Newsletter #13: Languages for Collaboration

Knowledge is everywhere. It’s there in classrooms, the traditional locus of learning. It’s also there in company strategy and in grandmother’s tales. When you work on a thousand piece puzzle with your family over the holidays, you are participating in a knowledge collaboration.

Scholars have long known that the key to accumulating knowledge is a shared language. Sometimes it comes across as jargon, but often the shared language makes it possible for a distributed network of scholars to read and understand each other.

Most of us work in teams now; often teams distributed across the world. A major challenge for a distributed team is to arrive upon common mental models of the task at hand — teams often face a tower of babel problem with different members and groups talking past each other. We need a new language of thought that allows teams to share the same story while being able to modify the story for their own needs.

Despite the immense advances in sharing technologies, we are far from having shared languages for collaboration. The best known collaborative medium in the software worl — Git — makes it possible for developers to share code. Github is the default location for developers to meet and collaborate. However, most collaborations aren’t about code. While the practice of using git is spreading to other fields, it’s still far from a general language of collaboration. How can photographers use github for sharing insights? What about a sales team?

In order to solve that problem, we need to understand that Github is really a graph-based language of collaboration, but it’s a relatively restricted language. We need a richer language of collaboration that works for teams in sectors outside the world of developers, a language that’s visual as well as text based and equally importantly, a language that’s based on the insights we have gleaned into our minds in the last thirty years.

Of course, language — by that I mean, spoken language, not computer languages — has been the medium for collaboration for a long long time. How can we make technology enhance those natural capacities? Writing was the last invention that transformed our use of language. I believe that the true promise of computing is in its avatar as writing 2.0. We need a combination of cognition, design and software to crack the collaboration problem.

This week’s links

  1. The Myth of the Lone Genius, or why collaboration is key.
  2. The latest version of the Git manual — in case you want some light reading. The good news: it’s free.

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