Hot on the heels of my previous post on knowledge management, I thought it would be interesting to take a more detailed look at Google Wave.  Of all the announcements in the social media/collaboration space that I’ve had chance to digest this year, Wave has the greatest resonance.

Here I’ll tell you why and hopefully it will encourage a debate from those who are better placed than me to voice an opinion…

If 2009 has been the year of the social media expert (often somebody
with no practical experience but a history of reposting stories, he
wrote cynically…), 2010 will be the year of social collaboration.

I
mean this in relation to business process and internal communications,
not the external facing application of social media. At the heart of
this trend lies the interactive technology required to foster
collaboration and enable rapid information storage, retrieval, indexing
and exchange. Google Wave is well placed to encourage this.

What is Wave?

If you want the official take, take a peek at Google’s own Wave preview, or else you can digest the Wikipedia entry. Positioned as a real-time communication tool, my take is that Wave is not actually yet fully defined (I doubt that even Google knows where it will go) and will evolve/adapt as the commercial application becomes clearer.

If I was pushed for a definition, for me it’s a powerful collaboration tool that enables disparate groups of people to connect, interact and exchange information in a dynamic way, where conversation is multi-directional and instant.

Wave is not IM or Live Chat

One of the throw away comments I’ve read is that Wave is basically a posh version of IM. Not true. IM may facilitate communication but it has inherent limitations. Message transfer is not instant, there is a lag as you wait for a message to be written.

This means conversation is staged, not fluid. IM is not multi-directional – the conversation is linear and you can’t play back specific sections when required, a key function of Wave. Perhaps the key difference is that in Wave you can have multiple mini-waves, or wavelets, enabling micro conversations to build around the principal conversation but without creating interference. IM can’t cope with this. Wave is what happens when IM gets bored and needs space to grow, and then some.

Under the hood: key functionality

Below is a snapshot of the core features of Wave:

  • Wave is a protocol. This enables other developers to build wave applications to enhance solution provision.
  • Open source. The evolution of this technology will be collaborative and community led and developers can build their own apps within waves.
  • Continuity. Users can open the Wave at any time, add comments and progress the discussion; this becomes iterative over time and the history is stored and easily accessible.
  • Real-time. Messages are transmitted character by character to mimic real life conversation (you don’t get a “John is typing….” command and then a download of everything); you can respond in real time to specific sections of a message.
  • Multi-directional. Participants can comment on conversation strands that they have not previously been involved in and playback previous sessions; this facilitates investigating and manipulating the entire history of the wave.
  • Private replies. You can specify recipients of messages if some content is sensitive and needs to be exclusive.
  • Embedding You can embed your wave on other websites and blogs, with wave content being displayed dynamically and in real-time.
  • Drag and drop file sharing. Goodbye attachments, hello drag & drop. Simply drag your file and drop it directly into the wave to give access to others.
  • Wave interaction. You can take content, including images, from one wave and drop them into a new wave, making content sharing quick and easy.
  • Auto-correction. Google Wave has inbuilt language monitoring to auto-correct things like spelling mistakes.
  • Mobile compatibility. Waves can be accessed and edited from devices like Android and iPhone.
  • Multi-language. Collaborative editing is supported via the interface.
  • Social media compatibility. Social gadgets can sit within waves to support networking and sharing.
Google Wave mobile compatibility

This is a top level summary – there are many other available features and more in the pipeline so Wave is, if you pardon the pun, fluid and in constant evolution. We’re at the start of unearthing its potential and that for me is exciting.

Wave in action:  driving global action around the Copenhagen Summit

Wave is not just a concept, it has already been applied. Led by Dave Crane, Debatewise used Wave to engage with children across the world to discuss the impact of climate change, centred on the Copenhagen Summit. The goal of the Wave was to allow children to talk to each other, to learn and exchange views and have a voice on a subject that will affect their future.

Providing a debating mechanism to support discussion at a global level, Google Wave was the ideal platform for collaboration.

