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MIT FabLab Norway

www.fablab.no

 

The Fab Village

Ørnes
9060 Lyngseidet
NORWAY


Distributed, Open and Cross Cultural Collaboration

Ver. 20070101

 

['Cross cultural' for the purposes of this document refers to not only to the 'culture' of a people or nation but to the 'culture' of institutions, for example 'corporate culture' or 'the culture of government'.]

 

Intoduction

There is a new style of development and collaboration taking place made possible by recent advances in communication technology. Individuals, companies, organizations and governments are leveraging this technology to free the constraints imposed by distance, allowing them to find the right solution for a local need at a global scope.

Take for example: a professor in India creates new hardware costing pennies per device that monitors milk production for impurities to deal with local needs. A company in Denmark locates this solution via the Internet and Web and decides to create a device for all their milking stations to monitor the milk at the source in real time. The device needs some modification to suit their needs. They contact the Indian professor and some of his partners, add their own engineers and form a distributed project group. Then a software developer that specializes in spectrum analysis from the UK, finds the project and joins in the development. The project group grows.

This kind of ad-hoc discovery and development is now occurring every hour of every day in every corner of the globe. This brief will not only outline some of details of this type of collaboration but provide an approach to actively pursue and foster successful distributed development and collaboration.

Open and Cross Cultural Collaboration

In this brave new world of development, people and/or teams are distributed across physical locations, time zones, and cultures while working on the same project or product. Project members share all ideas, information and resources openly. Everybody feels responsible for the achievement of the overall project goal and no one can succeed without everybody else being successful. This is different from a typical outsourcing project, where every outsourced function just concentrates on (and gets measured against) the actual goals & tasks of that function. The unusual environment of distributed development makes people think about what the "other side" thinks and makes them collaborate and help each other.

The most important concept in successful distributed collaboration is the building of a technology platform or framework for a given project that any group or person can join. The type of distributed development discussed here is only successful if all the materials developed during the project are freely available for not just everyone in the project but anyone outside the project. Furthermore there needs to be assurance via open agreements and licenses guaranteeing full rights and access for the lifespan of the materials.

In successful distributed projects it is not enough to simply maintain an open structure. A diverse set of participants and stakeholders should be actively foster. A project manager should embrace and seek a team that is cross cultural and multi-disciplinary. Great ideas often come from where these different cultures intersect. For example active participants in a given project might be as diverse as a university from Europe, a corporation from North America, a solo developer from Asia and a non-profit from Africa. In modern distributed collaboration, the more diverse the backgrounds of the participants for a given project are, the healthier it is.



Free and Open Source

For successful distributed development, all materials produced must be free and publicly available for use and modification by anyone. This means that, documents, tools, processes and technology developed must be copyrighted under a Free and/or Open Source (FOS) license.

FOS is the fundamental foundation for distributed, dynamic, and diverse coopration. Setting a policy of free use and modification by any group inside or outside a given project allows for self directed development, self (reduced) management, emergent solutions and organic, self limiting growth. When teams can read, redistribute, and modify any materials, processes or tools for a given project, the project evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix problems (without even being asked). Because each participant in a FOS based project can be self directed, development can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional methods, seems astonishing. Even more interesting is that in addition to faster development, it is common that multiple solutions for a given problem in a project emerge, allowing the best one to selected. This is possible because FOS removes legal and/or social barriers toward the success of a project. Energy is not wasted on fighting for ownership and is redirected toward cooperation and development. All participants can become equal stakeholders with equal incentive to produce.



Radical Transparency

All decision making is carried out publicly in distributed projects. All arguments for and against a proposal, the decisions about the decision making process itself, and all final decisions, are made publicly and remain publicly archived. Often this is done by the publishing of revisions to the works themselves.

Radical transparency is much more transparent than accountability. It requires decision making to be transparent right from the beginning of the decision making process, while accountability is a process of verifying the quality of decisions or actions after they have been taken. This difference implies that while accountability generally implements some sort of punishment mechanism against individuals or institutions judged to have taken poor quality decisions or actions, after those decisions have been taken or actions carried out, radical transparency encourages corrections and improvements to decisions to be made long before poor quality decisions have the chance to be enacted.

