Organizations require coordinated action, and coordinating action requires coming to some common understandings about several things, such as the primary goals of the organization, the kind of workplace the participants would favor, or the type of market they think they are trying to reach. How do we manage to come to enough common understanding that we can sustain successful organizations? How do we get the engineers to talk to the accountants or the marketing people, and not just talk to them, but understand them? Especially in a knowledge economy, the coordination can require complex challenges for understanding, where teams composed of radically diverse individuals find they need to try to understand one another in order to do their work.
Understanding can take some hard work. It can, under any circumstances, take a dedicated commitment to genuine listening on the part of the participants. Our experience at George Mason University in the late 1990s, which includes running several courses based on these tools, persuades us that hypertext and groupware tools are now available that can contribute in some important ways to our ability to understand one another.
Human beings have developed some basic technologies for reaching understanding, over the years. We talk with one another, in various kinds of verbal situations, from formal meetings or conferences, to business lunches, to one-on-one dialogues. We write things down in memos or working documents of various kinds, and sometimes compose responses in writing. Let’s call these basic technologies Talk and Writing. Talk in many contexts has some real advantages in its ability to get very fine-grained in the interactions, where specific sentences or phrases can be exchanged, while writing has its advantages in the way it lets us fix some issues and focus our thinking on specific wordings. But writing has usually meant that we needed to get the back-and-forth on a broader scale, for example in the exchange of articles, responses, and rejoinders in published journals. As one hypertext developer put it, talk allows us to have editing “after publication” in the sense that in the back-and-forth of the dialogue we can grope for revisions of our words to make them do more of what we want from them. Writing, on the other hand, lets us have editing “before publication.” We get to try to craft our words before we let them out in public.
It is interesting to what extent we deploy both of these primary technologies together. When we write items on a whiteboard during a meeting or hand out an agenda, we are using the dialogical tools of talk and writing together. By “textualizing” the words, by fixing them into a definite form, the dialogue partners can orient one another to a common set of concerns, thereby improving the verbal process. Having a few key things “written down” aids in our ability to focus the verbal conversation, and to make progress in our efforts to understand one another. Writing and talk complement one another, each mode of expression/reception offering some advantages the other lacks. As the scholar Walter Ong notes, the development of writing did not displace the communicative function of talk but on the contrary, it accelerated it. It added so significantly to our expressive possibilities that it enriched our talk beyond what could have been imagined.
Collaborative technologies are able to support a different kind of dialogue than either talk or traditional non-electronic writing have been able to support. The software product known as Folio Views, for example, supports a variety of navigation, annotation, and tagging markup tools, combined with some excellent searching capabilities. A reader of an electronic text can leave traces of his or her reading onto the text, and these traces can in turn be marked up in a subsequent reading. In this way a text can accrue layers of commentary and other markings, which permit the participants to understand one another through their mutual reactions to the text and to one another.
For example, one can set up a collective reading of a common text, a core document that the organization feels contains relatively sharp formulations of the issues it needs to get a grip on. One then can let a specific community loose on this text, applying a variety of hypertext markup tools to it. These markups allow the various readers to engage with the text, to ask questions of it, to categorize issues, to write challenges in the margins, to appropriate the text, making it one’s own. Done together in an environment where the text can be shared among a variety of different active readers, we have seen this lead to some fascinating emergent phenomena. The same kind of accelerating effect we get from using written-down text in verbal meetings, seems to be operating here, only now it is not so much bringing the text in to support the talk, but rather bringing the fine grained back-and-forth dynamic of “talk” into the text. While in the meeting supported by a handout or an overhead, reference to a specific text can help the verbal dialogue stay focussed, the dialogue that layers hypertext markups onto a text can textualize the various reactions to the text by the readers and link them to the core text.
The experimentation with hypertext dialogue that the Program on Social & Organizational Learning at George Mason University has been engaged in over the past several years is very suggestive of the possibilities that may be developed here.