’s said in the pub or the village shop it’s public information, if it’s said to your workmates, it’s privileged information.

“Next, if you share information with a group, anyone in the group can suggest who to pass it on to and anyone who’s going to see them will say so.

“A group can also be a target for information. People are good at relaying information effectively, even if they don’t know what it’s about. And there are buffering tools: two people who are close share almost everything but two people who are far apart need a close fit to pass something on.”

Mr Amstrong’s company, Trampoline, has products called Sonar and Metascope that mimic these behaviours instead of crippling them the way many enterprise IT systems do. “Humans spent 200,000 years evolving all kinds of social behaviour for accumulating, filtering and passing on information.

“We’re really good at it; so good, we don’t even think about it most of the time. But the way we use e-mail, instant messaging, file sharing and so on disrupts these instincts and stops them doing their job.

“This is why we waste so much time scanning through e-mails we’re not interested in and searching for documents we need. E-mail is a conceptually simple and democratic tool, but in a lot of other ways it’s a disaster, because it was designed for one-to-one communication but it’s mostly used for group collaboration.”

In a large organisation, informal networks fail because it’s hard to know who has the expertise and connections to need or pass on information. “We’re just at the end of the time when the organisational chart reflects reality,” says Mr Amstrong

What Sonar does is to analyse e-mail, customer relationship management (CRM) and document repositories as well as instant messenger communications to map the social networks, collaboration and information flow within the business. “In a sense, there isn’t such a thing as unstructured data, because you have the structure of the human relationships,” he suggests.

“Social networking systems often flounder in the enterprise because people don’t update information they way they would in personal networks,” he adds.

Raytheon, the defence contractor, is a customer. “It already had a CRM system and enterprise portals but they weren’t being updated.”

Sonar automatically calculates relationships in an organisation and displays them as Web 2.0-style tag clouds and diagrams. It identifies experts – and groups that are not sharing information. It means users will soon be able to put information into specific “buckets” to be automatically passed on to the people who need it.

New trends make social networks particularly useful in the enterprise, Mr Armstrong believes. “There’s a cultural shift from an underlying ‘need to know model’ to saying that whatever information is in the enterprise, unless it’s sensitive, should be available to everybody.”

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