Posts Tagged ‘social software’

Yesterday, I mentioned how Cleary Gottlieb had borrowed knowledge engineering techniques from the military, to capture the expertise of senior staff, embed it in a computer system and pass it on to junior lawyers online, in the form intelligent online textbooks and knowledge maps. But I was left wondering about the system’s interactivity, intelligence, and the currency of information therein.

Today, having read about iLink – another military-funded project – I’m now wondering if the Cleary Gottlieb system incorporates any of the social-networking ‘AI’ features mentioned in that article (given the military connection!)?

iLink was developed as a part of the SRI-led CALO (Cognitive Agent that Learns and Organizes) programme and was funded and managed under DARPA’s PAL (Personalized Assistant that Learns) programme.  Mark Rutherford reports that:

iLink is a machine learning-based system that models users and content in a social network and then points the user to relevant content, discussions, and other network members with shared interests and goals across a broad range of scenarios.

To do this, the system uses message-matching technologies for finding related information, and algorithms for gathering data from multiple sources and compiling it together, whilst differentiating private information from that which is safe to share.

Now certain of those technology features/capabilities don’t sound too removed from some social software tools currently on (or almost ready for) the market.  For instance there’s:

  • Newsgator ES – has smart feeds and recommendations.
  • PagesPlus – allows content to be pushed out to the categories and pages corresponding to the tags, and to the users who are subscribing to feeds from those categories.
  • IBM’s Beehive – currently in the research phase – with the capability to ‘recommend’ connections based on activities, tags, bookmarking, etc.
  • Zemanta – blog posts, articles or web pages are directly “read” by Zemanta, which recognizes all contextual content. It then combs the web for the most relevant images, smart links, keywords and text, instantly serving these results to the user to enrich and inform their content.

Nevertheless, it is iLink’s learning capabilities, and SRI’s work in modeling how real-time, dynamic social networks communicate and cooperate to solve problems, that really spark the imagination.  Sarah Perez indicates that the technology:

[has been] used to develop a system for FAQ generation within a network – they call this technology “FAQtory”. With this technology implemented on a social network, FAQs are continuously generated and revised by the community using a Wikipedia-like model, as opposed to being static creations made by the site’s authors. [But it’s no ordinary user-generated FAQ system] – instead, iLink’s FAQtory technology allows for incremental bits of information [to be added] – even those that don’t qualify as answers to the question. As the members contribute these bits of information, the learning system in iLink monitors how users are [attempting] to resolve queries and is then capable of drafting off the social network’s learning.

Potential commercial benefits and applications of such learning technology abound in business. Like expertise identification, comprehensive client information aggregation and delivery, FAQ generation and smart RSS filtering.  As members of, and information in, social networks increase exponentially, there is a growing need to move away from search and retrieval models of information and expertise location.  This is where smarter social technologies will help to streamline the process of recommending, and delivering, information and expertise (as well as filling-in information gaps as they go) to help people get their jobs done more effectively and efficiently.


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The 13th annual technology survey of AM Law 200 firms makes for a disappointing read from a social software/organisational change perspective.  The report suggests that firms are grappling with issues like “what emerging technologies are worth investing in – and which aren’t ready for prime time”.  However, in respect of ‘collaborative’ technologies respondees were asked only whether their firms use web conference software, blogs or wikis.  What!  No mention of RSS, feed readers or aggregators, let alone micro-blogging, friendfeeds, personalised pages, social tagging or content filtering.

The report blandly states that:

“While some firms have dipped their toes in the water — 43 percent run one or more blogs; 24 percent use intranet wikis (Web pages that let users contribute or modify content) — it’s been fairly ho-hum stuff by Internet standards. Blogs with lawyer posts on happenings in a practice area and wikis to collaborate on interoffice documents are the norm. It’s still unclear what sort of future these technologies have in a law office. But seemingly everyone is thinking about it.”

Of course firms are thinking about it!  Else they will find themselves sitting on the wrong end of the technology commoditisation process which turns yesterday’s shiny innovation (*email*) into today’s ubiquitous baseline or even legacy tool.  Not only do such tools offer no competitive advantage, they also trigger negative consequences, like information overload and silos of out-of-date content.

