Ritu Raj


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17 posts tagged collaboration

Collaboration in a multi-cultural environment

First, let’s define collaboration: people working together on something, they could be collaborating in real-time in a meeting or using tools like Webex, or even micro-blogging. Or they could be collaborating asynchronously (not real-time) using email.

Collaboration as we are using it includes working together, brain storming, creating a common vision, bringing people on the same page, or coordinating with each other to fulfill an objective, mission where tasks are interdependent, or the last category that they are all cooperating.

Culture is more than simply your nationality or ethnicity.

Culture as we are using it is not limited to different ethnicity, or different countries but also the culture of east coast vs. west coast, people working in engineering firms to people working in a design firm, all of them different cultures and even if they all speak English, they have different interpretation of what they hear.

Moving beyond the Industrial Age mindset.

In the US we have been moving from an industrial economy, where it was all about personal productivity, how fast can you make a widget, or bolt a nut to a very collaborative economy, where to fulfill an outcome you have to work with others (knowledge workers). Your personal productivity cannot fulfill the outcome, and you need to learn and develop skills in collaborating with others.

Collaboration has its stumbling blocks.

In most cases the “others” that you “have” to collaborate with are a mixture of different cultures. You cannot depend upon, being a great communicator, but have to start recognizing and learning how others interpret what you are saying, and what are their cultural differences. I have seen many examples of this, coming from India 15 years ago, and working in the Bay Area where every one is nice and polite; Sally and Ram work for the same organization, Sally is in the Bay Area, Ram is in Bangalore, India. Sally says “Can you please send me the report as soon as possible”, Ram interprets the request as “oh, Sally is not really in a hurry for the Report.” This is an example of classic mis-coordination.

So the big question is how do we close the gap between the speaker’s intention and the listener’s interpretation in a multi-cultural collaborative economy?

PwC Quarterly Forecast Brings More Legitimacy to 21st Century Collaboration

PwC Quarterly Forecast Brings More Legitimacy to 21st Century Collaboration

PwC (PriceWaterhouseCoopers just released its quarterly forecast that’s 68 pages of collaboration goodness. The report is edited and produced by Bo Barker, Vinod Baya and Alan Morrison.

The document covers three broad themes:

The collaboration paradox: More social information helps the workforce find what it’s looking for. First we had communication silos inside organizations. Now with e-mail and the Web, we’re all dealing with communications chaos. Paradoxically, the metadata—the context around the communications which new social technologies are now surfacing—offers the secret to eliminating communications chaos, moving enterprises closer to fully shared knowledge. Analytics that take advantage of this metadata are the first step.

Enterprise success with emerging social technology: Innovators are learning to build graphs to help users find the information they need—and each other. One thing enterprise have learned is that siloed, standalone consumer Web-style microblogging or social networking tools rarely work well inside an enterprise. Social technology that’s embedded in the enterprise application environment to offer collaborative support to specific business processes, or explicitly targeted at unifying all communications and collaboration, can be much more useful.

The CIO’s role in social enterprise strategy: Transforming collaboration demands an evolutionary approach. Before trying to add to the mix, take stock of how your workforce is collaborating to begin with. What’s the appropriate rationale for adopting a new tool in this case? By formulating an adoption process with goal setting and incentives appropriate to the business, CIOs can help business units position themselves for the collaboration and filtering potential of emerging social networking platforms.

If you’ve read this blog before, you can appreciate why this strand of all things enterprise social instantly appeals to me. Cut right over here to the report if you like.

Tom DeGarmo, Principal and Technology Partner at PwC sums up both the opportunity and problem well, using great analogies to living in Carmel-by-the-sea, saying:

The reality today is that we receive far more invitations to interact in the
electronic domain than we ever did in the world of physical mail. Most of us
already ignore many of them, leaving unread—and even unseen—vast
numbers of electronic communications directed at us. But our approaches are inefficient and inaccurate—we often miss important messages while deleting low-value ones. We’re like the poor express mail delivery people trying to figure out which house a package should go to in Carmel.

A number of in depth interviews were conducted as well, including:

  • Education: Building a new learning environment - Tony O’Driscoll, Duke University.
  • Adding Social Networking to Business flow – Tim Young, Ex-CEO of Socialcast, now VP at VMWare.
  • Harnessing the power of the graph – Keith Griffen, Cisco Systems.
  • Why collaboration hasn’t changed much, yet – Sheldon Laube, PwC.
  • I was privileged to chat with the PwC team on the topic of How Identity and Context become Productivity Drivers, inhibitors to successful uptake and the forces of social software proliferation that I break out into camps: Pure play, ERP, HR and UC.

Couple of my favorite pieces from the repot:

1. I recently wrote a post about “Why Exception Handling should be the rule.” So, I was especially happy to see this report have good commentary on the topic.


2. Vendor diagrams are always subjective and can sometimes be of limited value when we try to force such horizontal technology offering into seemingly easy to consume grids/quadrants/tidal waves,etc. Coming from the execution consulting side of the house, I’m partial to analysis that does no more that provide a simple capability run down. Proper technology shortlisting can only come from really understanding process redesign by balancing traditional and social ways of work. This report doesn’t attempt to do any more than what’s reasonably practical to illustrate without access to each buyers market, business and process realities.


3. Tim Young, VP at VMWare and most recently, CEO at Socialcast prior to the VMWare purchase provides meaningful insight about the benefit to executives:

From an executive level, I think many companies don’t understand what is going on all the way down to the individual contributor level, and it’s because there just haven’t been tools that allow them to do that, especially qualitative tools. You can do surveys and polls, but you don’t get the ability for consistent real-time feedback from everyone in the organization—and that feedback is necessary to harness the collective human capital of the organization.

4. I love how Bill Hopkins at EZI (Egon Zehnder International), a well known executive search firm, simplifies the problem:

Bill Hopkins, EZI’s director of operations, discerned a gap between
the two main processes that needed to be filled with something less structured than a database, more structured than a huddle, and not as overwhelming as e-mail. And something over which users would take ownership. “I wanted to eliminate IT as the middleman so the content would be the responsibility of the user community,” Hopkins says.

Finally, a far cry from all things social business muddy-yet-shiny, the report addresses how CIOs can start to approach 21st century collaboration in a performance centric way from the get go, and as they move from the inspiration to the perspiration phase of execution:


All up, it’s extremely refreshing to see analysis from the lens of an established consulting firm that needs to appeal to the broadest, most skeptical and most prestigious set of end customers out there who don’t quickly get inebriated on hype.

And the timing couldn’t be better: At this time, every Fortune 2000 CXO has been pitched by at least 3 social software vendors or has sanctioned/unsanctioned initiatives well under way at their organizations. The report also doesn’t try to jam jargon-y stuff down the readers throat (social business, enterprise 2.0 etc.) nor does it attempt to backfill social use cases into the business environment (in other words, the solution looking for a problem syndrome).

I really think it’s going to offer a palatable, marketing-free approach to many seasoned leaders genuinely looking to understand the value proposition of collaboration, 2011 style.

Sincere thanks to PwC for reaching out to me for comment. A link to the report, here.

From traditional business to social business

Posted on July 28th, 2011 By Christoph Schmaltz

When businesses ask for a social media strategy, what they are often really asking for is: Get me a presence on Facebook, Twitter and the like. The mantra of cultural and organisational change that is required in the social web seems to ring hollow. To be fair, it is not their fault. With a traditional business mindset it is hard to see why a presence on Twitter or Facebook is different from the corporate website. After all, these tools can seem to be just another communication channel.

When I talk to clients about the social web and its impact on businesses, I often use four key concepts. These concepts seem to help to explain the broader implications of social tools and why a mere presence on the social web will have a very limited business impact.

From Transaction to Interaction

In the good old days traditional businesses produced a product or service and the customer bought it. End of transaction. Over the years, they have distanced themselves from their customers. Traditional businesses live in their ivory tower from which they look down on their customers. They introduced call centres to shield themselves from customer complaints. Every so often, they introduce a new product and market it heavily using print and digital channels. Nowadays, they can also be found on Facebook and Twitter talking about their new product. They produce it, the customer buys it. End of transaction.

A social business however, is all about interaction. It sees itself on an equal footing with their customers. Of course, it still wants their money. After all it is a business and not a charity. But a social business listens to what its customers have to say. It is eager to get feedback, both positive and negative. Negative feedback is acknowledged and addressed in an honest and transparent way. It sees it as an opportunity to co-create new products with the help of its customers. A social business operates in public and not from the heights of an ivory tower. A social business does not simply sell products, it sells customer experience.

A customer of Zappos once tweeted that she had ordered shoes for her birthday. A customer representative got in touch with her asking about her order number just to make sure that the shoes would arrive on time for her birthday. You think that is difficult? Not for a social business. It is where its customers are and listens to what they have to say. It is all about interaction and customer experience.

From B2B / B2C to P2P

traditional business has successfully created a wall between its customers and itself. Only particular departments are allowed to interact with the outside world, for example Marketing, HR, Customer Service. The rest of the business is shielded away from any external distraction to ensure employees are productive. Humans work in a traditional business. They have a face, but they can only show the company’s face. Sorry, company policy. Nowadays, traditional businesses have developed their own recruiting platforms. They also have a presence on Facebook, where HR advertise for new vacancies and post recruiting tips. They are really proud of this achievement. The traditional business can connect with potential recruits on Facebook. But actually, when they join they will see that Facebook is blocked. Sorry, company policy.

social business understands that people want to connect with people and not with businesses. If customers are looking for help, they want to talk to a real person, not a company. A social business acknowledges and is proud to employ many smart people not just in HR, Marketing or Customer Service. It employs them, because it trusts them. It wants the world to know about them and enables them to connect to the outside world. That is why social networks are open for everyone and people are still productive. A social business manages by objectives, not by presence.

Mary from the HR department posts new tips on Facebook, and not the HR department. A small but subtle difference. A highly talented engineering graduate asks on Facebook what life is like on an oil rig in the North Sea. Mary has never been on an oil rig, but she knows engineers who have. One engineer answers the question on Facebook, visible for everyone. It is John, not the company. People connect with people, not with companies.

From Gatekeeper to Platform Provider

traditional business clenches on to its old powers. It believes it still owns all the connections between customers and partners. If a partner would like to talk to another partner, he needs to go through the company. It manages in order to survive. According to a traditional business, shared knowledge is only worth half as much. Better to control the gates.

social business understands that today’s technology enables anyone to connect with anyone, whether the business likes it or not. The gates are open. A social business knows if it simply keeps managing connections, it will survive, but if it facilitates connections it will thrive. Hence, it provides a platform for customers and / or partners. It is comfortable letting people discuss the business, its products or completely different matters. It facilitates and does not manage.

Dell, a computer manufacturer runs a Facebook Page about Social Media for Business. Yes, Dell is not in the business of providing social media services. But it uses the group as a platform to stay connected with existing customers and potential customers. Dell provides more value than it can capture (in the beginning). That way, Dell stays in people’s minds. Dell may not always be the best choice, but I bet, the next time a member of the FB page is asked for computer advice by a friend, he will also mention Dell.

From Hierarchy to Network

traditional business has a rigid top-down communication structure. News from the top is passed down through the ranks of the organisation. The middle management is powerful as it acts as gatekeeper (see above). Open and transparent dialogue between the top and the bottom of the traditional business is difficult if not non-existent. Furthermore, technology provision in traditional businesses have manifested in department silos. Few employees know what other departments or teams are working on. Cross-departmental connections are made in the cafeteria, at the water-cooler or in the smoker’s corner.

Contrary to popular belief hierarchy still exists in a social business but it is heavily supported by an underlying network. Communication flows are bi-directional and cross-departmental. The middle management has lost its power as gatekeeper and is now functioning as platform provider. It provides a platform for the management and employees to communicate and connect. Employees can see what other teams and departments are working on. Increased visibility leads to better decision-making, improved customer service, superior products and ultimately higher sales. At the same time a social business also acknowledges that people connect with people not just because of work but also interests. Therefore, it encourages employees to form communities of interest or purely social groups. This creates stronger bonds between employees which leads to lower turn-over rates. If an employee does leave, they are more likely to stay in touch with colleagues, not the business. Remember, people connect with people, not with companies. (see P2P concept).