Because of this, radical transparency makes it possible for diverse groups of people to work loosely connected across a network, reducing the need for centralization and related overhead. This is an important factor in coordinating projects across diverse organizations, cultures, timezones and geographical locations. It is prohibitively costly for small organizations to coordinate large diverse groups without invoking some amount of radical transparency.



Just The Right Communication.

Current innovative communication technology can be used to provide low cost, varied, and complex global communication, as needed, any time, with any or all collaborators simultaneously.

Voice over IP (VOIP) and email are basic and important ways to communicate that should be used regularly. These tools can still fall short or take a lot of time for more complex, visual or subtle communication.

Many software tools facilitate newsgroup-like discussions that allow multiple developers to communicate asynchronously on any topic. Better than email, threaded discussion tools focus debates on specific issues and save the dialog for later use. Some tools can link discussions to specific projects, tasks, or other development assets.

Instant Messaging (IM) is starting to find its way into the business world as a valuable tool. Lower friction than the telephone, yet more interactive than email, IM is valuable for asking a quick question or holding an informal chat. Like threaded discussions, many IM tools can save dialogs for later review.

Web logging or "blogging" is the process of instant publishing to a Web page. "Blogs" typically contain short messages that follow a chronological order. Blogging was created by individuals wishing to chronicle daily work, personal experiences, or just random streams of consciousness. Team members can use blogging to publish their progress, and the Web interface makes it easy for everyone to see each other’s notes.

When real-time complex communication is needed, Web conferencing can be used for group presentations, interactive planning and review, and even unstructured brainstorming sessions. Both pay-for-use Web conference services and commercial software products that can be centrally installed are available. Depending on the software, Web conferencing products may include collaboration features such as white boarding, file sharing, instant messaging, and cooperative editing.



Persistent Data

All data (information, meetings, reports, publications, revisions, software, etc.) should be collected in open public repositories on the internet.

Nothing is ever removed or erased, all data is kept historically even when a revision is made to it. Online forums, Wikis and Version Control Systems should be used to store this data in perpetuity. This is similar to the use of version control in software development.

Shared repositories provide developers with up-to-date information, thereby reducing conflicts. Internet-enabled, repository-centric tools are available for key development processes such as:

  • Requirements Management: formal requirement specifications, dependencies, responsibilities, and change history

  • Source Code Management: versioned file assets such as design documents, source code, and binary files

  • Change Management: bug reports, new features, defect tracking, and traceability

  • Project Management: Project schedules, task breakdowns, work assignments, and progress reports

  • Test Management: Test plans, test cases, and test results

Moreover, some Internet-enabled tools that help to manage these processes are starting to provide integrated collaborative features, such as threaded discussions and peer-to-peer messaging. These tools further foster team synchronization.

Large projects and large project teams may require access to many organizational resources. In these scenarios, teams can benefit from resource portals that consolidate and concentrate disparate information sources. For example, Web-based Development Resource Portals (DRPs) can provide access to research materials and project information from multiple repositories, focused on the needs of developers. Integrated search and discovery capabilities provide a central place to traverse a broad array of information. For effective distributed development, the key is to 'surface' the right information buried in repositories to all members of the team.



Peer Review

Perhaps the most important way to keep remote developers on track is to keep them included. Every team member needs periodic reassurance that they are important to the project. The more a remote developer feels in the loop, the more likely they are to contribute effectively. There are many ways to ensure that distant team members are on track while fostering their sense of involvement.

Remote team members should periodically demonstrate their work via online presentations. They should also be included in training sessions, turnover meetings, and even leadership presentations. Participation in important milestones such as these allows distant developers to showcase their work and demonstrate their expertise.

Periodic reviews are good ways to keep tabs on remote developers’ progress. In order to keep them from feeling singled out, they should participate in reviews of other team members’ work as well. A excellent approach is to perform task walkthroughs, in which the author drives the presentation. This approach rotates each team member’s responsibilities and maintains a sense of equality.

Teams should not forget the importance of periodically inviting remote developers to location or other development centers. Conversely, most remote developers appreciate having occasional team meetings at their locale. Digital collaboration and information sharing is helpful, but nothing can replace the interaction and camaraderie of occasional face-to-face meetings.