Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Collaboration and Context

In responding to my latest post on Context-Aware Services, Paul Miller reiterates the concept of Collaborative Context-Aware Services, so let me expand on the collaborative aspects.

I'm going to stick with the library example, but I think these concepts have a lot of relevance for many other kinds of service organization.

One of the most important aspect of context is purpose. In the case of a library, what is the reader's purpose for browsing, borrowing and reading a particular book at a particular time? Is this purpose entirely private to the individual reader, or does it emerge from some semi-public activity?

In the case of a university library, the presumption is that most library use is somehow related to the broader purposes and activities of the university - teaching and research. When a student borrows a book, there is probably a tutor or lecturer in the background providing seminar assignments and/or reading lists. There is generally some implicit collaboration, but this collaboration may not be visible to the library.

Let's suppose that in the first week of February, sixty students suddenly want to read Kant. The university library possesses twenty copies of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, so most of the students will have to wait or share. By the end of February, nobody wants to read Kant any more, and the twenty copies sit idle on the shelf until the same time the following year.

In a rational organization, the library would politely suggest to the philosophy lecturers that the teaching might possibly be reorganized, so that scarce library resources might be used more efficiently. Is it really necessary for all the students to read all the books in the same order? But universities are not rational organizations, and such a suggestion would probably be regarded as an outrageous invasion of academic independence.

We should not expect the library to dictate or constrain how philosophy should be taught to the undergraduates. But this is exactly what happens if there is a shortage of copies of Kant's Critique, since this shortage will have an inevitable effect on the learning outcomes of some of the students. However, if it is possible to negotiate an appropriate collaboration between the library and the teaching staff, then it may be possible to improve the learning outcomes of each student, as well as improving the economics of the library operation.

Since I don't wish to say anything unkind about the likelihood of effective collaboration in a university setting, let me talk about a town library instead. Even if we assume that most fiction is borrowed for the purposes of private enjoyment, a library generally contains large quantities of non-fiction material, which may be borrowed in some practical collaborative context.

Suppose thirty adult residents of Smartchester go into the Smartchester library and ask for elementary Ukranian phrase books. Would it not be reasonable for the Smartchester librarian to investigate the context in which so many people want to learn Ukranian at the same time? Are there perhaps some civic exchange visits planned for later in the year? Is a local travel agent offering a special deal, or is there an enterpreneur selling Ukranian property? How many of the people asking for Ukranian already speak Polish or Russian? Does it make sense for the library to acquire a large quantity of Ukranian phrase books, or is there a better way of satisfying the temporary demand (perhaps jointly with some other organization)?

In my previous post, I said I don't want libraries to sell nappies (or diapers). But I might be happy for the library to help organize language courses, because this seems a reasonable extension of the library's existing services.

From an analytical point of view, the problem starts with the false idea that an organization is a stand-alone enterprise, that can be described by a free-standing enterprise model. But a free-standing enterprise model of a library doesn't make complete sense, because there is no source of purpose or demand. These elements only come into the picture when we draw enterprise models that show the collaborative context. The crucial question for the service-oriented library is then the interoperability between the library, its users, and other organizations.

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