By now, many organisations have or are in the process of implementing a social business platform which enables employees to communicate with the senior management and also across teams and departments. Some of the most advanced and innovative organisations that have adopted this approach can be found in the Social Business Council.

No doubt, more concepts exists. However, I believe many of them are part of the ones I have outlined above, i.e. From Control to Trust (B2B/B2C to P2P; From Transaction to Interaction), From Management to Open Leadership (From B2B/B2C to P2P; From Gatekeeper to Platform), From Employee to Brand Ambassador (From B2B/B2C to P2P; From Transaction to Interaction).

If your social media strategy is all about setting up a social media presence, jump right in. It only takes a couple of minutes to set up accounts. There are gazillions of tips out there telling you how to increase your follower or “Like” counts. However, if your social media strategy is about business impact, you need to go back to basics. Understanding the key concepts and the broad impact of social tools on businesses, will help to deliver value. In the end, that is what business is all about, delivering value!

Why the rioters should be reading Rousseau

Rousseau was an early and incisive critic of the idea that self-interested behaviour would necessarily work to the benefit of all. If the hunt were to catch a deer, it would need to establish shared values, and probably impose them through some sort of hierarchy. Without such a structure, there would be no more for supper than the occasional hare. It is unlikely that the people who introduced the concept of “eat what you kill” into modern professional services had read Rousseau. 

Two broad economic theories describe the allocation of income and wealth. The power theory states, broadly, that people get what they grab: from the forest, the markets, or the shop window. The distribution of income reflects the distribution of power. For most of history, this was plainly true – the landlord took what he could from the tenant, the baron what he could from the landlord, and the king what he could from everyone. The sixth Duke of Muck was rich because the first Duke of Muck had been an especially successful gang leader. The alternative theory is that what people earn reflects their marginal productivity – how much they personally add to the value of goods and services. The marginal productivity theory has many attractions, especially to those who are well paid: if what they receive is a product of their own efforts, their rewards are surely well deserved.

Collaborative organisation was only occasionally necessary in an agricultural society in which there were no asset-backed securities and no electrical goods in the shops. But in a complex modern economy, as in the deer forest, production requires the involvement of many. Adam Smith marvelled at the resulting efficiency in his description of a pin factory. But if, as Smith described, one man wrought the iron and another stretched it, who could say what was the marginal productivity of each? And what was the marginal product of the chief executive of the pin factory, or the person who hedged the foreign exchange exposure on the unfinished pins, whose contributions the Scots savant unaccountably failed to mention?

If the pin factory really did increase the productivity of the factory by a factor of at least 240, as Smith claimed, there was likely to be a surplus when the wage earners had received whatever their marginal product was. And when it came to dividing that surplus, the distribution of authority within that pin factory would be crucial. That distribution would surely favour the CEO. Since the CEO wrote – or at least commissioned – the pin factory’s annual report, the moral and economic argument could be turned on its head. If you were paid a lot, that showed that you contributed a lot. What the recipient earned was, by that fact alone, justified. So the ethic of just reward through effort gave way to the culture of present entitlement from possession.

The 5 Secrets of Silicon Valley| Naeem Zafar

Above all, celebrate failure. Silicon Valley has entrepreneurs who got lucky on their first try. But more succeeded on their second or third attempt.

615 fail whale.png

As a serial entrepreneur and professor in Silicon Valley, I am frequently asked what it takes to create an ecosystem of start-up innovation. Usually, the question is phrased like this: “What does it take to create a Silicon Valley in our backyard?”

I give everybody the same answer: “Invite a bunch of entrepreneurs into a room. Then leave.”

One of the most important, and underrated, aspects of entrepreneurship clusters is location. Entrepreneurs don’t need “teaching” so much as space. A place to gather, share ideas, experiment, fail, and settle on an innovation.

From my experience, there are five elements to every success “ecosystem” of entrepreneurship.

1) A culture of collaboration: To lean over to a group engaged in conversation at a table next to yours at a Silicon Valley coffee shop, and ask, “Do you know anything about [programming platform] Ruby-on-Rails?” is tantamount to saying, “Oh hi.” We ask people we meet about technology, about trends, and what they’re up to, and what new project their friends just started. There is an informal air of collaboration in Silicon Valley. It’s network-building friendships. It’s informal mentorships. And it’s everywhere.

2) Aligned incentives: In Silicon Valley, both social and economic incentives are aligned so that everybody is utterly committed to building something amazing. Members of a start-up get generous stock options or another type of ownership in their company. Outside of Silicon Valley, this is highly unusual. Inside Silicon Valley, it’s not unusual to work late on a Saturday night understanding you are part of a greater mission. Seeing others around you who have cashed out when their start-ups were acquired — and then do it again and again — is both a motivator and a reminder that the entrepreneurial spirit is about the hunt.

3) Critical mass of talent: Blame it on the weather. Or the ten top-notch educational institutes within a 40-mile radius. Or decades of government investment in military technology. Silicon Valley is an unparalleled hot bed of highly-educated, highly-motivated people. It’s the one place where, at almost any party on a Saturday night, the people sitting around any given table could probably stand up and start their own successful company. From engineers to marketers, to investors, to venture capitalists, to legal eagles, the proximity and concentration of this talent creates something special.

4) Respect of intellectual property: Some entrepreneurs say they are frustrated by patents limiting creativity. But informally, Silicon Valley has great respect for IP. Entrepreneurs often sign confidentiality agreements and there is a general expectation that if somebody shares an idea, you won’t outright steal it. This makes people feel more at ease with sharing and discussing their breakthroughs, which is absolutely essential for using the network to refine ideas.

5) A capacity to celebrate failure: This might be unique to Silicon Valley, but it’s essential for any innovative environment. In Silicon Valley, people wear their failure as a badge of honor. You are likely to be offered a higher salary if your last venture was a failure than if it was a success. Failure means that somebody else has paid the “tuition” for your learning experience, so the next team doesn’t have to impart the same lessons. The saying in the Valley is “fail fast” so that we can move on to the next thing. The feared alternative are “zombies” — companies that should be dead, but continue to linger, keeping their founders and engineers hostage to their mere existence.

This final element might be the most surprising. Silicon Valley is filled with entrepreneurs who got lucky on their first try. But many only succeeded on their second or third attempt.

My first company was a commercial failure after we raised $4.2 million and put in three years of real hard work. But I learned valuable lessons about talking to potential customers before making the product. I also acquired deep domain knowledge in chip engineering. So when Quickturn [a hardware design company] called to recruit me, the failure of my first start-up was the least of their concerns. They were excited about my extensive knowledge of the space and how I had learned to sort out the dynamics of working in an explosive environment of small teams made of Type-A players. We took the company public five years later.

I was recently speaking at a university in Belgium on the topic of entrepreneurship. The  audience was not connecting. These researchers had large grants and good working hours, and they simply did not see the point of putting in 80-hours a week with sub-standard pay when the odds were stacked overwhelmingly against their efforts producing a multi-million dollar success. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world.

Gamifications and Badges | Daniel Debow

I’m the co-founder of Rypple. We build social software that helps teams work better together.  A key element of Rypple is a bottom-up service for creating and awarding badges, based on peer-recognition and goal achievement.  So for us, this question isn’t “what if” but “what has happened” when we add badges to the mix at work.  To be clear, we don’t “replace” titles with badges; we just supplement (as suggested by Ben and others).  

We’ve implemented Rypple badges at a number of great companies like Gilt Group, Mozilla, and Great Harvest.  We’re learning a lot about what works, what doesn’t and how to design the right system.  

Here’s what’s we learnt: good things happen… More recognition, better insights into what people actually do, easier reviews, and pride of achievement & reputation. But it requires careful system design based on game design.

Discovery #1: Badges can amplify positive behaviors like recognizing each other and collaborating on goals (aka…epic missions).

People like thanking others for meaningful help & achievements. This can be tremendously motivating. We made it crazy simple for people to give each other thanks badges, and to see these badges on their profiles.  This increased how often people recognized each others’ achievements. Even companies that had a a “thanks” system saw activity levels double when we replaced it with our thanks badges.

People like embarking on “epic missions” with others - just like in games. We made it easy for people do this using social goals. They then collect badges representing their wins. We found that people quickly started creating their own (very creative) social goals instead of waiting for a top-down assignment of goals. And these self-created social goals often had greater activity and completion rates around them than top-down goals. Why? Ownership over these goals! We also found that people like to see the missions (or goals) they’ve completed augment their work reputation.  So we made it easy to see these goal achievement badges on people’s profiles.

Discovery #2: A badge system designed around intrinsic motivators doesn’t become silly.
“Game elements are like an amplifier: There has to be a genuine sound first - a value, an interest, a motivation - for the amplifier to do any good” (*Sebastian Deterding, Gamification/UX designer & researcher). When badges are awarded for completing meaningful activities, they aren’t meaningless, silly or inflated. Consider the following examples:

Example 1: US Military campaign badges which are highly symbolic and prized:

Example 2: The Purple Heart medal. A powerful signal of merit:

Example 3: “Deal-toys”: Even people in big old banks have badges which are prized and proudly displayed!

When we worked with our customers to analyze how their badges were being used, we found that the vast majority of badges given were for genuine accomplishments and to express genuine gratitude. We’re not surprised because we designed the system to encourage meaningful creation and distribution of badges. We’ve also seen badges (which anyone can create and customize) take on a shared meaning - they become trusted indicators of achievement among each other.

Discovery #3: Game-design can help you create the right badge system.  
To get our system right, we incorporated many of the lessons in game design. Jane McGonigal, Byron Reeves & J. Leighton Read have all done some great work demonstrating how games can help solve real-world problems, including those in the workplace.

There are a few misconceptions about games & badges that should be cleared up.

  • Misconception #1: Game-design is just about badges & leaderboards. Many “gameified” systems are based on a misconception that collecting badges is motivation enough. That’s not enough. Truly engaging games are designed about intrinsic rewards like mastery, competence, and self-efficacy. Badges are simply progress markers in this game.
  • Misconception #2: Games have to be fun. Fact is, economists developed game theory to mathematically capture human behaviour in strategic situations where multiple players have to compete or collaborate for scarce resources (just like the workplace). Game theory has been used to develop war strategies and more.  Serious stuff.
  • Misconception #3: Games are not appropriate at work.The reality is that work is already filled with games and game-elements. Promotions are just like leveling up. Bankers’ deal-toys & inflated pseudo-titles are no different than badges. Then there’s the career game where you’re competing for a job.
  • Work is already filled with games.  They are mostly poorly designed games, but they are there.  So, don’t get too fussed with concern that badges are “too game-like” or “people will game them”.  They are already doing this; the question is about designing productive games.

Design lesson #1: Good badge design is not about features you bolt on. It’s about a careful design process. You can’t save a crappy work environment by bolting on badges. The activities that people get badges for at work have to be meaningful.

This takes many careful iterations of: understanding your employees, designing the system, observing behaviours, refining and iterating.  A critical element: having actual game designers working with HR and executive experts.

Design Lesson #2: Do it slowly and very carefully so you avoid unintended consequences. Scoreboards are a common game element. Fun and harmless in the virtual world of games. But in the workplace, depending on the context, they can feel like yet another form of control and pressure. Unless designed correctly. Similarly, you have to be careful with when and how you use monetary incentives tied to various game activities. For instance, early on, we ran a test where we allowed people to collect a $25 reward when they invited their co-workers to join Rypple. This cohort of users were significantly less likely to invite their co-workers than a control group that didn’t have an attached reward. Why? People told us that it didn’t seem appropriate to collect cash rewards for inviting co-workers!

Design Lesson #3: Simplicity counts. The harder we made it for people to do things with too many choices (unnecessary fields, ratings, options, etc.), the less they do it.

Words That Matter: Wittgenstein and Senge on the Power of Language in Critical Thinking

Language, like the culture it derives from, plays a subtle but powerful role in how we interact with others. Yet we are so completely immersed in it, we scarcely give it a second thought.

Early in the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein brought focus to the critical importance of language in the context of knowledge, philosophy, and science. One of the more powerful and accessible claims he framed was this one:

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 5.6 (1921).

