Do we finally have the right technologies for knowledge work? Wikis, blogs, group-messaging software and the like can make a corporate intranet into a constantly changing structure built by distributed, autonomous peers — a collaborative platform that reflects the way work really gets done.
By the fall of 2005, the European investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein (DrKW) had just completed a rollout of three new communication technologies to most of its employees. The tools — which included blogs, wikis and messaging software for groups and individuals1 — caught on first among IT staffers, who soon realized that the initial wiki environment lacked a feature called presence display. That is, it didn’t offer a way to tell if another employee was at his or her computer. At 10:44 London time on Oct. 11, 2005, an IT employee posted to his blog:
… it’s about squeezing as much as we can out of what we have in place now … The [presence display] idea for example can be achieved with ease [in the wiki] by simply adding the link below to an image tag … It’s a bit rough round the edges and the icon could be much better but does do what you want.
At 11:48, a colleague posted a comment on the same blog:
Cool, I have then taken your [link] and (pretty nastily) hacked presence display into [the wiki]. I’ll let Myrto [Lazopoulou, head of user-centered design at DrKW] know … and ask her to look into perhaps getting her team [to see] whether we can do this better …
Within 64 minutes and without any project definition or planning, a presence display solution had been spontaneously taken from concept to implementation, then submitted to the person formally responsible.
Why are these new technologies particularly noteworthy? After all, companies already have plenty of communication media — e-mail, instant messaging, intranets, telephones, software for document sharing and knowledge management and so on. As the vignette above suggests, the new technologies are significant because they can potentially knit together an enterprise and facilitate knowledge work in ways that were simply not possible previously. To see how, we need to first understand the shortcomings of the technologies currently used by knowledge workers, then examine how the newly available technologies address these drawbacks. We’ll then return to the DrKW case to see how to accelerate their use within an enterprise, and highlight the challenges of doing so.