October 31, 2014 thelabnyc@internetmedialabs.com Real-time. Relevant. Intelligent
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Essentials of Collaboration – Standards and Simplicity

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Life shouldn’t be that complicated.  Life should be simple – and often it can be, if we allow it.  We just have to realize that we are the instruments of complexity, not life itself.   There are many causes of complexity, and most of them stem from human oversight, mistake and some by calculated intent.

There are three that are so common that we tend not to notice them in our own lives:

  1. When it comes to working with others, we tend to forget that we each come to a conversation or collaboration with a predetermined set of definitions, behaviors and practices.  The more complex the topic or task the more likely it is that the variances in our approaches will lead to misunderstanding and failure to execute effectively.   The simpler the communication or exercise the more likely it is that understanding will prevail and tasks will be completed.
  2. We have an irresistible urge to improve or perfect things.  We are not satisfied by basics or vanilla.  We like to one-plus everything from gadgets to ideas, often without regard to stability and efficiency of the base we are building upon.
  3. Usually because of a lack of awareness we have a tendency to reinvent the wheel, over and over again. We spend significant effort in creating or adapting artifacts that perform functions that were already available or accessible but were ignored either by blindness or that vocabulary and definition problem mentioned above.

Each of these tendencies and behaviors detracts from simplicity but each can be mitigated to a large degree by standards.  Standards are created to simplify everything from how we talk to each other (common vocabularies and definitions) to international commercial exchanges.

The list of benefits obtained through standards is a long one.  The International Standards Organization web site is rich in white papers which expound the virtues and benefits of establishing, maintaining and updating standards.  I have chosen the following 10 benefits as the most representative:

  1. Common base of operation and management, extending use and reach, leading to the development of best practices
  2. Increased performance, quality and safety
  3. Reduced cost of procurement, development and production
  4. Encourages innovation and fair competition
  5. Encourages cross-fertilization of ideas and communications between organizations, geographies and cultures
  6. Increases scalability
  7. Facilitates trade
  8. Facilitates change
  9. Foundation of growth
  10. Reduction of variables

On the Frontier

We stand on the frontier of an emerging social environment. We got here because our elders and predecessors established standards for network protocols and services that eventually became the Internet.  It took us almost 30 years to reach this level of ubiquity and universal acceptance, but good lessons were learned along the way including the fact that complex standards rarely get adopted, and simple ones often stand the course of time.

As pioneers of this uncharted social environment we must seek to identify current standards that are applicable to that environment as well as to establish and adopt new standards that will amplify those 10 benefits.  If vendor independence is important for our organization, community or selves, then we must also try to avoid those developments that may prevent us from adopting and using current and emerging standards.  Which brings me to the second characteristic or attribute – simplicity.

In the absence of standards, simple utility and function is preferred to rich functionality and variety of choice.

Roger Sessions, a Fellow of the International Association of Software Architects, wrote a post on Simplicity in Architecture, in which he argued that simplicity was an attribute that could be baked into software architectures and solutions in much the same manner as portability, manageability and reliability.

Sessions further implied that simplicity, or simplility as he coined it, was more important than many of the other attributes as it’s the attribute from which all others flow.  In other words — simplicity is the basis for most, if not all, of those attributes, and the converse tends to prove it.

Complexity, in comparison, is not scalable or flexible, is expensive to manage, maintain, and port, and finally next to impossible to standardize.  Businesses around the world are well aware of the destination for such choices, it’s called IT legacy, and it accounts for more than 80% of ongoing IT costs.

Proceed with Caution

The only modification of Session’s approach I would suggest is that simplicity is not something that can be just baked in. It is something that you have at the conception of the idea, at the start of development and it’s often reduced when other ideas, features and functions are added to the recipe.

This is not a deterrent to further innovation, but rather a caution that each additional innovation needs to be examined and tested in light of its contribution to or detraction from the simplicity of the parent product.

This is key in the social environment, where heterogeneity is the norm and simplicity has a greater chance of universal adoption.  If businesses or communities want to extend their reach and participation beyond their firewalls, then the guarantee of solution simplicity is at a premium.

Which brings me to Braess’ Paradox, which was originally observed within traffic routing options and came to be applied to the algorithms that ensure data is transferred effectively across the internet.  Braess, a German mathematicican, noted that adding roads to a network increased congestion, and, conversely, that reducing the number of roads tended to ease congestion.

In other words: Greater choice increased complexity and reduced flow and effectiveness.

Researchers in Amsterdam have proved that the paradox applies equally to social media.  Their conclusions suggested that a smaller product choice leads to better outcomes for all involved.  If everyone chooses different products, then there is less in common to work with, conversations are muted and collaboration is restricted.  Much better to have a smaller choice of products that increases commonality and all the benefits that commonality accrues.

I would contend that the same applies to functions and features, and it is far better to do one or two things well than a large number of things poorly or sub-optimally.

Waiting for Standards

Eventually the standards will emerge, enabling further innovation and rich capability.  History has proved that it is well worthwhile waiting for standards to emerge, though that they can — and should — be accelerated by groundswell advocacy.

Then, when those needed standards are established, we will find new frontiers to explore where simplicity will still be the shortest and surest route to effectiveness.

Extended capabilities often lead to complexity of service or product, though it is so tempting to add one more feature or function in the belief that it will tip the edge on popularity or consumer appeal.

Instagram traveled that road, making their initial offering feature rich.  However the founders, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, realized they were better served just focusing on making phone-based photography accessible and sharable, and not competing with Foursquare and others in the GPS-based application market.

Now hundreds of millions are using Instagram on a daily basis to share, communicate and to a lesser extent create.

When that urge to one plus or to reinvent becomes irresistible it is always good to bear in mind the simple maxim: Simple is as simple does, because complexity usually doesn’t.

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