It may seem overstated at first glance, but let’s unpack it.

If we reflect on how we think about, evaluate, and come to understand virtually anything, we realize that the running voice of our conscious thought sets practical boundaries. We can contemplate problems and solutions in our mind only to the extent we have words to describe them. Our vocabulary either limits or unlocks our ability to describe what we see. Our command of grammar and ability to construct descriptions of abstract concepts works the same way.

Our command of semantics is a central to critical thinking.

Language literally bounds our possibilities.

Wittgenstein thus underscores a compelling argument for mastery of the original liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic – skills that we might better grasp today in the modern context of reading and writing – but his message is clear: the tools of language are essential to the thinking person.

Now let’s apply those ideas in the social and collective contexts.

What happens in a team setting?

Carefully articulating a new idea for ourselves is only half the battle. As collaborators we face the more difficult but critically essential task of explaining this idea to others. What words do we use? What language will our audience understand? And if we’ve followed good practice by ensuring a diverse group of collaborative stakeholders, the bar has been raised even further: what subset of our shared language will be most effective to ensure common understanding across a diverse team?

From my experience, the most common failure in team settings is mis-communication of ideas, most readily observed when group members freely, often unwittingly, talk past each other. In a fervent effort to make a point, we default to arguments grounded in our semantics of origin. So what happens? IT folks will talk technology. Accounting will talk about margins. Sales will talk about customer problems. Educators will talk about pedagogy. Academics will talk about epistemologies. With heightened energy, the vocabulary grows increasingly parochial and inaccessible, and the steeper the organization’s silo walls, the more entrenched the participants tend to be, and the more difficult language barriers are to cross.

No wonder finding common ground can seem like a pipe dream.

So intentional collaboration places clear demands on semantic foundations. Defining key terms often helps. Project glossaries can go a long way.

Another strong approach (referenced previously in this blog, and elsewhere) is that of a solution language. The idea is to create common ground on the output side. We can define terms for the proposed solution set(s) that are literally grounded in a new language that is embraced by all. It is an extraction from the contributors’ source languages, an amalgamation of pieces and parts to create a viable whole. As the solution language is built, common ground is established in the process. In so doing, collaborators become more aware of their context of origin, better described as their comfort zone. With time and energy, many will see how cultural and linguistic boundaries can impact their collaborative engagement.

Peter Senge in the 5th Discipline, observes:

In dialog, people become observers of their own thinking.

then cites the work of the late physicist David Bohm, who researched collective learning among scientists. Bohm believed that we, as individuals engaged in collaborative dialog, can:

“… begin to correct incoherence in our own thinking. A kind of sensitivity develops that goes beyond what is familiar … (exposing) subtle meanings that lie at the root of real intelligence.”

Senge and Bohm share a deep sense for the requirements for team-based learning. Senge himself devotes many pages to language, and the evolutionary steps through which individuals must navigate to achieve value from a shared, collective learning model. Often, it means suspending bias inherent from professional education and what is often years working within a given specialty.

Thomas Kuhn’s thinking on the challenges and demands of paradigm shifts peers from these lines.

Wittgenstein’s foundational messages ring true throughout.

It’s easy to imagine ourselves standing before the locked door of critical thinking. We hold the keys in our hands, but remain dumbfounded about how to use them. When we attempt to collaborate, we stand before the same door with others, but we’re still at a loss; perhaps it’s even worse, arguing the course of action.

Language, like culture, is a profoundly rich, integral aspect of our social existence. I’ll summarize it like this:

Language is the master key to unlocking effective collaboration, opening the door to possibilities of what we can accomplish via intentional, purposeful dialog with others.

We can cast all this aside, broadcasting our views to the world at will. We can choose empty words with casual intent to impress, or use caustic words that serve only to bully, blame and obscure.

People do it every day.

The price? It’s a fundamental failure to be understood, preempting an exchange of ideas that could have emerged into something more. That spells disaster for progress in any language.

Announcing OrchestratorMail for BlackBerry

OrchestratorMail Conversation Starter for BlackBerry

Download OrchestratorMail Conversation Starter for Blackberry from the BlackBerry App World, by searching for “OrchMail” or by clicking here. The current version supports BB ver 5.0 or higher.

Email Is (Still) Important And Here is Why

In the current trending world where everyone is against email, I love this article by Felecity Evans which brings us really home to why Email is still important. In my opinion in organizations of today it is the key unified communication medium between people working inside the organizations and keeps them connected to people outside the organizations from vendors/ suppliers to the customers. Its ubiquitous nature and asynchronous reach is unparalleled.


By Felicity Evans
July 25th, 2011

Social media is more than a buzzword. It’s now a lifestyle decision for a lot of companies. Many individuals and organizations have abandoned a traditional Web presence (which used to mean a website and email address) in favor of a Facebook page coupled with a Twitter account.

So, where does this leave email? Has the @ symbol lost its meaning as an address, and instead become the signifier of a Twitter name? I think that we need to radically reconsider our approach to email in this changing landscape and understand that it can be a powerful tool when leveraged correctly.

Love-for-email in Email Is (Still) Important And Here Is Why
Have we lost our love of email?

Changing Habits

While I disagree with the assertion that “social is killing email,” evidence shows that email use among the younger generation is declining: a 59% decline among US teens between December 2009 and 2010, according to comScore. In the same study, only the over-55s had increased their use of email. This is especially significant if it represents a long-term shift away from email and towards social media and SMS as preferred methods of communication.

Losing Faith In Email

Email has been around forever (it predates the Web), so it’s not surprising that, for some, it has lost its lustre. For one, it’s not exciting enough; other social media platforms have come with fanfare. Twitter has hosted world headlines, and Facebook has been the driving force behind many campaigns. In 2009, a Facebook Group even succeeded in getting Rage Against the Machine’s single “Killing in the Name” to the UK’s “Christmas number one” spot ahead of the X Factor single.

This level of drama appeals to business types who like their social media “sexy,” and for this reason Twitter and Facebook push all the right buttons around the boardroom table. By comparison, an email marketing campaign may seem tired and old fashioned.

Email4 in Email Is (Still) Important And Here Is Why
Email in a social media landscape.

For another reason, it lacks tangible value. Valuations of Internet companies (and particularly social media giants) have skyrocketed. In May of this year, LinkedIn was valued at $10 billion (roughly 41 times its 2010 net revenue). Facebook is still a private company, but rumors of a public offering in 2012 include a valuation that could reach $100 billion. While many in the industry see this as a portent of a second dot-com bubble, for a lot of businesses it is simply a compelling reason to invest in these services.

Email is non-proprietary, which means that no one is pushing its agenda, and, unlike the LinkedIns, Groupons and Facebooks of the world, it cannot attract a market worth. Value theory tells us that if something has no market value (such as air, water, etc.), it is often taken for granted. I think email has suffered a similar fate.

Finally and perhaps most significantly, it lacks the pack mentality that most of social media thrives on. Despite the growth of marketing, email is still mostly private. No one knows which lists I am subscribed to or who I write to from the privacy of my inbox, even if by virtue of Facebook they know what I ate for breakfast. In stark contrast to the insidious evils of “like” culture, my email behavior does not broadcast itself all over the Internet, which for marketers is a decided disadvantage.

Email Is A Currency

Email3 in Email Is (Still) Important And Here Is Why
The currency of email.

Everyone Has It

It’s true that email is fighting with other services for online communication, but it is still ubiquitous in a way that other social media networks are not. As of May 2010, 39% of US Internet users had never used a social network, compared with only 6% who had never sent or received an email. If you want to reach the majority of your audience, email is still the safest bet.

It’s a Unique Identifier

It’s worth noting that people tend to be members of multiple social media websites simultaneously, with varying degrees of involvement, but they usually have only one or two active email addresses. The email address remains the unique identifier online; you use it to log into almost everything, so it would take a lot for it to become obsolete.

It’s a Coveted Resource

According to research conducted by the Direct Marketing Association, email marketing is expected to generate an ROI of $44.00 for every dollar spent on it in 2011. This is due in part to the fact that more customers are engaging via email: 93% of email users have opt-in relationships with a consumer brand, as opposed to 15% on Facebook and 4% on Twitter (according to Chris Brogan, president of New Marketing Labs).

This value has been recognized by most social media networks. Facebook launched Messages, which provides each user with an @facebook.com email address, because it understands the importance of email in the social graph. Google+ is also tying email more directly into social media activity, blurring the distinction between the two.

Overcoming Obstacles

I hope I’ve managed to convince you that email is still a powerful part of your social media arsenal. But before you leverage it to the best of your ability, let’s understand some of email’s most notorious limitations.

Email2 in Email Is (Still) Important And Here Is Why
Understand the limitations imposed by email.


This incarnation of junk mail is relentless. It plagues users, who must be cunning to distinguish genuine mail from hoaxes. Email clients require elaborate algorithms to sift the wheat from the chaff. And perhaps most vexing, Internet marketers have to struggle to get anything commercial through to their subscriber lists.

Unfortunately, Twitter and Facebook are not safe havens either. Business folk are not the only ones taking a bigger interest in social media; scam artists are, too. As of April 2011, spam alone occupied seven full-time employees at Twitter. This is a drop in the ocean compared to email (over 73% of all messages sent are spam), but it might be a relief to hear that we are experiencing the lowest levels since 2008; at least things are looking up!


Social media networks encourage multi-way conversations between many users. Even those who are not involved directly in the conversation can often “overhear” what is happening. Email is much more direct; it is usually between just two people and does not invite additional participants. Understanding this limitation of email will make it your greatest ally. Unless an email is personal, it will not get a response; however, it is one of the best ways to deliver direct messages, such as newsletters and alerts, which do not invite discussion so much as action.


HTML email is far more effective than plain text for marketing, but you’ll need to know the tricks to make it look good across different browsers. Writing code for email usually means going back to 1998, which is enough to put most people off it entirely. Luckily, Campaign Monitor and MailChimp offer some great templates to get you off on the right foot. But make sure to use a tool to test the email across different clients before clicking the “Send” button, or else you could do more damage than good.

Making Email A Part Of The Conversation

Bonnie Raitt once sang about giving people something to talk about, and that’s what you have to do with email marketing! Spark that discussion and keep it going on your blog, Twitter and Facebook.

Rien van den Bosch

Email is difficult to ignore. Unlike social media streams, in which content is disposable, an email demands your attention until it is read. Use this to your advantage: write newsletters; push your most engaging content in front of your users; adapt your offers so they match your audience.

Email1 in Email Is (Still) Important And Here Is Why
Use email to provoke conversation.

Also, email is a much calmer medium. Inbox zero is a difficult (yet achievable) goal, whereas staying on top of every stream, tweet and status update is not only stressful, but well nigh impossible! With email, you can take time and give thought to your words; you can dedicate some time to the person you are communicating with. Email not only gives your thoughts some room, but gives you time to write them down clearly.

If you’ve heard of the Slow movement (which advocates a cultural shift toward slowing down life’s pace), then you might want to consider how email fits into Slow Marketing. Is it possible that cultivating brand advocates over time who have more than a fleeting interest in your product could bring long-term benefits? Could you talk to these customers in a more respectful way, one that leads to substantial, meaningful conversations?

Think Twice Before Hitting “Send”

If you’re not put off by the shortcomings of email and you find 140 characters more limiting than liberating, then you’re well on your way to incorporating email in your social media campaigns. Chances are your email subscribers are your most loyal audience, so treat them with respect (which means offering valuable content, and not too often), and they could become your greatest advocates.

While reams of articles are devoted to creating social email campaigns, here are just a few tips to get you started:

  1. Have something to say.
    Sounds simple, but while your daily musings are permissible on Twitter, your email audience will be less forgiving.
  2. Make it digestible.
    Email doesn’t limit your word count, but you’ll need to apply some editing of your own. If it’s a long article, include an excerpt and link through to the website for the full story. This has the added bonus of enabling you to track the most popular items.
  3. Be regular.
    Set a schedule of emails that you know you can keep to. A monthly or quarterly newsletter can be a good guide.
  4. Be personal.
    Tailor your tone to the audience. Most email services offer invaluable segmentation tools. You wouldn’t speak to your spouse the way you talk to your bank manager; neither should you address your entire audience the same way.