And the examples in the report of how blogs, wikis and social networking tools are being used in firms certainly are ‘ho-hum’.  From adoption and knowledge sharing perspectives, the Allen & Overy use of group blogs (integrated into wiki spaces) for knowledge networking is far more instructive.  As for wikis, they can be used to capture ideas, questions and comments in respect of groups or projects, and then to aggregate all interactions with content, so as to highlight recent activities, popular and/or salient items (from an individual or group perspective).  All these collaboration activities are quite distinctive, yet supplementary to, document management activities supported by other systems, as these articles illustrate:

Those are just a few examples of how firms are endeavouring to adapt and apply new techologies to help people work in smarter more social ways.  And there are even greater opportunities for the ‘re-engineering’ of knowledge intensive processes in business through technology.  As Simon Wardley has emphasised, unlike previous generations of technology, which essentially offered the opportunity of ‘substitution innovation’ (doing what had always been done a little better), new technologies like RSS, micro-blogging, social tagging and networking tools, offer possibilities for radical change in the way in which things are done.

These are some changes we are seeing or expect to see very shortly through the use of integrated platforms incorporating a range of social tools:

  • Reducing information retrieval costs by encouraging users to employ monitoring and delivery modes of information retrieval rather than searching for information or navigating to static destinations (like external sites).  The former modes rely on RSS feeds delivered to feed readers, blackberries or mail accounts.
  • Helping people to get out of their inboxes by offering alternatives to email.
  • Using micro-blogging to spark quick reaction to breaking news, increase awareness of on-going work and to strengthen social ties across the firm
  • Eradicating the static expertise directory and instead pulling information from the user’s activities, including blog posts, comments, tags, feeds and favourites into a dynamic ‘public’ profile which provides a rich picture of the user’s status, work, professional network, expertise and interests.
  • Providing personal dashboards to allow people to design and control his/her interactions and information flows to best suit their changing needs.  That means allowing people to easily add, organise and view activities, discussions, news, feeds, communities, colleagues, etc,
  • Delivering more targeted relevant information by recommending and filtering information based on the individual’s tags, subscriptions, or activity with content, communities, projects or individuals.

All examples of how firms need to continuously adapt just to stand still.

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Another addition to the open-source participation economy is the contest for the creation of new futures contracts. It is being staged on MarketsWiki – an online open source knowledge base for current and historical information about the global exchange traded capital, derivatives, environmental and related OTC markets, with idea and opinion contributions being encouraged from investors and traders alike.

The ‘Great Contract Challenge‘ provides another illustration of the prospective benefits of crowd sourcing. In other words, tapping the ‘wisdom of the crowds’ offers greater innovation potential than traditional approaches which have viewed and relied on exchanges as the source of new/novel financial instrument creation. Prospective customers’ involvement in the design and selection of those instruments which appear most promising, should also constitute a form of natural selection and help ensure only the fittest new products make it to market.

Aside from the shift in mental models, the contest also underlines the departure from traditional approaches to control – of information and processes – and a move towards participation, transparency and democratised decision-making. Admittedly, the contest is being staged in the public domain, where such ideas have already found fertile ground, and social networking and idea-sharing sites, and technologies in support thereof, are now relatively commonplace. Nevertheless, there’s also increasing evidence of this type of change occurring in many professional service organisations, not least of which being their growth in the adoption and adaptation of social tools tailored to suit their business purposes.

Even if those organisations don’t subscribe to an ‘innovate or die’ approach apparent in the derivatives sector, they still need to pay careful attention to the strong steady changes fostering teamwork, dialogue and learning, being nutured by their more adventurous competitors. To that end, we’re now seeing ever increasing interest in the customisation and use of tools such as wikis, blogs, social bookmarking, tagging and RSS to help better connect knowledge workers with current relevant information and expertise to extract value from complexity and commoditisation alike. Those same tools which support MarketsWiki and other collaboration environments.

As noted by Bruce MacEwan in his recent blog about law firms, billing hours and complexity:

“There will always be both [‘expert’ and ‘commoditized service]. That said, I think what constitutes either will evolve. Some of what is viewed as expert now – will devolve into commodity. New areas (unseen before – maybe new types of financings to emerge from the current crisis) may be the new “expert” (i.e., the always-sought-after high value engagements) areas.

To lubricate this information -> knowledge transformation cycle, and for firms extract value from it, they need to make it far easier for their staff to generate, find, share and use information and expertise. One straightforward way to do this is through systems which flex, shape and emerge depending on what people are trying to do. Systems which not only give people a better platform on which to work, but which can also make use of the trails people create as they search, bookmark, rate or view things – all very simply stuff focusing on supporting and gathering intelligence from people’s interaction with the system. And when these individual activities are aggregated, they provide powerful indicators of what is most useful or important to people across the breadth of the organisation. Another example of crowd sourcing – but this time applied internally – to tap the wealth of (informal) sharing which often occurs in casual exchanges, via email or other channels, and can so easily be lost in organisations which fail to innovate, or at least improve, their current information and technology environments.

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