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Process Geekiness: The Role of Face-to-Face Collaboration in Thriving Tech Communities

by Kaliya Hamlin

Kaliya Hamlin , a.k.a. Identity Woman, is an expert in the ecology of companies and organizations working with the open XRI/XDI standards and the overall next-generation identity space.

I am a process geek. Helping to catalyze the community working on the identity layer of the Web has been my job and my obsession for the past three and a half years. Some history: it happened by accident in 2000 that I found the Planetwork community. They had been thinking about how civil society groups could work better together to address issues they cared about, such as climate change or species extinction, by using the power of the Internet.

It turns out that weaving a web of organizations and groups together means linking individual people together. With this in mind, they articulated a vision for use-centric identity between 2001 and 2002 in the Link Tank meetings and then published the Augmented Social Network: Building Identity and Trust into the Next Generation Internet in 2003.

I read this paper and got it instantly, immediately becoming an evangelist for the vision. I was hired as a technical and non-technical evangelist for one of the early organizations in this space, Identity Commons(1).

During this time, I also tried my hand at getting some social networking tools built on with open source code (Drupal). But after $35,000 and two prototypes, I put the project down both to let the market develop and to wait for the open source platform to become more usable. As the owner of a small business (rather then a coder), it was very difficult for me to feel part of the community and to get understanding of my potential clients and their users' needs by the community around the code.

One of the biggest challenges going forward for Free and Open Source application projects is how to be inclusive of the whole range of participants (see Figure 1) who have a stake in the code from core developers all the way to the end user community. A new culture is needed for truly inclusive projects that are more then just "coders" who are "coding" for their own needs.

The range of participants in OS has expanded greatly.
Figure 1. The range of participants in OS has expanded greatly.

I hope that there can be a diversification of who is perceived as "in" Open Source communities and the methods of engagement—so that the full range of constituents participating with a code base can be included. Skillful adoption and use of effective face-to-face process is a good start to improving this situation. These issues and skills are "soft;" they are about communication and inclusion, more "yin" or feminine, but critical to innovation.

The Evolution of the Internet Identity Space

The Internet Identity space has taken form over the last three years, and I have had the good fortune of playing a leading role. Amazing things are happening because of the Internet Identity Workshop that I co-produce with Phil Windley and Doc Searls. It is the primary gathering of Identity Commons. We have over a dozen working groups focused on different technical, social and legal issues around the identity layer. Our fifth two-and-a-half day event using Open Space is coming up December 3-5, 2007 in Mountain View. You may have heard of OpenID but that is just the tip of the iceberg of new identity tools and standards.

In cooperation with others, such as Eugene Kim of Blue Oxen Associates, we helped nurture a culture of collaboration in the identity community that in hindsight have been pivotal, both for speed of innovation and for the diffusion of open standards. Learning and applying these successful face-to-face process technologies are my main work and lasting contribution to the tech world. Like I said, I am a process geek.

The catalytic community building role that I (and others) play can sometimes go unseen and can therefore be under-(and un-)valued. These skills and techniques are essential to building thriving, collaborating, and inclusive communities. Good community leaders often have these skills "naturally" (that is why they have the social capital to lead communities), but they are also learnable skills. I think that for open source and open standards communities to reach their full potential they need more process awareness and literacy of such simple things as:

  • how to open and close a meeting inclusively
  • how to craft a doable agenda and move through it
  • how to mix it up so that events are social and technical

Creating a culture of allies that welcomes new people is also something I hope can be more consciously developed. For example, if a new woman shows up at your Linux users group out of the blue, what would you—individually and collectively—do to increase the chances that she will return (and even bring more folks)?

For larger events (up to 2,000 people) that are innovating, using Open Space Technology (OST) is a great way to get the agenda to be created the day the event happens in an inclusive way that avoids the 300 alpha male geeks running-at-the-wall-with-sharpies method of creating an unconference agenda. OST creates a container for everyone to bring forth their ideas for sessions. It creates a quality of being with each other together. All voices can be heard—it is inclusive of the alphas and of the shyest among the group.

My hope is that more communities can step out of the default ways of meeting with "highly pre-scripted agendas" and paper presentations that had to be submitted 6-9 months before the event. If we can take full advantage of the limited opportunities for face-to-face interactions by adopting more effective collaborative processes, such as OST, we can actually manage to get to the heart of the "real" issues blocking the resolutions of problems in the network.

Why does this "emotional" stuff matter? I can hear you saying, "It all sounds so mushy." Surprisingly, technical road blocks are not so much at the heart of the major problems that affect the health of the network as are Economic Ownership and Trust (EOT) issues. The Principle Investigator of the Cooperative Association for Internet Analysis (CAIDA) KC Claffy recently published a list of 16 persistently unsolved network problems.

If you look at those, you'll see that such issues can't be solved by protocol alone; they must be solved in a web of human relationships and high quality process that fosters a culture of trust through growing mutual understanding, and shared meaning. If these issues are not addressed successfully and rapidly, I am fearful that we will lose the open network—and perhaps one of the most amazing transformative forces for good on the planet. I encourage you to expand your process horizons and make the most of your face-time. I have published a lot of information about the different techniques that I use (available on http://unconference.net) and Aspiration Tech has a wiki that documents the facilitation processes they use at tech convening. Eugene Kim of Blue Oxen Associates is beginning workshops on collaboration this Fall. If you work in tech communities doing process work, you should know there is a nascent network forming of people who lead process in tech communities (contact me to learn more). I hope one of the outcomes of this network will be training and resources for tech folks who would like to expand their process skill repertoire.

I hope you will think about collaborative processes as being a vital part of the mix of skills that can be learned and valued in thriving technical communities and as the overall tech infrastructure that can serve humanity.

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