TECH TALK: Constructing the Memex: OurMemex

Groups are an integral part of our life at work and outside. Some groups are ad-hoc and have a limited existence (for the existence of a project), while some others are much longer-lasting. From the Memex perspective, groups work as aggregators. They provide the collective intelligence and knowledge of a collection of people.

There are two ways to create and participate in Memexes create by groups. The first approach is to have an OurMemex constructed jointly by group members. Think of this as a community weblog. Slashdot is one such example, where anyone can participate in the discussion. Corantes Many weblog on social software is another example, created by a closed group of experts. The second approach is to specify a cluster of bloggers. In some ways, this is just like creating a blogroll with a list of bloggers for a specific area. The features of the OurMemex would be identical to that of MyMemex, except for the ability to have multiple people participate in its development and thus be able to connect different people.

We are beginning to see the early versions of people connecting software in the form of Ryze, Friendster and LinkedIn. The general term used to describe such solutions is social software. Jonathan Peterson writes about why social software is taking off now, and the wider context it fits in:

Tools to help automate knowledge working are almost non-existent. The lack of standard processes for knowledge working has meant that tools for automation are almost completely a matter of individual choice and remain strikingly primitiveThe tools for knowledge management haven’t appreciably improved in the last 20 years; email integration and shared folders are the only significant features Outlook delivers that Sidekick didn’t have in 1984. And while tons of VC dollars have been spent on intranets and portal creation software, the whole concept of centralized knowledge management feels wrong to me.

Attempting to create a consistent vocabulary and taxonomy across an entire enterprise is misguided. It should be obvious that everyone is unique in the mental models that they create to structure their knowledge. What’s more the knowledge that workers create must be portable, for no matter how much companies would like to lock employees’ ideas away as intellectual property, the cross-pollination that occurs when people move from company to company is critical to innovation. We should be building tools to encourage innovation and collaboration, not to constrain it or control it.

This seems a domain where open data exchange standards, P2P technologies and powerful desktop computing are the right models. The integration of personal and published web content, content and concept sharing, RSS aggregation and publishing, blogging, email filtering/storage/extraction and powerful collaborative searching is bringing a real revolution in knowledge working productivity into view.

Knowledge work tools (and processes) have almost overwhelmingly been designed around project TEAMS. But more and more work is being done in more casual WORKING GROUPS. The individuals who make up working groups have vast differences in their available time, their level of commitment and their levels of expertise. The Internet has made it likely that group members will also differ, not only in the corporate agendas they may represent, but also in the language they speak and the cultures in which they live.

Managing a project across a dedicated team of individuals working for one company in a couple locations is trivial by comparison. Managing a project’s critical path with a Gantt chart makes sense when you have a dedicated pool of resources to draw and a set of clearly understood requirement to build towards; but what about when your deliverable is soft and your groups members are likely to disappear at any time. Leadership of working groups is more a matter of supplying a vision and enabling communication to speed consensus and compromise.

Interestingly this is exactly the way Open Source works. Resources come and go, decisions are mostly by committee of experts. While I can’t imagine how a corporation could possibly work that way it has managed to deliver the biggest challenges to the most profitable company on the planet (Microsoft) in the form of Apache and Linux.

The Open Source approach advocated is very much what OurMemex is based on the actions of various individuals working together in ad hoc groups to create a higher-level of knowledge and insight than what any single individual is capable of.

Tomorrow: MemexCentral

TECH TALK Constructing the Memex+T

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Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.