Don’t forget that email is only half of the conversation. Find out where your readers hang out (you can use their email addresses to locate them), and continue the discussion there!

Corporations can increase productivity through bringing efficiency to email communication & collaboration


Bringing efficiency and structure to how people work in organizations today, by abstracting the practices that they already have for email communication and collaborating with each other.


Paradigm of email in today’s organizations is unstructured and out of control

We have moved from an industrial paradigm to a collaborative paradigm for business. Implications of a collaborative paradigm is that we always are working with others to fulfill an outcome, initiative or a deliverable. We work in matrix organizations and work across lines of business to fulfill larger outcomes and deliverables. The workforce is no longer in one building let alone one location to a global workforce.

Email has become the standard medium to communicate, for several reasons

  1. its completely ubiquitous
  2. provides an asynchronous collaboration environment
  3. records all agreements (right down to simple agreements like; OK, I will send you the file by Wednesday)

Like all things good, sometime overdone causes issues — Email Overload.

Initiatives or outcomes not fulfilled in time, cost over runs, and major project delays, can happen if a few critical emails are missed in the email overload. The workforce has to spend hours keeping on top of all email communications by organizing and flagging.

As email was meant as a messaging system, there is no visibility into the agreements and tasks embedded in the email messages.

Since there are no guidelines or structure for communication, every email you receive is subject to interpretation. This is not necessarily a problem in one location, but in a global environment, meaning is based on culture and environment, leaving much room for misinterpretation.

Collaboration tools, like virtual meetings have become a common phenomenon to bring people on the same page or vision.

And yet the whole thing depends on email to operate.

Imagine an unstructured messaging system which is responsible for the delivery of critical outcomes and initiatives!

Systems and processes run in the background of any corporate structure, such as finance, order management, supply chain etc. But most of the decision-making and coordination happens via this unstructured, inefficient means of communication called email. What OrchestratorMail brings to communication is what SAP bring to Finance, Supply Chain etc. to corporations – structure, reliability, efficiency.


The OrchestratorMail application is a solution to manage the unstructured email mess, alleviate wasted energy, reduce misinterpretation and therefore increase efficiency and productivity.

OrchestratorMail is designed for people working with other people to fulfill outcomes, initiatives and deliverables inside of some explicit or implicit agreement. Its not meant for creating relationships, or speculating or for that matter being used for soliciting.  

It is meant for Directors, Managers and Teams working together to fulfill and initiative or an outcome, Executive to keep on top of, and have visibility into their initiatives and global workforce, create a common vocabulary and interpretation, to reduce misunderstanding.

OrchestratorMail does not replace your email system, it layers on top of the email system, and has the same interface, so there is no learning curve, it’s a server based application so there is nothing to install.

OrchestratorMail begins with the sender choosing the intention of the email – from Request, Offer, Question, Discuss, Information or Note.

Then add an explicit Due by Date.

Every intention has its own pathway to conclusion. OrchestratorMail shows sets of responses based on the context of the conversation. This keeps the conversation moving forward to closure, also makes it very subjective. The system automatically tracks the due date, and all the negotiated dates in the middle to the conclusion.

In other words it abstracts all the terms of the agreements inside the body of the email, and separates out the things that need to be done. It allows for simple or complex negotiation at all stages and always having the insight into seeing where things are that need to be done to the fulfillment of the agreement.

Having a set of possible responses, and the intention creates a common vocabulary across a global workforce, which decreases the chances of misunderstanding, and the gap between the intention and the interpretation.

Furthermore, OrchestratorMail sends daily summaries of all open conversations (or agreements). One glance at the open conversation summary and you can see what agreements are late, and you can send nudges reminder right from the summary.

OrchestratorMail gives you complete visibility into your projects, initiatives or outcomes as they unfold instead of after the fact.

Using OrchestratorMail alleviates the anxiety of missing critical emails and tasks, visibility into the health of the outcome or initiative, and the flexibility of making rapid changes and negotiation.

Practical Impact

  •  Increases the efficency
  •  Saves un-productive work of organizing and flagging emails
  •  Objective view into the commitments and actions of people
  •  Visibility and predictability of initiatives, programs and deliverables are
  •  Increases accountability
  •  Environment of mutual trust and positive negotiations


  • Changing existing behavior vs. a more structured model needs repetitive training
  • Leadership commitment to establishing a new context
  • Managers and executives, giving up control. They dont have to remind their direct reports, anymore. Some of them think that keeps their relations with their reports together.
  • People thinking that this is another control and monitoring system that management has implemented

First Steps

  • Start in small teams, and showcase the increase in productivity, and visibility that it gives a team
  • Establishing the buyin from the Team, and establishing it as a tool for increasing productivity, visibility and lessening anxiety over missed communications


For more information please do not hesitate to email ritu@orchmail.com or call (415) 876 7000.

A Language Action Perspective on the Design of Cooperative Work, Terry Winograd, 1987

 A Language Action Perspective on the Design of Cooperative Work, Terry Winograd

Published in Human-Computer Interaction 3:1 (1987-88), 3-30.

Earlier version presented at the Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work, Austin, December, 1986, pp. 203-220. Reprinted in Greif, Irene (Ed.), Computer-Supported Cooperative Work: A Book of Readings, San Mateo, California: Morgan-Kaufmann, 1988, 623-653.

Note: This version was last edited: May 14, 1987 (except for formatting), and may not correspond exactly to the printed version.


In creating computer-based systems, we work within a perspective that shapes the design questions that will be asked and the kinds of solutions that are sought. This paper introduces a perspective based on language as action, and explores its consequences for system design. We describe a communication tool called The Coordinator, which was designed from a language action perspective, and we suggest how further aspects of coordinated work might be addressed in a similar style. The language action perspective is illustrated with an example based on studies of nursing work in a hospital ward and is contrasted to other currently prominent perspectives.

1. Perspective and design

Within the community concerned with the design of computer systems, there is a growing recognition of the importance of the designers perspective — the concerns and interpretations that shape the design, whether they are articulated explicitly or are just part of the unexamined background of the work. A perspective does not determine answers to design questions, but guides design by generating the questions to be considered.

Many writers have identified useful perspectives on computer-based systems, and several classification schemes have been proposed (see, for example, Malone (1985), Kling (1980), and Nygaard & Sorgaard (1985)). As we will discuss in Section 7, no one perspective covers all of the relevant concerns. System design is a complex web. It can be picked up from any one point, and the others will follow along. If we start from implementation considerations (e.g., available hardware functions), we will eventually have to define user interfaces. If we start by considering user interaction, we must eventually build concrete implementations that can run effectively on the hardware. But although the full range of perspectives must eventually be considered, the outcome will differ depending on where we start.

This paper presents a particular perspective: one that takes language as the primary dimension of human cooperative activity. It draws on work developed by Flores and his colleagues at Stanford University, Logonet, and Action Technologies (Flores, 1981; Flores and Ludlow, 1981; Winograd and Flores, 1986), and has been the basis for designing commercially successful computer systems. By starting with a language/action perspective, we have found it possible to create systems that can be effective in getting work done, whenever that work involves communication and coordinated action among a group of people.

We will illustrate the language/action perspective through an example: the nursing work in a hospital ward, as studied by Kaasbll (1986, in press). This example was chosen for its careful description and analysis of the setting and the structure of work. No computer-based systems have been introduced into the work or designed in detail. The goal here is to illustrate the questions and concerns that would guide the design of such systems.

2. The language/action perspective

One useful way to identify a perspective is by its declaration of what people do. From a language action perspective we say that People act through language. As a contrast, consider the more predominant perspective that People process information and make decisions. Of course everyone in an organization can be described as doing both, but there is a difference of focus.

Consider a situation in which a hospital nurse calls the pharmacy, finds out what drugs are available, and orders one of them for a patient. From an information-processing perspective we could focus on the data base of information about the drugs and on the rules for deciding what drug to order. From a language action perspective, we focus on the act of ordering and on the patterns of interaction in related conversations, such as the preliminary conversation about drug availability and the subsequent conversation that unfolds in the process of fulfilling the order. From other perspectives we might consider such things as the personal relationship between nurse and pharmacist, the cost-effectiveness of making the communication over a phone, or the legal status of orders placed by a nurse.

For a perspective to have analytical value, its focus on particular concerns must be combined with a systematic conceptual framework and methodology. For issues of cost effectiveness, we would turn to economic theory. For information processing we would look to theories of information and decision-making. The language action perspective rests on theories of language, but not linguistics in the rather specialized sense that is often understood. We are not primarily concerned with the details of natural language utterances, but with the issues of form, meaning and use that are common to all human communication. We use the word language rather than communication to emphasize the relevance of symbols and interpretation, and also to avoid the connotations of communication theory which has come to stand for a rather specialized mathematical approach.

As the following sections will demonstrate, there is a broad view of language activity, which includes a wide range of interactions with computers. The theories grow out of previous work in linguistics, but go beyond it and are still being developed. Our own work on design has been intermingled with research on linguistic theory (see Winograd & Flores, 1986).

As a broad framework for outlining a language action perspective, we will adopt and extend the traditional subdivisions of linguistic theory: syntax, semantics and pragmatics.

Syntax is the structure of the visible (or audible) forms of language. The syntactic rules (or grammar) of a language determine the basic elements (letters, words, etc.) and the ways in which they can be combined. In an extended sense, one can talk about the syntax of an equation, a spreadsheet, or an invoice, or even of an event, such as buttoning a menu item on a screen. What distinguishes syntax from other levels of analysis is that it does not take into account interpretation or meaning.

Semantics is the systematic relation between structures in a language and a space of potential meanings. It includes the definitions of individual elements (e.g., words) and the meaning that is generated by combining them (e.g., the meaning of Jill sees Bill as different from Bill sees Jill). In extension, one can talk about the semantics of a blank on a form appearing on a workstation screen, or the semantics of an operating system command.

Pragmatics deals with issues of language use. A classical example is Its cold in here spoken by a master to a servant. Although the literal meaning is a statement about the temperature, the intent is to evoke an action by the servant. Our primary interest lies in this aspect of language — its role in evoking and interpreting actions.

Modern linguists have tended to adopt a cognitivist approach (Haugeland, 1981), formalizing the structure of an individual language users knowledge and mental processes. Our perspective leads us to deal with these three aspects of language in the reverse of the standard order — we take issues of meaning to be critically dependent on considerations of language action and context, and syntax to be of interest primarily in its ability to reflect meaningful distinctions in conversation.

3. The pragmatics of language action

The language action perspective emphasizes pragmatics — not the form of language, but what people do with it. The theory of speech acts is a starting point for developing the larger picture of the following sections.

3.1. Speech act theory

Austin (1962) noted that not all utterances are statements whose truth or falsity is at stake. Performatives, such as I pronounce you husband and wife are actions, which can be made appropriately (felicitously) or not, but which are neither true nor false in a simple sense. Similarly, the language actions of commands, questions, and apologies are not descriptions of a non-linguistic world.

Searle (1975) identified five fundamental illocutionary points — things you can do with an utterance:

  • Assertive: Commit the speaker (in varying degrees) to somethings being the case — to the truth of the expressed proposition.
  • Directive: Attempt (in varying degrees) to get the hearer to do something. These include both questions (which can direct the hearer to make an assertive speech act in response) and commands (which direct the hearer to carry out some linguistic or non-linguistic act).
  • Commissive: Commit the speaker (again in varying degrees) to some future course of action.
  • Declaration: Bring about the correspondence between the propositional content of the speech act and reality (e.g., pronouncing a couple married).
  • Expressive: Express a psychological state about a state of affairs (e.g., apologizing and praising).

Three points deserve note:

  • The illocutionary point of an utterance is interpreted by speaker and hearer in a background. A commissive need not include the words I promise or I will, but can be I guess or a dollar (in response to Can you give me anything?) or just a facial gesture. The identification of a language act depends on the backgrounds of speaker and hearer, and is always open to differences of interpretation. Its time for lunch might be an assertive or a directive, depending on who says it to whom in what circumstances.
  • Directives and commissives (which will informally be called requests and promises here) always deal with a future action. They differ in whether the action is to be taken by the speaker or the hearer.
  • Speech acts take effect by virtue of public declaration — by mutual knowledge of hearer and speaker that the act has been made. This is especially obvious in the case of declarations and expressives (e.g., an apology muttered but not heard is not an apology), but is equally true of the others.

