Groups At Work

Photo: Gogo colour wheel by on Flickr

One of the great features the internet gives us is the ability to create and participate in custom-tailored groups. Groups are programmed yet unique, standard yet empowering, and  virtual yet oh-so real. The functionality of groups allow us to share info, plan trips, provide feedback, and collaborate to make things happen in the real world.

We can offer up news, media, and commentary while designing action items for rallying around the issues that matter to us. Groups are long-tail and egalitarian – everyone has a voice and similar to the early days of chat rooms, there’s usually something for everyone.

The groups you connect to may be public like niche interest groups on Facebook, or they may be private like an intranet you use for work. Maybe you’re working from a collaborative project management site like At Task or one of the dozens of others out there.

Groups for work make it easy to get things done from pretty much anywhere with an internet connection. It frees and empowers the worker to incorporate a results-oriented philosophy, placing an emphasis on getting things done (known by devotees of the method as GTD). And as our tools improve, the way we work is changing. A smarter, more efficient method of time management has emerged that allows us to become tactical with our time by “working smarter, not harder.”

In a culture that values working ourselves to the bone, working less and getting more done seems impossible to do at first glance. Yet innovation continues to forge forward, allowing workers to increase their impact by working on several projects at a time. We do this by taking advantage of the tools – like groups – technology provides.

Virtual docs, cloud storage, online groups: tools for work allow us to accomplish more outside of the structured work environment. And when this happens, we begin to lean more heavily on the online world to Connect.

While the days of so-called water cooler conversation may be (thankfully) over, the concept has not entirely disappeared. It is possible to bring a sense of digital community to the physical world, and vice versa.

Digital communities, however long-tail they may be, heavily influence public discourse. The headlines we see, the videos we share, and the commentary voted as being Most Popular by the community becomes fodder for conversation in real life.

The literal meaning of a public sphere as defined by Jürgen Habermas is long gone.  Urban areas, particularly in the midwest, have become decentralized and in rural areas Main Street has been replaced by Costco, Starbucks, and vast outdoor suburban malls.

The 00’s gave organizations like Fox News an opportunity to direct news flow and selectively pump issues into the minds of Americans. This method of one-way communication creates biased and filtered news coverage, ultimately skewing our ways of analyzing news and creating awareness based on private agenda.

Now that the internet has gone social, we can (almost too easily) learn many opinions from a wide variety of sources. We can visit islands in a sea of information, staying as long as we’d like or skirting away for something else, ultimately designing our own narrative through information intake.

Through this sharing and individualized discovery it becomes easier than ever to connect with the issues that matter to us. We can bring our personal thoughts from around the dinner table online for broad discussion.

This creates a new kind of public discourse – it’s decentralized yet niche-specific. Most importantly, it’s free, public, and available to everyone.

The Great Internet Divide: Should all groups be made public?

Groups for work are usually closed off to the public. When it comes to other kinds of groups, sometimes there’s a requirement necessary to join (like for members who pay dues, or alumni from another group like a school or workplace).

In the interest of public policy and accessibility, on one hand the answer is a resounding YES – all groups should be made public. Information should be free and widely available to everyone. But in the interest of productivity and personal privacy, there’s a very strong argument for why they shouldn’t be.

Making a group public could deter to it’s overall goals by letting in those with a different approach or agenda (read: spam). When there’s work to do, making the nuances of all that stuff public isn’t necessary.

At the end-of-life cycle of a project, a group could collectively decide how to release their documentation. This provides transparency and accountability while encouraging further connection and credibility between the organization and it’s intended audience.

So, should all of our work emails should be made public? With the exception of some government officials, not necessarily. In the post-production phase of a project, releasing the source code or documentation files could be helpful. Google is all about open-source and it allows developers to better their products for you and me. It’s not a bad thing.

Workflow is slowly moving towards a cloud-based approach where we don’t need to have files with us at all times. Major corporations will continue to keep their work offline, and will take high-security measures to protect their documents there. It’ll be interesting to see what gets hacked as we slowly move to the cloud, and what we learn about the targeted organizations as a result. It’s not an improbability – just look at what happened to Sony.  The cloud is unavoidable, and working openly is just another reason to embrace transparency, take accountability, and do good in the workplace.

On a personal level, when group information is made public it may reveal slightly unsavory information about an individual to the other niche groups he or she is part of.

Facebook is an interesting mash-up of friends from all circles combined in a singular place. For example, my mom, sister, and cousins are on the site. I’m part of a college alumni group, a professional networking group, a group for work, and a group for DJ’s. What happens when one group posts something iffy and it becomes socially-pollinated in my feed?

Similar to how a college student wouldn’t want the proud photos of last night’s perfect keg stand to surface on a job site, we prefer to keep our spheres separate from time to time.

Most recently was the launch of Google+, allowing users to connect privately with groups of their own creation. Key features include virtual hangouts, huddles, and user-generated circles to share stuff with the right people (Saturday night friends, family, boss).  Currently, the service isn’t available for businesses yet.

Internet Groups and Class Divide

It’s important to distance ourselves from the idea of allowing groups of people to technologically evolve over others, particularly within this decade when things are moving at such a rapid pace.

Can privitazation of groups lead to rifts in class structure? Sure. Some folks become empowered while others do not. This is a hot-button issue that applies to everything from internet access to tiered subscription models in digital news.

And unfortunately, it’s nothing new. It’s simply another reason why we as citizens need to keep an eye on legislation in issues like online access, privacy, and accountability. We need to encourage efforts to allow anyone to learn — and for everyone to have access.

Group Accountability

Niche groups contain enormous sociological value, and the critical part is in how we use them.

It’s hard to argue that since the beginning of the internet, groups have helped us to discover and even rally around issues we find of interest. They make it easy to connect with folks in real life who share similar interests.

For better or worse, groups help us collectively to build upon ideas and possibly even get things done in the real world. And when we find each other online and rally together in real life, the possibilities are endless.

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