The first phase in 2009 was so successful that Dave has planned phase 2 for January 2010. I spoke to Dave and asked him for his take on the value of Wave in what Debatewise is trying to achieve:

“The second phase of our project starts on the 18th January and will see our panel organised into countries or regions and asked to debate how decisions made in Copenhagen will impact on them. It is not entirely unsurprising that 120 world leaders couldn’t reach an agreement in Copenhagen. We are asking countries to ignore centuries of mutual mistrust and to lay aside their own self-interest to make a deal.

We are going to have to work together in ways we have never done before to manage the impact of climate change. I believe tools such as Google Wave, mechanisms like debate and sites like Debatewise have an important role to play in helping to facilitate this process.

If you’d like to get involved in this in any way, by creating code for the open-source repository, finding panel members or adding expert views please get in touch. We’d love to have your help.”

I love this example. New technology is being used to encourage global and local debate and encourage people to take action.

Key benefits of Waving

  • Ability to join in the discussion whenever you want – unlike a web conference, you can rejoin the wave at anytime and not lose the history of the discussion.
  • Can help build a consensus as waves are built on collaboration – essential to creating a movement and action.
  • Indecision is the mother of inaction – need to remove indecision and Wave can help this by giving people a forum for debate and information exchange.
  • Encourage participation globally – don’t need to go to a meeting, you can do it from home unconstrained by time like you are with web conferences.
  • Societal benefit – getting people together to share knowledge and ideas, strengthening communication skills.
  • Waves are flexible – you can cater for the needs of local and global teams within one Wave using the rich functionality.

New skills and practises will be needed to manage Waves

As with any new plaything, there is an adjustment required to get people using Wave effectively to communicate. Here are some of the things to look out for:

  • Keep your Wave clean. People can stray from purpose/goals and you need to be able to keep people on-topic and content relevant.
  • Guide the conversation, not control it. The personality behind the wave is important.
  • Learn how and when to edit the conversation. You can go back and change what you’ve written but do so sparingly to avoid disrupting the flow and retrieval.
  • Move towards greater collaboration, not individual domination.
  • Real time typing can be a threat. People worry about the impact of errors; there is a cultural shift in embracing this as real-time communication.
  • Participants need to be educated on the etiquette of waving. Understanding that conversations are as imperfect as conversations when speaking face-to-face.
  • Waving is not designed for one to one communication. This is for one-to-many and many-to-many.
  • Conversation flow can be personalised. Allow people to have a voice.
  • How do you make the right decision for the benefit of the wave? When do you leave? When do you edit? When do you need a summary? Who does this?

Google Wave wavelet view

Commercial applications

Beyond the inevitable excitement that a major Google announcement brings, I can see genuine commercial potential for Wave:

  • Support project management of projects that involve geographically remote teams.
  • Increase the immediacy of communication.
  • Reduce cost of collaboration.
  • Increase the ease of communication in a multi-agency environment.
  • Increase problems solving capabilities (reducing time & effort).
  • Enhance knowledge sharing.
  • Foster greater interaction between stakeholder groups.
  • Enable colleagues to influence meetings remotely via updating content and asking questions live in the wave.
  • Help manage the complexity of working across multiple time zones.

Will Wave replace everything you’ve known before? I very much doubt it. However, I think it can enhance your current toolset for knowledge management and internal communication to improve efficiency and reduce the cost of delivery. 

Based on my own work experience, Wave would be ideal for new e-commerce builds where multiple dev teams are involved; the group can be managed via a core project wavelet and then topic specific wavelets can break out to facilitate the different project elements.

You don’t need to distract people with irrelevant information but you do need a means of controlling multiple work and conversation strands in an environment that provides excellent information retrieval and review.

Further reading….

I highly recommend sitting back, cracking out the popcorn and working your way through the developer preview video from Google I/O. It’s long (1hr 20mins) and there is a little bit of industry love-in, but it gives you a great visual intro.

If you want to go further into the debate, there are a few blogs and discussion groups you can get stuck into:

  1. Detailed overview of terminology and technology from Mashable.com
  2. Google Wave API for developers
  3. Google Wave Federation Protocol
  4. Google Wave developer blog

Happy reading and please drop by with your views on Google Wave and the future or collaboration/knowledge management…