There only seems to be one point of consensus regarding Google Wave at the moment, which is: it’s different! The reason is that it’s supposed to be, but while I understand the logic for its development, it’s hard to rate it when your mind is struggling to relate it to what you already know. One blogger wrote: ‘I changed my definition of Google Wave three times in thirty minutes’ and he was at a Googleplex being given a personal demonstration! Google’s positioning is: ‘what would email look like if we set out to invent it today?’ Incidentally, the name ‘Wave’ is supposed to refer to people communicating with each other and creating a wave travelling around a community.
In other places I’ve seen the headline ‘Google threatens Microsoft SharePoint with cloud collaboration’ which suggests Wave is ‘just another’ ‘online’ collaboration package. I’ve also seen statements suggesting it is ‘Twitter on steroids’. All of these comments relate to an old way of product comparison, based around features and functions. Pushing aside my preconceptions, my starting point is somewhat different. From my perspective, Wave relates to changing working practices and the need for tools to support new ways of working which in turn are being driven by new trading conditions. Of course there is also a personal lifestyle scenario to it; hence the link to Twitter, but this is a business blog so I will stay with the business use scenario.

Let’s start by reminding ourselves what email was introduced to do. Email existed way back before the PC and the IT era and in those days it was part of a package of goodies called ‘office automation’ running on a mini computer. It was strictly an internal replacement for the good old-fashioned paper memo that was passed between separated offices or departments as a formalised communication to be read and carefully filed away. Paradoxically, the norm was to print out the email (having benefited from the new low cost, high speed delivery method) and handle it by dictating a reply to your secretary to type up and send. The working structure was hierarchal and there was just no way, or even no need, to support anyone working flexibly. Rigidity of organisation and procedure in a stable world equalled a successful business.
What the networked PC brought about was a revolution to this working environment – starting with the tearing down of walls between departments, in favour of optimising the end-to-end process across the enterprise. One of the aspects to make this work – and still further reduce cost flexibility in working practice – was matrix working. If you think about it, you will realise that there’s no way you could make such a flexible work arrangement without the support of email. In fact, you can and should argue that implementing email is a necessity for a matrix organisational model. However, even with matrix working, there is enough structure and stability for the various members of an enterprise to know to what, when and with whom they should be communicating (especially as in the beginning it’s still likely to have only been an internal environment). In fact, the norm was a point-to-point communication, involving just the sender and the receiver – free of all the copies that have become all too familiar.
Email was and is a great mechanism for supporting the administration of standard business processes and procedures. From it, people have defined roles and can therefore have a directory with this information to assist further in making the person, role and responsibility explicit. All of this assumes a great deal of stability in the organisation and its tasks, with a limited need for some supplementary clarification between participants.
Fast forward to today with the internet, then look at email in its new and uncomfortable role of connecting to other people in different organisations. As the web of personnel gets more and more complex, structure and organisation become much more fluid and changeable. The tremendous change in dynamics destroys the ability to have a structure and a meaningful directory. It’s way beyond the capabilities of email and business models based around Enterprise 2.0, (and for that I take the most popular definition meaning a dynamic and reactive online business using Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing). Email just cannot cope and we are all overwhelmed by the copied emails that are sent around the enterprise in the hope of finding just one recipient who might know the answer!
What we need is a way to combine relevant elements such as who is involved in what areas, with what the current event is. The objective being to get the right people with the right knowledge, experience or interest, to participate in the currently required task. This is not the same job as email sets out to perform. The metaphor I like to use compares this difference to the train for moving a large number of people over a set route at set times, versus taxis offering freedom for individuals to go where they need to go when they need to go, singularly or in small groups. I think we can go a little further into this to gain a further insight by trying to bring to the people issue of Web 2.0 into the same understanding we have seen in Web 1.0.
In Web 1.0 we learnt to understand the global nature of the content available to us on web sites and how to use search engines for ‘categorisation’. We also knew that we needed RSS to track the frequently changing information that was important to us. If we look at Web 2.0, we can see something similar. Communities provide the categorisation aspect and help us find the group of people sharing interest in the topic; but at the same time, if someone is uniquely important to us then good quality micro blogging is the equivalent of RSS. The challenge is that we usually need the people and the content to be connected plus the ability to have a recognisable trail of activity etc.
I think that’s the challenge that Wave sets out to address. But in so doing, it must address all of the pieces and so functionally it can be compared to everything else, whether that’s Twitter on steroids, a challenger to SharePoint and collaboration tools or lastly a new email system. For me, the challenge is to concentrate on how people and content want and need to interact across the entire internet, both for business and social reasons, then evaluate what Google Wave brings to this scenario. At the enterprise level that brings about the question of how we are organised to work effectively in today’s rapidly changing and dynamic environments. One thing is for sure and that’s Wave is worth studying as it gets refined over the next year, as it might just turn out to be a key capability for support new fluid business models.