3.2. Conversations for action

Speech acts are not unrelated events, but participate in larger conversation structures (Flores, 1981; Flores and Ludlow, 1981). An important example is the simple conversation for action, in which one party (A) makes a request to another (B). The request is interpreted by each party as having certain conditions of satisfaction, which characterize a future course of actions by B. After the initial utterance (the request), B can accept (and thereby commit to satisfy the conditions); decline (and thereby end the conversation); or counter-offer with alternative conditions. Each of these in turn has its possible continuations (e.g., after a counter-offer, A can accept, cancel the request, or counter-offer back). The overall structure is diagrammed in Figure 1.

Figure 1. [Not yet included on line] State transition network representing a conversation for action initiated by a request from speaker A to speaker B. The circles represent conversation states and the labelled lines represent speech acts. Heavy circles represent states of completion. (adapted from Winograd and Flores, 1986, p. 65.)

This diagram is not a model of the mental state of a speaker or hearer, but shows the conversation as a dance, in which the conversation steps proceed towards mutual recognition that the requested action has been done or that the conversation is complete without it having been done. The basic logic represented here deals with the central progression of acts. Other possibilities not shown in the diagram can emerge in related conversations, such as those in which the conversational acts themselves are taken as a topic. For example, a speaker might question intelligibility (What, I didnt hear you) or legitimacy (You cant order me to do that!).

If B commits to fulfill a request (moving to state 3), the natural continuation is that at some later point B reports to A that the conditions of satisfaction have been met (moving to state 4). If A declares that he or she is satisfied, the conversation reaches a successful completion (state 5). On the other hand, A may not interpret the situation in the same way and may decline the report, declaring that the conditions have not been met and thereby returning the conversation to state 3. In any state, either party may propose changes to the conditions of satisfaction or may back out on the deal, moving to a state of completion (7 and 9) that does not include satisfaction of the original request.

Several points about this conversation structure deserve note:

1) We use conversation in a very general sense to indicate a coordinated sequence of acts that can be interpreted as having linguistic meaning. It need not be a spoken conversation, or even involve the use of ordinary language. A doctor who writes treatment requests on a patient form is engaged in a conversation with the nurse who will administer the treatments, even if they never speak face-to-face. Certain kinds of requests are made implicitly on the basis of a long-term declaration. A manager does not explicitly request each worker to come to work each morning, although the conversation proceeds (in those cases where there is a breakdown) as though he or she had. The recurrent request is listened to as an effect of the declaration You’re hired within a shared understanding of common practices.

2) The conversation is initiated by a request (there is a similar network for conversations initiated by an offer), and therefore is rooted in the anticipation of some future action.

3) At each point in the conversation, there is a small set of possible action types, determined by the previous history. Each type has unlimited possibilities for detailed content. For example, a counter-offer action specifies particular conditions of satisfaction.

4) All of the acts are linguistic — they represent utterances by parties to the conversation (or silences that are listened to as standing for an act). For example, the act that normally follows a promise is a report of completion (an assertive speech act) from the promisor to the requestor. It is followed by a declaration by the requestor that that the action is satisfactory (or that it is not). The actual doing of whatever is needed to meet the conditions of satisfaction lies outside of the conversation structure.

5) Many acts are listened to without being explicit. If the requestor can recognize satisfaction of the request directly, there may be no explicit report of completion. Other acts, such as declaring satisfaction, may be taken for granted if some amount of time goes by without a communication to the contrary. What is not said is listened to as much as what is said.

6) Conditions of satisfaction are not objective realities, independent of interpretations. They exist in the listening, and there is always the potential for difference among the parties. This can lead to breakdowns and to subsequent conversation about the understanding of the conditions.

7) There are states of completion (the heavy circles in the figure) in which it is mutually recognized that neither party is waiting for further action by the other. All other states represent an incomplete conversation. Completion does not guarantee satisfaction. For example, if the promisor cancels after the promise is made, the conversation is completed without the original request being satisfied.

8) The network does not say what people should do, or deal with consequences of their acts (such as backing out of a commitment). These are important human phenomena, but are not generated in the domain formalized in this network. Conversations for action are the central coordinating structure for human organizations. We work together by making commitments so that we can successfully anticipate the actions of others and coordinate them with our own. The emphasis here is on language as an activity, not as the transmission of information or as the expression of thought. Although people think when they use language, and they often describe their world in language, the relevant structures for analysis here are the language acts and the conversations into which they are woven. In applying this to computer system design, we are not concerned with duplicating the knowledge or thought patterns of people, but with the structure of their interactions and the embedding of those interactions in computer systems.

4. Designing conversations for action

We will illustrate the relevance of this analysis to computer systems, by describing The Coordinator1, a first-generation conversational system currently used for everyday communications in sales, finance, general management, operations, and planning functions in organizations of a variety of sizes and types. This system provides facilities for generating, transmitting, storing, retrieving and displaying messages that are records of moves in conversations. However, unlike electronic mail systems that take messages and information as their starting points, it is based on the conversation theory outlined above.

4.1. Tools for conversing

The user interface of The Coordinator is menu driven. The primary menu for conversing is shown in Figure 2. Some of the menu items indicate new actions the user may take. Others bring up displays of the records of conversations maintained by the system. Let us look first at ways of opening a conversation for action (answering is discussed below, and conversations for possibilities will be discussed in the Section 5).

Rather than providing a uniform command to initiate a new message, The Coordinator system provides options for opening conversations that have different implicit structures of action. When Request is selected, templates appear prompting the user to specify an addressee, others who will receive copies, a domain, which groups or categorizes related conversations, and an action description, corresponding to the subject header in traditional mail systems. The text of the message is prompted with the phrase What is your request?, to which the user can enter any text whatsoever.

1The Coordinator is a workgroup productivity system created by Action Technologies, Inc., available for IBM PC-XT/ATTM-compatible machines. The description here focusses on the conversation manager, which is one part of an integrated system that also includes word processing, formatting, calendar maintenance and communication over modems and LANs. The Coordinator is a registered trademark of Action Technologies. The interface design is copyrighted, and aspects of it are reproduced here by permission. A patent is pending on the systems conversation manager.

|                          C O N V E R S E                                 |
|                                                                          |
| OPEN CONVERSATION FOR ACTION         REVIEW / HANDLE                     |
|     Request                            Read new mail                     |
|     Offer                              Missing my response               |
|                                        Missing other's response          |
|     Declare an opening                 My promises/offers                |
|                                        My requests                       |
|                                        ANSWER Commitments due: 24-Sep-84 |
|                                                                          |
| NOTES                                  Conversation records              |

Figure 2. Converse menu from The Coordinator (reprinted by permission from Action Technologies, 1987).

The system makes no attempt to interpret this text, relying on the users understanding and cooperation that the message is properly identified as a request. This is a key design issue: Let people do the interpretation of natural language, and let the program deal with explicit declarations of structure (such as the users declaration that this is a request). This leaves users free to communicate in ordinary language that depends on the background of the reader. A perfectly understandable request might contain the single word Noon? if the participants have a shared understanding (e.g., they often go to lunch together).

When the user signals that the text is complete, the system prompts for three dates associated with the completion of the action: a respond-by date, a complete-by date, and an alert date. Date entries are optional, but experienced users almost always include one or more of them. Not only do they provide a structure for retrieval and for monitoring completion, but the use of specific dates plays a surprisingly large role in producing effective conversations. Although we will not emphasize this aspect in the present paper, the design of The Coordinator system grew out of Floress work in training people in communicative competence (Flores & Graves; 1968a, 1968b). In that work, Flores has demonstrated that peoples ability to communicate effectively (with or without support from computer systems) is improved when they develop facility in distinguishing the kinds of commitments people make in conversations for action, and the dimensions of time associated with the completion of those conversations.

When a user of the system receives a request (the details of message transmission and retrieval will not be discussed here), he or she has the option of responding by selecting Answer from a menu. This pops up a subsidiary menu as shown in Figure 3.

|                                        |
| Acknowledge          Promise           |
| Free-Form            Counter-offer     |
| Commit-to-commit     Decline           |
| Interim-report       Report-completion |

Figure 3. Menu for responding to a request (reprinted by permission from Action Technologies, 1987)

This menu is automatically generated by a conversational state interpreter from a network like that of Figure 1. The first three items in the right hand column (Promise, Counter-offer, and Decline) represent the actions available to the responder (B) in state 2. The fourth choice (Report-completion) is an action available in state 3, after B has promised. In some cases, it will turn out that B has already done what A requested, before having responded to initial request. In that case, the Promise act is implicit, and Report-completion is the next overt communication.

The left-hand column introduces conversation acts concerned with the conduct of the conversation itself, which do not advance its state. Acknowledge lets the requestor know that the request was received. Free-form allows any kind of communication relevant to the conversation that does not fit into the formal structure — most frequently, notes, comments, and questions. Commit-to-commit would be conveyed in natural language with sentences like Ill let you know by Thursday if I can do it. That is, the speaker is committing to take the next conversational step (promising or declining) by a specific time.

When any answering action is selected, a new message is automatically generated with markers corresponding to the choice of act, and with a generic text. For example if the response is Promise, the initial message is I promise to do as you request. while for Counter-offer it is No; I counteroffer: The user can augment or replace this text using embedded word processing facilities. Experience has shown that a surprising number of messages need only the initial pro forma composition. The message initiating a request or offer needs to contain text that describes the action, such as Can you send me that report we were talking about?, but often the subsequent steps can be made by simply selecting the appropriate menu item and hitting the button that sends a message.

Whenever Answer is selected, the menu displays only those actions that could sensibly be taken next by the current speaker. State 2 of Figure 1 shows a Cancel action by A, in which the request is withdrawn. This will appear on As menu, but not on Bs. Or, for example, after making a promise in a conversation, then the next time B selects Answer in that conversation (assuming no intervening action by A), the menu offered will be as shown in Figure 4.

|                                       |
| Free-Form         Cancel/New-Promise  |
| Interim-report    Cancel              |
|                   Report-completion   |

Figure 4. Answer menu generated in continuing a promise (reprinted with permission from Action Technologies, 1987).

At this point, B no longer has the option to decline (having already promised), but can Report-completion (moving to state 4) or Cancel (moving to state 7) with or without initiating a new promise.

The Coordinator has no magic to coerce people to come through with what they promise, but it provides a straightforward structure in which they can review the status of their commitments, alter those commitments they are no longer in condition to fulfill, make new commitments to take care of breakdowns and opportunities appearing in their conversations, and generally be clear (with themselves and others) about the state of their work.

4.2. Retrieval and monitoring

The structure and status of conversations is the primary basis for organizing retrieval and review in the system. To put it simply, the structure is organized to provide straightforward and relevant answers to the implicit question What do I have to do now?.

In the main menu of Figure 2, under the heading REVIEW / HANDLE we find items such as Missing my response, Missing others response, My promises/offers, and My requests. When one of these is selected, the user is presented with a listing of conversations matching the selected item.

Several things are of note:

1) The basic unit of work in the system is a conversation, not a message. In conventional electronic mail systems, messages in a conversation are often linked by conventions such as the use of Re: … in headers. For The Coordinator, each message (including a Free-form) belongs to a particular conversation. The retrieval structure is two-level, with the user first identifying a conversation, then selecting particular messages within it to be displayed.

2) The explicit use of conversation theory in the generation of messages makes it possible for retrieval to be based on status. There is a menu selection that selects and displays conversations in response to the question, In which conversations is someone waiting for me to do something? or In which conversations have I have promised to do things? Note that these are different. For example, if you make an offer to me, then our conversation is in a state where the next move characteristically belongs to me, but I have made no promise to you.

3) The distinction between open and closed conversations is used to filter out those to be retrieved. Unless the user designates otherwise, The Coordinator will display only those conversations that are still open to further action (not in one of the final states as shown by heavy circles in Figure 1).

