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Collaboration: Working Alone Together
Sep 09, 1996 :: Michael Sippey

We hadn't done it in a while, so on Sunday we ignored the newspaper, locked the apartment, boarded a train and BARTed into what the Examiner likes to call "The City." You see, thanks to my school life, and her job, we recently became suburbanites. If you can call Oakland a suburb.

Occasionally Sundays are museum days. I've written about them before, and will no doubt write about them again. Wandering through a temple of whitewashed walls and oil on canvas helps me clear my head, look outside the proverbial box, and hopefully make connections to things I'm dealing with in "the real world."

The SFMOMA recently installed a relatively faithful recreation of Charles and Ray Eames' famed conference room. The Eameses were a brilliant design team, and were responsible for groundbreaking work in furniture, film, architecture and exhibition design. The museum has been planning the conference room exhibit for a while -- in 1988, when Ray Eames died, they acquired the contents of the entire room. Chairs, tables, shelving, knick knacks, projectors, photographs, wastebaskets...

If you know Eames, you know that the room's furniture has to be great. But the key feature of the room is its focus on fostering creative collaboration. Shelves hold a few reference works, but not too many as to be overwhelming. One wall displays a grid of polaroid photographs of natural forms -- one can imagine they're the inspiration for the shapes of the Eames chairs. Another wall is a projection screen, and a projector is permanently affixed to the opposite wall. The conference table has pens, pencils and and small toys lying on it, and the above-mentioned chairs around it. And although the room has been rebuilt inside a city monument, you can feel the serious work, and serious play, that went on there.

The wonderful thing about the Eames room is that it encouraged people to work together, as a team. Where is the equivalent on the net? Why does it seem that all for all the talk of this wonderful enabling technology, we still are sitting at our individual machines, tap tap tapping away by ourselves?

I'm involved in a multitude of group projects this semester. It's exciting, but will be a logistical nightmare. Different people populate different groups. Everyone is stretched for time. Coordinating face-to-face meetings is difficult, and there is plenty of group work to be done. The obvious question: why can't we be using the net as a tool?

I would love to have a cross-platform collaboration product that combines combines the ease-of-use of email with the publishing capabilities of the web. I work with folks who live lives both on- and off-line, on PCs and Macs. The only thing we have in common is a UNIX machine hosting our web sites and running our POP server. We're not interested in building online communities, we're just interested in getting some work done. Asynchronously, easily, and cheaply. Oh, and a dose of security would be nice. Regardless of what the admissions department tells you, business school is competitive.

Everyone and their mother, it seems, is pushing an Intranet based product to help solve these issues. But nothing has gone beyond the firewall. Lotus Notes? For the individual? Ha. Netscape's LiveWire? Do you think we're actually in control of the server we use? Microsoft's NT and IIS? See above. Meanwhile, can someone remind me why Netscape bought Collabra? Did I miss something, or were we not promised browser-based collaboration for the masses?

I, of course, want the impossible. I want a set of tools which turn my machine into the equivalent of the Eames conference room. But I won't get it, because it's an impossible dream. The beauty of the Eames room is that it's a room, a physical place, for physical (not virtual) collaboration. Working face to face is, of course, better -- a machine can't replace the inimitable buzz of a group working on a caffeine induced high.

But when we're apart, and have work to do, when schedules dictate that things have to be done alone, then why can't we work alone together?

P.S. In the course of surfing for this piece (I don't dare call it "research"), I came across an Eames film that should probably be on the curriculum at business school. It's titled "Powers of Ten: A Film Dealing with the Relative Size of Things in the Universe, and the Effect of Adding another Zero."



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