The Organizational Digital Divide

ChasmAn emerging breed of collaboration tools, born and incubated in the free software world, is radically improving the ways that people work together. These aren’t just toys for techies anymore. Just as the word processor became an essential tool for every writer to master, the network is the new medium that advocates and activists need to embrace in order to be effective.

Organizations who fail to recognize this opportunity will waste valuable resources wrestling with the torrents of information they are responsible for managing. How many groups continue to collaborate on press releases or grant proposals by sending around multiple versions of word documents? How many organizations share a single email account to manage constituent relations and their common contact information? How many emails must be exchanged for a small group of people to schedule a meeting?

The “writeable web” has spawned a new generation of networked, web-based authoring environments that can significantly increase an organization’s ability to realize its goals. These environments are not a panacea – at best, they will catalyze and facilitate an improvement in communication and processes. While technology alone will not guarantee a change in a group’s culture, it can play an instrumental role raising the self-awareness around an organization’s processes, and in turn, help improve them.

These alternatives have the potential to help fulfill some of the Internet’s early promise by significantly improving the efficiency and productivity of non-profits, NGO’s and activist groups alike. Such tools can dramatically improve the management of knowledge, communities, and projects, and enable coordination and collaboration across thousands of participants. They are rapidly being adopted by corporations eager to move beyond the e‑mail inbox as the primary task management and collaboration platform. Organizations of all shapes and sizes need to evaluate and embrace these technologies, or risk falling behind in differential efficiency, victims of an organizational digital divide.

A simple mailing list combined with a wiki can thoroughly transform workflow and hierarchy within an organization. But this is just the start. Project management tools, collaboration platforms, and content management systems are transforming the functionality of intranets. By better balancing flows of communication and power, these collaboration tookits can boost an organization’s productivity, and increase the return on a philanthropic investment. With the proper tuning and
training , web-based collaboration tools can help an organization achieve important strategic objectives such as transparency, accountability, and sustainability.

Like the telegraph and the railroad in their time, the Internet has been heralded as the promoter of equality, freedom, and democracy. And like the technologies that preceded it, its impact will ultimately derive from the ways we choose to use it. We need to be more deliberate in our choices of communication technologies, since these tools shape the dynamics of the connections between us. Software has gone social, but it’s not just for socializing. There is important and hard work to be accomplished and we need to be using technology intelligently so that we
can communicate and act more purposefully and efficiently.
[I originally wrote this piece for an op-ed assignment in a class on Media and Rights in Development]

Asymmetric Competition and the CMS

Originally published on

Beyond the CMS – What are Plone’s greatest future competitors?

I recently encountered O’Reilly’s asymmetrical competition meme and think its a good jumping off point to discuss the differences between Plone’s perceived and actual competition.

First, let’s catch up to where we are today:

Web 2.0 … The Machine is Us/ing Us

The opensource CMS horserace has seemingly settled on a few players, and without provoking any religious wars, I continue to be impressed with the richness and maturity of all of these projects.

But here in the educational sector there are rumblings which I think will spread beyond our corner. In our world ‘C’ stands for Course, not ‘Content’, and the big players are Blackboard (which swallowed WebCT), Sakai and Moodle. Here too, competition may come from surprising corners, as the game itself changes beneath us.

“Collaboration via the net does not necessarily require monolithic, expensive tool suites that aim to do everything under one umbrella. We will share and demonstrate the use of readily available, mostly free, discrete sets of “small” and “loosely joined” technologies – weblogs, wikis, instant messaging, audio/video chat. The loose joining means that how they are connected are not necessarily in the programming of the software, but the ways people can use them in a social context that is an environment of dynamic, changing relationships and connections, rather than the rigid, limited ones defined by computer code.”

from Social software: E-learning beyond learning management systems.

This argument is elaborated on, with many examples of applications that might work this way in this paper:

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES Tag Clouds in the Blogosphere: Electronic Literacy and Social Networking

So what does this mean for the other sectors where Plone operates? I have been hanging out in Drupal land lately, and for a variety of reasons I don’t consider that platform to be a serious threat to Plone, in the long term (more on that in another post).

On the other hand, and this might raise some eyebrows, folks maybe should take a peek at Gallery 2.2 . Yeah, its in php, and they don’t have enough unit tests, but it does a really nice job of solving the “bucket” problem – that is, easily publishing a repository of digital assets on the web. Their next version will handle audio and video files, and the software is popular enough that people have built desktop clients for iPhoto and Picassa. They have a good story for multi-site installations, upgrades, and even a web based mechanism for upgrading plugins. Just imagine mashing up this backend store with a social-networking tool like elgg. Maybe you could create complex and elaborate views of your data with widgets coming out of the simile project (exhibit and timeline, in particular). You might even be able to use a visual programming tool, like Yahoo’s pipes or IBM’s QEDWiki to assemble this application.

The real threat here isn’t Gallery. Its the loosely-joined, disconnected applications that are becoming connected through the component architecture of HTTP itself (plus a few decent patterns and standards). No one wants to be trapped in a silo, not even if its decked out with hardwood floors, leather furniture, and a marble mantle.

Plone can be a major provider in this hub of communications, maybe even sometimes at the center. But we do need to try to anticipate the future role of the CMS in the face of asymmetric competition.

As Laura Trippi once put it, Content Management Systems like Plone,
are turning content produces into coders, and vice versa. We’re
creating monsters, and they might soon be outgrowing the tools they
were weaned on.

(thanks to Biella for the video reference and the critical commentary).

Second Life Political Rallies?

psychicGiven the Alchemist’s recent trackrecord of predictions, I am going to pass along another prediction that we came up with at lunch the other day.

The ’08 presidential campaign will witness political rallies, and probably counter-protests, inside of second life (for activists who don’t have a first life?)

We also wondered if the recent moves to restrict people’s right to assemble publicly in New York City (see Assemble for Rights) might carry over into cyberspace. No more than 50 avatars per server?

I’m not sure if even Gonzales would have the gumption to distort our constitutional right to assembly, but like with his recent frightening attack on habeas corpus, the constitution only states that “Congress shall make no law.. abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble,” – so executive orders or judicial rulings might be fair game?

First they ignore you…

375789254_a46562dc0e.jpgthen they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Nature has reported that American Association of Publishers (AAP) has hired a seasoned PR veteran to fight against open access scientific articles

Journal Publishers Hire PR ‘Pit Bull’ to Attack Open Access

I guess they are starting to take this “threat” (or rather, eventuality) rather seriously.

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