4) Explicit completion and alert dates are used for time-oriented retrieval. The item Commitments due: … on the menu allows retrieval of all conversations that need some action (either a response or a completion) on a date entered by the user. There is an additional menu that allows retrieval on precise combinations of dates, domains, and people involved in different conversational roles (e.g., the things Chauncey has promised to get done next week regarding programming). The calendar subsystem is integrated, so that all of these items can optionally appear at the appropriate places in a personal calendar, along with more conventional entries such as meetings and appointments.

The Coordinator is an example of basing a system on theories of language without attempting to program understanding. All of the interpretations (e.g., that a particular message is a request, or that it should be done by a certain time) are made by the people who use the system, guided by appropriate menus and prompts. This is not experienced by users as an extra job of annotating, but in fact replaces typing parts of the contents with more direct and structured interactions, which are often more efficient. It is a generic tool in the sense that a word processor is — intended for a particular kind of communication, without regard to topic. A word processor is not equally well suited to generating all kinds of character sequences, but is specially designed for the words, sentences, paragraphs, and the like of ordinary written text. Similarly, The Coordinator system is not built for arbitrary sequences of messages, but for the requests, promises and completions that are at the heart of coordinated work.

5. Conversations in a work setting

Conversations for action (CfA) form the central fabric of cooperative work. However, many kinds of language acts do not participate directly in the completion of a CfA. Remarks such as They’re planning to remodel the West Wing next summer need not relate directly to any specific future actions of speaker or hearer. From a cognitive perspective, one might choose to characterize these as conveying information without a particular motivation in action. From the perspective of language as action, the primary concern is with the role that all conversations (and all utterances within conversations) play with respect to action and potentials for action. We distinguish several additional kinds of conversation that go along with conversations for action: conversation for clarification, conversation for possibilities, and conversation for orientation. There is no sharp line between them, but they are accompanied by different moods.

In a conversation for clarification the participants cope with or anticipate breakdowns concerning interpretations of the conditions of satisfaction for a CfA. The conditions are always interpreted with respect to an implicit shared background, but the sharing is partial and needs to be negotiated. As a simple example, the request Give the patient some diazine might evoke responses such as Right now, or with the morning meds? or What dosage?. One can never guarantee that everything is totally precise. Precision is relative to each partys implicit anticipation that the other party will have a sufficiently shared background to carry out the action in a satisfactory way.

In a conversation for possibilities, the mood is one of speculation, anticipating the subsequent generation of conversations for action. Specific conditions of satisfaction will emerge in the course of the conversation, and associated conversations for action will be initiated. Many gatherings that are called meetings are best conducted in this mood. The meeting is a failure if some action does not come out of the discussion. Some conversations for possibilities are highly routinized. For example, work rounds on a hospital ward is a routine conversation for possibilities, during which the medical team visits each patient and specific requests and commitments are generated.

In a conversation for orientation, the mood is one of creating a shared background as a basis for future interpretation of conversations. This shared background includes specific knowledge, interpersonal relations, and general attitudes. The most obvious examples are meetings labelled orientation, in which newcomers begin to develop the understanding that is required to function in the organization. Conversations for orientation are prominent in less formal settings (shooting the bull). Although the mood here is not directed towards action, it is important to recognize the importance of developing mutual orientation as the basis for future effective action and for appropriately shared interpretation of language acts.

Each of these types of conversation has its own regularities of structure, which in turn can be reflected in the design of the tools for conducting it. Just as the CfA structure of The Coordinator grew out of experience with conventional message systems, we can apply conversational analysis to the reinterpretation and redesign of other existing systems, such as help systems (which carry out a limited kind of conversation for clarification), group facilitation systems, such as Colab (Stefik et al., 1986) which are used in generating possibilities, and BBOARD and computer forum systems, which (among other things) facilitate conversations for orientation. We will not analyze these in detail, but will use the nursing example to show how conversations appear in the nursing setting, and to discuss some of the design considerations.

In the discussion we will comment on details of work on the hospital ward, as outlined in the Appendix. Although no computer applications were developed in that setting, one can imagine an integrated medication information system through which many of the activities would be replaced by actions on terminals (or workstations) at various sites, including the ward, the examining rooms, and the pharmacy. Records needed in places where direct computer access was infeasible could be printed out and posted. The information flow could be redesigned, eliminating redundancies and the need for manual copying or posting of information. It is far beyond the scope of this paper to develop a comprehensive design for such a system, but the setting can serve to illustrate our perspective.

5.1. Conversations for action

In the hospital, there are many different conversations for action, with a variety of visible forms. Some are highly routinized, such as the primary CfA dealing with the administration of medications. Requests are made by doctors (either as standing cures or on the patient-carried paper scraps), to the treating nurse. Report of completion is represented on the curve sheet, and the declaration of completion is implicit in the doctors review of the records on his or her next visit. As a precondition for satisfying these requests, the nurse must receive the medicine, and there are CfAs (with the pharmacy) to get the medications, using prescription forms to make requests. In general, conditions of satisfaction are determined in a rigid way by the codes and blanks, perhaps with extra notations in natural language. Acceptance of an offer or request is assumed whenever it is not explicitly rejected. Completion is reported on a standard form, which, like all of the other forms, is associated with standards for interpretation, which are learned as part of the relevant professional training. In addition to these routinized CfAs there are unscheduled verbal conversations. For example, a request may be made by a doctor to a nurse at the bedside, with immediate explicit accept, decline, or counter-offer. Completion may be reported later via a note in the patients chart.

In a hospital, completion of conversations can be a life-or-death matter. There is a highly regularized structure of checks and crosschecks to ensure it, as illustrated in the Appendix. The regularization is both in the form of special activities (the various checklists) and the strict temporal routine. The fact that a particular action will be done at a particular time can be taken for granted on the basis of the daily schedule. The dependence on rigid forms and routines can be viewed an attempt to assure that conversations proceed smoothly in cases where personal contact is not sufficient. This could potentially be reduced, adding work flexibility, through the use of a conversation-based system in which the monitoring of completion (and coaching towards completing conversations) is incorporated in a communication medium.

There is also the potential to replace routine CfAs with declarations of recurrent responses. For example, rather than responding to each drug request, a pharmacist might establish an automated prescription filling system, which takes the data from the request and activates a mechanized dispensary. This is a common kind of computerization: computers take over those functions for which precise repetitive rules can be established. In designing these automated systems from a language/action perspective, we are led to consider the potential for secondary conversations. Who declares the distinctions that are embodied in the forms and rules? If the medication request does not match the standard form for designating medications, then who is involved in the conversation for clarification, and how? In conventional system design, there will always be de facto answers to such questions (especially after experience has pointed out the places for breakdown). Through a conversational analysis we can anticipate and de

5.2. Conversations for clarification

Conversations for clarification are much less regular (as we would expect) and are often verbal. The crosschecking of the various forms also triggers these conversations when the different forms are not directly contradictory, but are open to conflicting interpretations. In designing tools for conversations for clarification, it is important to recognize their relative lack of recurrence. Recurrent differences of interpretation will lead to the declaration of new distinctions or new forms for making requests and commitments that are clear. But there will always be irregular, unexpected cases, and computer-based systems that provide only rigid forms may make it difficult or impossible to deal with them.

5.3. Conversations for possibilities

Much of what appears to be useless copying or verification of redundant information on the hospital ward is really a routine way of generating conversations for possibilities. For example, in the review of medications (see Appendix):

Only a minor part of the 30 minutes was used for updating and comparing. The rest of the time was spent on small conversations, initiated by findings in the information they were handling. Some examples of what the nurses did: Reporting to each other about the patients state and activities; deciding what were facts when inconsistencies were found; deciding changes in some medicines after small negotiations; reminding the treating nurse of a test that had been forgotten; investigating why a medicine was not delivered from the chemists; finding out why a patient had to take a specific test.

If the medication review were replaced by an automated process, the opportunity for this kind of conversation could be lost. It could be re-instituted in other ways if it were recognized in the analysis. Similarly, if the curve sheet is replaced with a table of drugs, dosages and times, it is no longer possible for the nurses to use it as a vehicle of communication (in the notes) for the small conversations dealing with specific breakdowns and subsidiary CfAs. It might well be possible to replace it with a better vehicle for these conversations, once their importance is recognized.

5.4. Conversations for orientation

When asked to comment on the systems analysis, the nurses felt that it did not capture the aspect of their activities that dealt with the total picture rather than with the specifics of particular medications and tests. The existing structure provides explicit routines to allow for open-ended conversation, such as the morning report, where One nurse is informing the other staff of the status, changes and performed activities of each patient during the last day and night. Informal exchanges among the nurses include both explicit CfAs and more general orienting discussion about the total picture. One form of orienting conversation is the telling of stories, whether in the direct line of work, or around the coffeepot. Orr (1986) describes the importance of relating war stories as part of technical training. One has only to spend a short time in the company of medical workers to realize how prevalent this activity is. Computer BBOARD systems sometimes play this role within the community of computer research.

5.5. The larger web of conversations

Finally, the conversational analysis includes not only those immediately visible, but also the larger web of conversations in which they are situated (Kling & Scacchi, 1982). One obvious example in the hospital is the legal conversation about the quality of care. All written records are potential evidence in a malpractice suit, and the people who create and manipulate them are aware of this possibility. In addition to the legal conversation, there are ongoing conversations about the hiring, evaluation, and dismissal of employees. Kaasbll notes (1986, p. 11): If the nurses make mistakes, they may be sued by the patients, and they may be punished by the hospital administration. This gives an incentive for not recording mistakes in the Kardex.

Certain conversations will inevitably go on outside of any written (or electronically stored) system. Explicit records will never correspond to an objective reality, but are the result of declarations by individuals, with their own interpretations and purposes. No computer system can change these fundamental facts about how humans function in organizations, but an explicit understanding of the larger network of conversations can help to recognize the roles that language acts play in a variety of conversations, and to match expectations to those roles.

6. Semantics

The previous sections have introduced conversation types in a very general sense, without considering what the conversations are about. Of course there is also a high degree of recurrence in content, which is apparent in the amount of organizational communication conducted with forms of various kinds (including electronic forms). When a doctor requests medication for a patient, we can identify the generic action as a Request in terms of the CfA structure given above, and we could use a system like The Coordinator to monitor its completion. From a slightly different angle, we can see it as an instance of a Medication Order conversation, which is specified by filling in standard blanks, such as the patients name, the identity and quantity of the drug, etc. The doctor could take a single action (e.g., a menu selection) to bring up a display with the relevant items indicated, and with some of them initially filled in (e.g., the date). Others might be filled automatically (for example, the standard dosage when t

None of this is new. Business programs along these lines can be found in every walk of life from the airline counter to the grocery store. We can think of these systems as embodying frozen conversation structures. In designing the forms and interactions, programmers embody their understanding of a specialized conversation structure and a set of procedures for completing the conversations. General facilities for specifying office information systems are described by Ellis and Nutt (1980), and in the more recent research exemplified by Malone et al. (in press). A flexible specification formalism for forms (or messages) and relationships among their parts makes it easier to design appropriate forms and blanks, and to support automation.

From a language action perspective, two fundamental issues appear. First, there is the role of conversation structure. The Medication Order form encodes an action (a request) in a particular conversation. Another form, such as the Nurses patient report may embody a further action in the conversation (e.g., reporting completion). These linkages can be the basis for retrieval and presentation, as well as providing structure for the overall system and the procedures that go with it.

Second, semantics is subordinate to language action. Traditionally, semantics has been described as a correspondence between the forms of a language and some kind of truth conditions on the world of which it speaks. The analysis concentrates on deriving meaning from the systematic combination of elements. One takes for granted a collection of basic terms — the nouns, verbs, adjectives and the like — referring to identifiable objects, properties, relations, and events in the world. From the perspective of language as action, words cannot be defined in isolation from a particular conversational setting in which they are used. The distinctions that are reflected by the choices among words arise through recurrent patterns of conversation, in which breakdowns of action lead to new distinctions (Winograd, 1985; Winograd & Flores, 1986).

