4.6 Technologies and the tacit dimension continued
4.6.1 Connecting people to people
Compared to even five years ago (a long time in technology), tools for virtual meetings and workspaces are extremely common now in many organisations, who typically purchase specialist products rather than develop their own. Tools for virtual meetings really have to work smoothly or the results are immediately obvious, and can be very high cost (for example, one cannot afford for a meeting with an important client to ‘crash’). Organisations are therefore willing to pay for robustness, 24/7 technical support, and integration with intranet databases so that, for instance, staff in a personnel database can be accessed directly from collaboration tools. An internet search on ‘enterprise groupware’ will give you an up-to-date listing of ‘off the shelf products, some of which you may already use to share calendars and documents, and to conduct online meetings.
Meanwhile, of course, academic, government and corporate research laboratories continue to investigate next generation tools, examples of which are given in Boxes 4.4, 4.5 and 4.6.
Box 4.4 Interplanetary collaboration tools for NASA scientists
NASA is planning missions for human exploration of Mars in 20 to 30 years’ time. The specific challenge is for the crew on Mars to work effectively over a period of months with the many scientific experts distributed around Earth who can advise them on their exploration plans. ‘Mars’ is simulated by a crew living in a prototype habitat in the Utah desert, which they explore for two weeks, and with whom all communications are artificially delayed by 15 minutes to simulate the distances which preclude real-time collaboration of any sort. The Open University was invited to work with NASA on this extreme challenge through the use of its collaboration tools designed to bridge geography and time zones (Clancey et al., 2005).
The Remote Science Team (RST) of experts cannot be co-located for months on end to support the mission, so a virtual science collaboration environment is needed to enable them to work effectively across time zones. One of these tools assists in maintaining a ‘sense of presence’ plus instant messaging for rapid exchanges. Screen 1 (see below) shows The Open University's BuddySpace tool configured for the RST.
The Open University's Compendium hypermedia tool for visual modelling and dialogue mapping (see Box 4.11, and the article entitled ‘Rapid knowledge construction: a case study in corporate planning using collaborative hypermedia’ by A. Selvin and S. Buckingham Shum is being trialled as support for the RST to conduct virtual meetings and manage their knowledge (conventional Earth-based collaboration), and as a means for Earth-Mars collaboration. A link to this case study is available below. Screen 2 (see below) shows an extract from such a meeting.
Given the communication delay between Mars and Earth, the usual electronic ways of working together at a distance, such as telephone, instant messaging and the sharing of computer screens, are impractical. The objective was to enable the RST to ‘attend’ a crew meeting, so that they could gain a better understanding of the rationale behind the crew's plans. A multimedia Meeting Replay extension to Compendium was developed which combines meeting materials within an interface structured to enable quick and easy indexing navigation of the meeting record (little value would be added for the time-pressured RST if they first had to watch two hours of video). Scientists could then watch clips of the meeting together or individually, browse the video by speaker or agenda item, and click on a node in a Compendium map (for example, an Argument icon challenging a particular plan) to jump directly to the point in the meeting video when this argument was made, in order to hear it in full detail, with all the richness of the contributor's voice and gestures: that is, the context. Screen 3 (see below) shows the web-based Meeting Replay tool.
Click the link below to open 'Rapid Knowledge Construction'.
Screen 3, above, shows the NASA Meeting Replay tool to help the Remote Science Team (RST) team on Earth recover the rationale behind the Mars crew's analysis and decisions. The upper region shows the video of the meeting and the Compendium map (Box 4.11) as the discussion progresses. The lower region contains summary information about the meeting: who was there, who was speaking, the agenda and an overview of the current topic (derived from the Compendium map). Some of this information is presented as a timeline, providing a visual index for an RST member to navigate the video, jumping to relevant or interesting parts of the discussion by clicking on the timeline or moving the slider. One can also click on a node in a Compendium map and the replay jumps to the point in the meeting shortly before that node was recorded. (Acknowledgements to Maarten Sierhuis and Bill Clancey, NASA Ames Research Center, and Dave De Roure and Danius Michaelides, University of Southampton)