Mobile Collaborative Working

Brian Switzer, Envision+, Bühlertal, Germany

A Brave New World
A new social landscape and new conditions mean new rules. People are more mobile in work and life than ever before. New technology allows us to travel faster and cheaper, communicate and work together and remotely. Serial careers are common, even expected. The traditional family has given way to: double income lone kid, beanpole families, negotiated families, single moms & dads, late & lone nesters, serial monogamy, etc. Everyone is improvising. Our new situation has to be acknowledged. Whether we like it or not it has to be dealt with in one way or another in our work and lives.

Why should we care about “mobile collaborative working”? Why build networks? Why are we still fascinated by the Bauhaus? Why do we wish we had worked in the Eames office? The core reason is the same – a fascinating group of people came together, and made wonderful things. It’s the sweet spot, the right stuff, the place to be. The Russian child psychologist Vygotsky observed what he called the “zone of proximal development”1. Which essentially means: Every person has a potential range of ability, and this ability is influenced by their immediate social surroundings. If you are in a group above your level, your abilities will develop to their upper limit.

First, the blue sky perspective on mobile collaborative working.

There is a great deal of hype in the media on the subject of networks, and all things connected with them. First, networks themselves. There are three basic network types: centralised, decentralised and distributive networks.

Centralised networks generally have a wide reach that is centrally logged and controlled: like banks, insurance companies, or governments. Although an older school of thought, in many cases this network type is convenient and consistent for the individual due to its sheer coverage and consistency. In some networks, the sum is greater than the parts. Decentralised knowledge hubs like sense worldwide are built semi-formally, combine to offer much much more than any single member could individually. They are more loosely organised than centralised networks but make very good use of shared resources and methods.

Distributive, emergent or viral networks – use the contagious, geometric spread of information. In the case of dfilm they use and sell their movie maker application: Build your own simple film, email it to friends and at the end of the viewing they are invited to make their own film too. The power of these networks is in their explosive growth that can be started by a very small group of people.

Whatever their form, networks are affecting us already. For example: Forget the personal section of the newspaper if you want to meet someone. There are so many networks for romance, and dating, that there is a network offering a network of dating networks. Or consider music – even with Napster bought out by Bertelsmann and shut down – the peer to peer sharing of music, video, etc. is alive and well, here and elsewhere around the world. Flashmobs, Spam, Ringtones via SMS: Networks are here to stay.

Devices & tools
Networks are so common in large part because of the wealth of new technology out there to play with and to have with us at all times. Whether mobile phone, PDA, MDA, with keyboard, digital camera, digital video, stylus, or MP3 player with up to 30 gigabytes of memory, the choices for pocket sized digital companions are growing every year. “I-mode”, a subsidiary of the Japanese company DoCoMo, is the first in Germany to offer a range of 3G or third generation services. 3G services promise always on access to the network and its services. But pocket-sized is only one area. The list of mobile technology is growing too: laptop, tablet, digital camera, portable Zip, CD burner, hard drive, printer, scanner, etc. Sounds like lots of cables, but with a wireless area network or wire-free network, we can connect everything with fewer cables. Apple made their contribution – one of the first – and now up the power to the 11MB/s standard transfer rate. And as the wires disappear, we invent ways to see the invisible. One of the new fringe behaviours to develop is “warchalking” – the appropriation of hobo-like symbols for free wireless networks. One final note: Ray Ozzie of Lotus Notes left because people were asking him to extend the teleworking capabilities (which Lotus Notes was not built for). His answer is the latest in groupware – Groove. It’s a taste of the future.

Travel network style means: cheap flights, star alliance, departure and arrival via SMS, online booking when and how I want, frequent flyer miles through my credit card, etc. Travel is faster and more available than ever before. In such a busy world nodes are more important than ever. Nomads need places to work, rest and recharge, whether it’s for a few minutes, hours or days. For example, Deutsche Bahn is now introducing “plus points” and Lufthansa is equipping its lounges with wireless Internet and office services. Downtime is translated into a competitive advantage. And as we move from place to place with greater frequency, it is harder and harder to find us. Fortunately necessity is the mother of invention, and mobile workers invent their own email sign-offs. For example, if you want to know where Professor Erik Spiekermann will be – have a look at his last email to you. It has his latest itinerary. Communication and coordination in one.

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Design Management
VIZO Workshop

“Design makes the Difference”
Brussels, Belgium - 29/30 November 2002

  • Brian Switzer, Envision+, Bühlertal, Germany
    Mobile Collaborative Working 
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