This is equally true in our extended linguistic perspective. A computer-based form has a syntax in which the individuals fields and their fillers are the basic units. The interpretation of a field marked Status cannot be based on a general definition of what a status is. It will depend on the context and background of the people who enter, interpret, and use the records. The communication will be effective only to the extent that relevant background is shared. Texts on business data processing discuss the importance of data dictionaries, which prescribe the meanings of the individual records and fields in a data base. Behind that activity there are questions as to where definitions come from, how they are represented, and how they are understood by the people who use them. These are analogous to problems in natural language.

6.1. What domains of distinctions are taken as background?

Everyone in a normal work setting shares a natural language and a lifetime of cultural experience. The everyday use of language takes this for granted, using ordinary vocabulary along with common technical terminology, such as that of the clock and calendar. Other meanings will be specialized to a professional area such as medicine. The boundary between natural and specialized domains is not sharp — many words are used in both informal and semi-formalized, or stylized ways. The patient is in stable condition has a technical interpretation distinct from the natural one. In some cases, such distinctions may be set down by formal rules; in others, learned through practice.

A crucial part of professional training is learning a jargon — the distinctions and associated terms that provide a basis for inventing and taking relevant actions. Profession-oriented languages (Kaasbll, 1986) are an attempt to integrate this specialized language structure into the design of computer-based systems. Kaasbll (in press) points out problems, such as locally-used distinctions that are not standard to the field and not immediately available to system designers. For example, the nurses in his study referred to a lung-function test apparatus as the Ohio, which was its brand name, and they had no more general term. In some cases such matters are of critical importance to conditions of satisfaction. In the medical profession two different kinds of terms are used to describe medications: brand names (Tylenol) and generic names (Acetiminophen). A request made for a brand name may or may not be satisfied by an equivalent generic, depending on a complex interaction of standard practices and local regula

Suchman (1987) describes the problems that arise from failing to account for differences in semantic interpretations when designing user interfaces. In a user-friendly interface for a copier, language about the machine and the users actions appeared in various forms on the screen, using distinctions and words that made perfect sense to the copier-designers, but that led to serious breakdowns for users without the same background. In one case, failure to distinguish the document cover from the bound document aid led to interpreting help instructions in a way completely different from what the designers intended.

The point here is that the system designer cannot assume that the semantics — the mapping from words to distinctions of interest — will either be natural or follow some existing formal specification of the domain. This is especially relevant in a setting like the hospital, where conflicting languages are already in use (the language of doctors, nurses, ordinary language, etc.).

Along with the specific conversations and forms, the system designer participates in designing the professional language of the workplace. A new computer system will alter the language, both in interactions with the system, and in the work around it. Andersen and Madsen (1986) point out the change in usage of the word document when an indexing system was designed for a document collection, then extended to the whole library. All of the indexed items (including books, magazines, etc.) came to be called documents, contrary to prior usage. There is both a danger of creating confusion and an opportunity to shape the conversations and the work itself.

6.2. How do new distinctions emerge?

New distinctions are always emerging because of new breakdowns or anticipation of them. A frequent reason for the failure of computer systems is that they lock in a set of distinctions without provision for evolution. Gradually people find more and more need to work around the system, leading to complexity and chaos.

For example, based on the manual forms used by the dieticians, a patients diet might be recorded as one of a fixed set of choices, such as no salt, diabetic, etc. Imagine that a new kind of diet is added, such as limiting the cholesterol within the existing diets. The new distinction is not simply one more alternative but modifies each of the pre-existing choices. We might add a collection of new diets such as no salt low cholesterol, diabetic low cholesterol, etc. but this is a work-around. If a further qualification (high potassium) is added, the system will begin to bog down. What is needed is an interpretation of diet as combining a set of separable dimensions, instead of as a simple choice. The original system designer could not anticipate this need. Gerson and Star (1986) describe the problems that arise and the need for what they call due process in maintaining shared understanding. Kaasbll (1986, p. 10) gives an example of a technical term whose meaning was subject to argument and the imposition of authority:

During a doctors visit, the doctor and two nurses started a conversation of what P1 means. P-values are measures of obstructions in the lungs.

Doctor: It is the air in the lungs that counts, not the sounds.

Nurse1: It is obvious that Peter (the chief physician) has a different opinion of P1 than you.

Nurse2: One has to remember that there are individual discrepancies between the children, such that P1 does not mean the same for one child as for another.

This discussion can be interpreted as a negotiation over the semantics of P1, and thus as a development of the language at the ward. It can also be seen as part of the power struggle between the two professions involved.

The larger pragmatic analysis of conversations and roles includes the conversations in which meaning is negotiated, and their reflection in a computer system.

6.3. How are distinctions indicated?

Much of the traditional work on natural language semantics adopts the idealization of a relatively straightforward compositional mapping from forms to meanings. Put simply, each basic term (word) has a meaning, and each phrase or sentence has a meaning made up from the meaning of its parts in a standard way. Some current research goes further, focussing on the effect of context on meaning. It is based on structured analyses of contexts (both the linguistic context and the situation of the speaker and hearer) and the relation between those structures and the meanings of utterances. There has been some interest in applying the resulting theoretical framework to non-natural languages, such as programming languages and human-computer interfaces (CSLI, 1984). It is beyond the scope of this paper to survey the relevant work. It has significant limitations, as discussed by Winograd (1985).

As an example, consider the meaning of filling in a medicine card listing a patients medications. From a standard semantic view, each blank would be filled with a term that denoted a particular medication, and the card as a whole (analogous to a sentence) would enumerate all the medications to be given to the patient. This is typically the case, but according to Kaasboll (in press, p. 4):

The sheets were filled in properly during the 30 minutes, except for a couple of observed missing medicines on the medicine cards. When asked about the mistakes the treating nurse replied: Oh, but we know he (the patient) is going to have the medicines even if it is not written here. It is erased only because he has been under intensive care for some days.

The issue here is not the exact form of the cards. It could just as well have been a computer system with database entries for medications. The situation-dependence of meaning is in the people who enter and access the data. Accuracy is not just a matter of having the computer keep its records straight. In designing and using a system, it is critical to understand the different potentials for interpretation and either cope with them or modify them through training.

The point of all this from the language/action perspective is to treat the generation and interpretation of semantic distinctions as an activity based on conversations that can be designed and facilitated through the computer. One general principle pointed out by Nygaard (1986) is the importance of having distinctions that are open to new interpretation by the workers. In practical terms, this may be as simple as having a Notes field in some data record, that allows the worker to enter (and retrieve) ordinary natural language text, as opposed to fixed fields, in which the distinctions are fixed by system convention. It may also lead to new kinds of structured conversations within the work.

7. Blindnesses of the language action perspective

Technological impacts cannot be fully understood from any one perspective. Each perspective brings forth some concerns and is blind to others. In designing a coherent system we are guided by a choice of perspective, but success comes from anticipating breakdowns that only become visible from other perspectives. A number of other perspectives will interact with a design generated from concerns of language action:


From an implementation perspective we are concerned with issues of hardware, operating systems, languages, data formats, and the like. The vast bulk of the detailed literature on system design approaches problems from this perspective, as it must for practical reasons.

Web of computing

As Kling and Scacchi (1982) point out, we cannot look at the computer system in isolation. The implementation design is part of a larger web of issues surrounding the computer system itself, such as the design, acquisition, installation, maintenance, and hiring and/or training of people to use a system. These include economic, political, and social considerations and each of these has its own domains of conversation, possibilities and breakdown. In a way, this perspective is at the opposite end from implementaton—-these are the concerns that ultimately must dominate practical choices, but they do not provide a structured basis for creating a design.

Information processing

Traditional system perspectives have centered on the kinds of information being entered, stored and accessed, and on the logical rules relating them. As with implementation, this is obviously the perspective from which many details have to be approached. Our relative lack of attention to those issues here does not mean that they are unimportant. Our argument is that, like implementation, they should be looked at in a subordinate way, guided by considerations of the role they play in the structure of language actions by the people using the system.

Roles, locations, and materials

Holt, Ramsey, and Grimes (1983) present a role/activity theory that focusses on peoples roles (which specify sets of behaviors) and on the temporal and spatial structure of their potential interactions. Holt (1986) notes that What first stands out in any work environment is its architecture—-that is to say its spatial-functional organization…. Functional proximity is what relates work places to each other. It is the relation which constrains and organizes the movement of people and materials…

From a language action perspective we can understand roles in terms of potentials for entering into particular recurrent conversations. But we do not have any tools for describing the distribution of materials or the physical potential for interaction. There may be a critical difference between putting a single terminal at the main nursing station, putting a terminal in each examining and activity room, and having one available by every bedside. In looking at the role of an individual, we need to recognize that his or her body can only be in one place at one time, and is limited in its ability to move from place to place. In a way this sounds mundane, but it is all too easy to design a system that would work wonderfully—-if the nurse would walk over to the nursing station before giving each patient medication—-but which does’nt succeed in practice.


An important aspect of every human organization is the distribution of authority and the mechanisms by which it is maintained. The introduction of a new technology can perturb this structure in a variety of ways: facilitating detailed monitoring of performance; making it possible for subordinates to work in ways that are not understood by their superiors; and opening possibilities for communication that crosses lines of authority. An analysis of conversational roles can identify particular individuals as having the ability to initiate or respond in certain conversations, and this structure is the practical consequence of authority. But the mechanisms by which authority is established and maintained go beyond this. In contrasting the tool perspective to a more traditional systems perspective, Ehn and Kyng (1984) focus on this issue, looking at ways to maintain the autonomy of workers in the face of computer-based changes that can potentially be used to expand centralized authority.

Group interests

Work is not carried out by a homogeneous collection of individuals. Every work setting contains groups with collective interests, which can be affected by the introduction of computer systems. The redesign of work is a negotiation among the groups already doing and supervising the work, and the results will be shaped by the interests of these groups and the compromises among them. This kind of issue is often critical to system design, for example between journalists and typographers in newspaper-publishing systems (Howard, 1985) and between librarians and clerks in libraries (Andersen and Madsen, 1986). In the hospital, there are powerful constraints on the appropriate role behavior of doctors and nurses. The structure of interactions within the organization maintains this identity and changes can threaten it. In our example, one might imagine merging the various records and thus eliminating the Kardex. But, according to Kaasboll (in press):

Nurses are traditionally a paraprofession subordinate to the physicians and their medical knowledge…. In the nurses struggle for acceptance of nursing as a profession, the theoretical concept nursing process and its practical documentation in the Kardex is of central importance for developing nursing as a science on its own. In this struggle, the Kardex as a basis for nursing decisions may be seen as the nurses answer to the physicians medical records.


Most of the organizational models applied to information system design are based on the assumption of shared goals among the participants. In real organizations there are always conflicts among competing goals held by different individuals and groups. In some cases this is institutionalized (as in contractual labor-management relations or internal market competition in a firm), but it is always present. A system that assumes idealized cooperation may easily fail as the result of behavior that the systems analyst might label as stupidity, sabotage, or just plain human stubbornness. An analysis that takes conflicting interests into account is not a vain attempt to dissolve them, but can channel them into explicit forms of mutually agreed-upon negotiation. The language action perspective establishes a structure for negotiation, based on a theory of cooperation that assumes the willingness to enter into serious conversation, without assuming shared goals or agreement. A conversation for clarification, for example, might involve each party’s negotiating to get a favorable deal, but it can nevertheless result in a mutual agreement. More work needs to be done in integrating a conflict perspective (Ciborra, 1985; Nygaard, 1986).

Interpersonal relations

One of the most obvious effects of computer systems is the replacement of face-to-face verbal interaction with computer-mediated exchange. Some of the potential problems can be characterized in conversational terms. A face-to-face interaction that is identified as playing a particular role in conversations for action (e.g., medication record entry) often has other components (conversations for possibilities) that are lost when it is replaced with computer interactions. Language acts, in general, can be less effective in the absence of personal relationships. In a study of the introduction of a production planning and control system into a factory, Schneider and Howard (1985, pp. 14—15) noted:

In the contributing areas, Production Support personnel are constantly engaged in informal discussions, promises, and agreements…. Schedulers spend nearly half their time in meetings, competing with their colleagues over shop capacity and priority (one likens the process to butting heads). Thus, a major part of the production planning and control process involves the extremely social acts of persuasion, negotiation, and, at times, argument. As one Production Control expeditor puts it, Im just one leaf on the tree. I try to go in any and all directions in order to get a part out. It all depends on developing working relationships with people in other departments—-purchasing, quality control, manufacturing engineering. Its a matter of trust built up over time. Personalities play a big role in it.

