Ad hoc collaboration

While talking to Jaime Teevan during my recent visit to Microsoft Research, I realized that there is a need for investigating ad hoc collaboration much like the way we do “regular” collaboration. See, with the usual collaborative projects, there is some kind of setup process; the collaborators identify the need to work together, they recognize roles and responsibilities, and set rules and guidelines for working together. At least this is what happens quite often. But then there are situations where things are not that thought out.

As Jaime and I discussed, imagine being at a conference in a new town, and at the end of the day having a need to find a place for dinner. Do we actively seek out others who may also be looking for restaurant suggestions? Sometimes yes, but what if someone (or some system) could connect us in an ad hoc fashion for creating an impromptu collaboration? The problem is already identified, the solution is understood, and there is most likely intention to be in a group like this. In other words, we don’t have to explicitly set the rules of engagement; they are already defined or understood via social norms. We are ready to collaborate!

Another example that I thought could be study sessions for students. We often find students gathering in places where they work on their homework problems in the same space such as a library or some other common space. They may not necessarily be thinking about working with others, but given that they are in the same space at the same time, one could give them a “nudge” to see if they would like to collaborate. Once again, the problem and potential solution are already there, and all that is needed is intention.

One way to look at these scenarios is through Fisher’s notion of information grounds. People being in the same space at the same time for some reason (conference, working on homework, etc.) could start interacting with each other – seeking and sharing information.

I believe mobile devices have a large role to play in facilitating such impromptu interactions and creating ad hoc collaborations.

The Coagmento difference

I often get asked how Coagmento is different than Google Docs, Diigo, etc. Actually there are a number of collaborative tools now available, and several of them have already achieved a good traction among end-users. So where do we fit in?

Well, from the beginning I have made it clear that Coagmento is not Google or anything close to it; it’s not designed to make it fast for “regular” searches. It’s also not merely an information exchange place like diigo or delicions, nor it is for simply creating a collaborative product like Google Docs. The real strength and the real difference that Coagmento brings is the ability to capture the process as it stores not only collective bookmarks, snippets, and final product, but also keeps track of various processes (search, share, interactions) that take place throughout the collaboration. This may not seem like a big deal, but it’s quite a powerful difference that Coagmento offers. This has significant implications for education, where it’s not the final product that we care about, but also the process that one went through to create it. This also goes along with a core objective of reference librarianship, where one tries to not only get an answer, but also shows how it was retrieved.

As we keep developing and testing Coagmento, we encounter more and more of such scenarios and applications. The reports of our lessons and findings will keep getting disseminated through several channels, including this blog.