I had probably greeted Tom in passing more than 50 times before we actually met. A new student at the MIT Media Lab, he worked just a few doors down the hall from my office, but I was a busy doctoral student and didn’t have much time to cultivate relationships. I was consumed with my research, trying to get artificial intelligence on mobile phones, and I was struggling. Programming the phones was tougher than I had anticipated because I wasn’t familiar with Symbian, the operating system they use. One morning, though, as Tom and I met near the lab’s coffee machine, we started up a conversation. As it turned out, Tom was also developing an application for mobile phones, and I soon discovered that he was an expert on Symbian. I was elated because I had found someone who could help me with some difficult programming problems, but I couldn’t help feeling some regret. Had I only taken any number of chances to introduce myself earlier, his expertise would have saved me weeks of frustration.

Serendipitous Encounters

Lack of communication among colleagues in the workplace is a widespread syndrome at many companies, but two parallel paradigm shifts are helping to change that. The first is a movement from desktop to mobile computing. Wireless communication devices have become standard corporate gear around the world. In millions of briefcases, pockets and purses are wireless transceivers, microphones and the computational horsepower of a desktop computer of just a few years ago. Unfortunately, though, the majority of that processing power goes unused.

The second paradigm shift is the move from individual to “social” software, here defined as programs that enable a group of people to accomplish common goals. In some respects, a word processor that allows a team of individuals to write and edit a document is a form of social software, but more recent applications are able to take greater advantage of collaboration. One such example is the social networking of Web sites like www.match.com and www.linkedin.com, which enable people to quickly find others who have common interests or other reasons to connect.

Such technology also has potentially valuable business benefits. Consider a salesperson who needs an introduction to an executive working for a prospective customer. Companies like Visible Path Corp. have been developing software that automatically finds such connections, using the “six degrees of separation” principle.