In their study, they show the pitfalls of trying to redesign the work to eliminate these interactions. Although the language/action perspective focusses on the conversations among individuals, it is structural, not psychological. It asks us to look at the potentials for interaction, but not the motivations and feelings that will lead to what people actually do. Questions of mood, motivation, and personal satisfaction go far beyond anything that has been dealt with here, and are essential to successful design.

8. Conclusion

We began with the declaration that a system designer benefits from having an explicit awareness of perspective. A perspective generates concerns and questions, and provides a structured analysis through which they can be addressed. Although every design must eventually confront issues from all perspectives, its overall direction is strongly affected by the ones taken as primary. We have shown how cooperative work can be interpreted as the generation of language acts and conversations. Experience with The Coordinator has demonstrated the value of this perspective in designing workgroup communication tools. In its capacity as a general medium for conversations for action, it has improved work capacity and effectiveness in a variety of settings. The next step will be to apply the language action perspective to the design of systems that deal with the recurrent content of conversations, with the other types of conversations, and with the relations linking one conversation to another.

There is little agreement as to what core issues will define the area of research in office systems and computer-supported cooperative work. The fields cannot be defined by particular implementation techniques, or principles of information processing, since these apply to all computer systems. We believe that they are part of a new discipline that focuses on the interaction between the structure of systems and the structure of work, and we anticipate that the language action perspective will play a major role in its development.


My conversations with Fernando Flores have been the basis for my understanding, in the most fundamental ways. Without his teaching, my perspectives would have been far different. I wish to thank the participants in the working meetings on system development at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford for their valuable contributions to the evolution of this work. Jens Kaasbll and Kim Halskov Madsen were especially helpful in giving me access to and a better understanding of the work being done in the SYDPOL projects. Chauncey Bell, Bradley Hartfield, Franoise Herrmann, Mary Holstege, Judy Olson, and Liam Peyton gave insightful critiques of earlier drafts.

Appendix: Activities on a hospital ward

(adapted from Kaasboll, 1986, p. 3)

In a case study described by Kaasbll (1986), researchers in the Florence project of the Scandinavian research program on System Development and Profession Oriented Languages (SYDPOL) analyzed work on a ward of a Norwegian hospital, from what they call a systems perspective. They focused on the tasks associated with giving medications in a ward for children with respiratory problems. The Appendix paraphrases Kaasblls verbal description of some of the activities that were analyzed.

Each nurse has a special responsibility as the team nurse for a small group of patients.

On the day shift, one nurse (called the treating nurse) has the task of giving medicines. Her working day may be characterized roughly by the sequence: attend the report meeting; give medicines; record the medicines given; take care of children in kindergarten or the dining hall.

The report meeting takes place from 7:45 to 8 am. One nurse informs the other staff of the status, changes and activities of each patient during the previous day and night. She has heard a vocal report from the night shift, and she reads the Kardex while reporting. The Kardex contains diagnosis, planning and evaluation for each patient, and a form with fixed main patient information. It is supposed to be up to date. Other staff take notes on their program sheets.

Medicines are prescribed by the doctors on prescription forms in cures lasting several days or in daily doses. Cures are recorded on the main patient information form and on the medicine card.

Medicines are given in a treatment room between 8 and 9:30 am. Patients enter after having been examined by a doctor, carrying with them a scrap of paper on which the doctor has written todays dose and possible changes in cures. Prescriptions for medicines during the intervals between the regular medicine hours are noted down on a premedlist hanging on the wall in the treatment room.

Some simple lung function tests are also performed in the treatment room to monitor the effects of the medicines. Tests to be taken are written on the prescription form and on a scrap taped to the medicine card or on the program sheet if there are changes. The test results are recorded on special forms.

After having given medicines, the treating nurse brings her papers to the ward office. Together with each of the team nurses, one at a time, she examines the papers. All medicines given are now registered on the curve sheet. Changes in cures are recorded in the Kardex, and on the medicine card and eventually on the premedlist. In addition, all sheets are compared for the sake of control. The patients are processed one by one. The team nurse reads from her papers which medicines are to be given. The treating nurse answers by stating which are actually given, and the state of the patient. One day, when the load on the nurses was relatively low, this activity lasted from 9:30 am to 13:25 pm. During these 4 hours, at most 30 minutes were effective paper work. The rest was delays, either because some of the papers were used by others, or because one of the nurses was engaged in handling interruptions. Only a minor part of the 30 minutes was used for updating and comparing. The rest of the time was spent on small conversations, initiated by findings in the information they were handling. These included:

  • reporting to each other about the patients state and activities
  • deciding what were facts when inconsistencies were found
  • deciding changes in some medicines after small negotiations
  • reminding the treating nurse of a test that had been forgotten
  • investigating why a medicine was not delivered from the chemists
  • finding out why a patient had to take a specific test.


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Pragmatic process for email communication

OrchestratorMail defines a process, or responses based on the state and context for email communication.

There are unlimited variations to a response to an email communication, its a very personal preference, based on the past linguistic behavior, the culture and environment. However like in the case of emails initiated, if you look at the underline linguistic act being performed there a limited set of responses. OrchestratorMail took its clue from the Language Action Perspective, the work done in 80’s by Fernando Flores and Terry Winograd. Learn more about Language Action Perspective.

The popular adoption this is for a meeting invite you can accept it, decline it or make a counter offer.

Thus for a Request there are only a finite set of responses.

  • They can Accept it
  • They can Decline it
  • They can make a Counter Offer
  • They can ask for Clarification
  • They can Report that have already done it
  • They can Delegate it
  • Or they can say they will Respond Later

Learn more about the methodology and process for each conversation type.

Most emails initiated have a pattern

Through researching for common patterns of email communication we discovered that there was an underlying patterns to almost all email communications, independent of how the language was used.

We discovered that most emails that were initiated were:

  • Making a request - asking someone to do something
  • Make an offer or proposal - proposing or offering to do something for another
  • Share information - sharing information, or informing of them of something
  • Discuss a topic - opening a discussion, to flesh out a topic, or to create consensus
  • Ask a question - Asking questions
  • Write a note - writing notes

Learn more about Pragmatic process for email communication

Learn more about the methodology and process for each conversation type.

Help develop an Email Charter for Organizations, Inspired by Chris Anderson’s Email Charter

Create an Email Charter for Organizations.  Adapted from 10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral.

This is an adaptation of the Email Charter for people working in organizations. The original email charter link.


The context for email use in organizations, companies and corporations is different. Organizations have moved from an Industrial economy to a Collaborative economy.

The implication of a collaborative economy are:

  • We are always working with others to fulfill an outcome, initiative or a deliverable
  • Working in matrix organizations and working across lines of business
  • From one building, one location to remote workforce, or a global workforce

And organizations heavily rely on communication over email. The main reasons for the unmanageable growth of email as a platform for communication are:

  • email is completely ubiquitous
  • provides an asynchronous collaboration environment
  • serves as a recorder for the small agreements (ex I will send you the file by next week
  1. Like all things good, sometimes overdobe causes issues — Email Overload.

The impact of this in a corporate environment causes more issues.

  • Initiatives or outcomes not fulfilled in time, cost over runs, and major project delays, can happen if a few critical emails are missed in the overload
  • Spending hours to keep on top of it by organizing and flagging
  • Email was meant as a messaging system, there is no visibility into the agreements and tasks embedded in the email messages
  • Since there are no guidelines or structure for communication, every email you receive is subject to interpretation
  • In a global environment, meaning is based on culture and environment opens it up for more room for misinterpretation, which is all sorted through more emails

And yet organizations depends on email to operate. Imagine an unstructured messaging system which is responsible for the delivery of critical outcomes and initiatives!

10 Rules to Reverse the Email Spiral and their adaption for organizations

 1. Respect Recipients’ Time This is the fundamental rule. As the message sender, the onus is on YOU to minimize the time your email will take to process. Even if it means taking more time at your end before sending.

 Organization – Remains the same. One specific example of this is Re: Re: Re: - stop the chain forwarding. Think, put your comment in before forwarding.

2. Short or Slow is not Rude Let’s mutually agree to cut each other some slack. Given the email load we’re all facing, it’s OK if replies take a while coming and if they don’t give detailed responses to all your questions. No one wants to come over as brusque, so please don’t take it personally. We just want our lives back!

 Organization – Remains the same

 3. Celebrate Clarity Start with a subject line that clearly labels the topic, and maybe includes a status category [Info], [Action], [Time Sens] [Low Priority]. Use crisp, muddle-free sentences. If the email has to be longer than five sentences, make sure the first provides the basic reason for writing. Avoid strange fonts and colors.

Organization – Establish the intention of the conversation in the subject line like [Request], [Propose], [Info], etc, include Due by when date [DUE 07-15] and then the subject, don’t change it, as all related emails would showup together.

While responding back put in the first line your response in one word, like [Accept] or [Counter]. If it’s a counter change [DUE 07-20].

4. Quash Open-Ended Questions It is asking a lot to send someone an email with four long paragraphs of turgid text followed by “Thoughts?”. Even well-intended-but-open questions like “How can I help?” may not be that helpful. Email generosity requires simplifying, easy-to-answer questions. “Can I help best by a) calling b) visiting or c) staying right out of it?!”

 Organization – Keep the response in mind, while formulating the Question – Limit responses to [Answer], [DK (don’t know)] or [Delegate]

5. Slash Surplus cc’s cc’s are like mating bunnies. For every recipient you add, you are dramatically multiplying total response time. Not to be done lightly! When there are multiple recipients, please don’t default to ‘Reply All’. Maybe you only need to cc a couple of people on the original thread. Or none.

Organization – CC’s – Instead of copying all CC’s think of them as Observers – would they learn something from this interaction, or can their input change the course of action, or they needed to be included as they are your boss and you want to make sure that your decisions have their blessings.

CC’s or Observer – when you interact in a chain of email always include [Observer] – which would mean that you are making a suggestion, not necessarily taking over the conversation.

By the same rule, don’t put people in the TO: line, better is CC.

6. Tighten the Thread Some emails depend for their meaning on context. Which means it’s usually right to include the thread being responded to. But it’s rare that a thread should extend to more than 3 emails. Before sending, cut what’s not relevant. Or consider making a phone call instead.

Organization – Threads are key in organizations. The threads get murky, when you are tackling more than one conversation in an email. Think before creating an email, if during the chain the email would have to be split up.

7. Attack Attachments Don’t use graphics files as logos or signatures that appear as attachments. Time is wasted trying to see if there’s something to open. Even worse is sending text as an attachment when it could have been included in the body of the email.

Organization – Setup internal and external signatures. If there is an option of using an attachment server like Sharepoint use that to store the attachment. The IT people would love you for that, and it would also increase the number of messages that you can keep in your mailbox instead of archiving.

8. Give these Gifts: EOM NNTR If your email message can be expressed in half a dozen words, just put it in the subject line, followed by EOM (= End of Message). This saves the recipient having to actually open the message. Ending a note with “No need to respond” or NNTR, is a wonderful act of generosity. Many acronyms confuse as much as help, but these two are golden and deserve wide adoption.

Organization – I love EOM and NNTR – would also add to this list S&C (Satisfied & Close – thanks for sending me the doc and I am satisfied), T&C (Thanks & Close – I am exiting this chain of emails) and S&C (Sorry & Close – more like revoking an agreement, I have other pressing issues)

9. Cut Contentless Responses You don’t need to reply to every email, especially not those that are themselves clear responses. An email saying “Thanks for your note. I’m in.” does not need you to reply “Great.” That just cost someone another 30 seconds.

Organization – This is a universal rule.

 10. Disconnect! If we all agreed to spend less time doing email, we’d all get less email! Consider calendaring half-days at work where you can’t go online. Or a commitment to email-free weekends. Or an ‘auto-response’ that references this charter. And don’t forget to smell the roses.

 Organization – Love this




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