Wednesday, November 10, 2010

From Weak Links to Better Answers

Some of the implicit questions driving me for the last couple years in the work I did for the Agile Skills Project were: how do we know who to trust, who has good advice, and who should we hire? The answer to these questions have a lot of value, as proven by the market demand for CSMs and other tech certificates, as well as for the hefty price recruiters get for matchmaking services. Yet when these matches depend on keywords in a resume, or on a recruiter's personal network, we hit one of two limits: keywords don't convey trust, and humans have a neurological limit of about 150 trusting relationships. So how do we broaden our searches for advice and/or recruits beyond 150 people? It's easy for clear-cut, objective answers--we can depend on the wisdom of crowds using things like Google's page rank algorithm, which represents the crowd's endorsement for certain advice. For more subjective questions, though, it is much more complicated.

Yesterday I read about weak links / weak ties in Enterprise 2.0 by Andrew McAfee--it reminds me of the fabric Peter Block identifies as social capital--and apparently the research about exploiting our personal networks was published relatively recently, in 2004 or 2005. McAfee suggests that the next way we'll be able to benefit from platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, and FaceBook will be in referring our colleagues to our FAQ pages. This strikes me as really powerful for objective questions, but misguided for subjective questions. It's not the answers that my network of friends are useful for--it's the diversity of approaches they offer that is important. Since it's a subjective question, it is the analysis of factors, values or forces that will help guide me. I don't know of any scalable resource that connects people for subjective questions in this way. Do you?

There are technologies that connect people by the questions they ask--take the Stack Exchange engine for example. Yet they specifically close subjective discussions:

...questions that are not answerable — discussions, debates, opinions — should be closed as subjective. It seems simple enough: Fact good; opinion and discussion bad. But why?
Most forums and chat rooms have a scale problem. As in, they don’t. The more people that join the discussion, the more noise each of those connections bring. So the forums get progressively noisier and noisier, and suddenly one day … you stop learning.
This seems to leave a gap.  Subjective questions often produce conflicting advice on list serves. How do we sort through the answers? I don't see any of these social media platforms helping me decide who to trust. What if we built a community of questions and analyses--no answers permitted, just a catalog of the values, forces, etc. that go into making a decision. Anyone want to help me out? The first place I might begin is at Stack Exchange--but we'll need about 250 committed users to go live. Let's work out some of the details first--post your questions/comments here. One thing I will have to work out near the end is the name--should it be DevIntent, Philly Tech Points, Agile Welcoming Circle, or something else?

Would you such a site useful? Would it help you answer your questions? Would you participate in it?


Jeff Hoover said...

Andre, I agree about the noise level in traditional forums. And I like your idea of a peer-rated community for discussing "... the values, forces, etc. that go into making a decision..."

I'm hesitant to dive into a discussion of implementation before the whole concept is fleshed out, but is it possible that Stack Exchange is a poor match for this idea?

You said you want "...questions and analyses--no answers permitted..." but it seems to me that the concept of an "accepted answer" is integral to the Stack Exchange platform. Only one accepted answer is permitted, and accepted answers are built into the system's "economics" - an accepted answer earns 15 points for the author plus 2 points for the acceptor, whereas an upvote only earns 10 points for the author and none for the acceptor.

I agree with what I think you are saying implicitly, namely that: for this to succeed we may need some nearly turn-key, free solution. There is a question about Stack Exchange alternatives on
At first glance, OSQA - The Open Source Q&A System seems promising.

D. André Dhondt said...

Jeff--prudent advice--let's not jump into a solution too early. I do think there may be one good decomposition of a problem... and later a better decomposition. I've taken a quick look at OSQA and like what I see. I'll think about it.