Advanced Networking or Sustainable Fragmentation

By Pieter A. Parmentier
March 2004

The Author is the Chairman of the ENF Foundation in Diepenveen, the Netherlands. ENF builds nonprofit networks and helps organisations/companies to improve their networking. ENF Foundation seeks to decrease the sustainable fragmentation of worldwide efforts through the sharing of knowledge.

Is there anything wrong with the way people have been networking for ages?
No, of course not (that is why it lasted).

Some 2200 years ago Aristarchus, Hipparchus and Ptolemy went to live and work in Alexandria to profit from each others wisdom. These astronomers inspired each other to find out that the earth circles the sun and that the solar year is 365 days, five hours and 55 minutes; which is almost right.
Nowadays we use the same principle most of the time, going to conferences and other networking events and talking to interesting fellow craftsmen.

This way of networking has expanded enormously since flying has come within the reach of millions (more than only for Icarus).
Another great leap was taken of course with the invention of the telephone and the last one when the use of the internet became common.
In Europe the internet is better used than on any other continent, but it is still used mainly for e-mailing. And that is a pity.
Most are still in the first stage while there are considerable improvements to be made; not instead of the conventional way of networking but in addition to it.

Knowledge (inter)networks

Conferences are important: to meet other experts, to see other views, to leave your own circle for a while, to overlap with other networks, etc.
But conferences (or your "card-tray") are not very efficient in the way of finding exactly the expert(ise) you need. ¹
You can only shake hands with a hundred people or so and have discussions with ten or twenty. With just a few, whom you probably knew already, you will have an in depth talk and that is the result of two or three days.
Would it not be an improvement (or at least more efficient) if you could find another expert in your computer in one minute: to ask a question, start a project together, write an article with, etc.

Advanced networking

Advanced networking, ² using state-of-the-art internet technology, makes things considerable easier.
We should especially stop doing things we are not particularly fond of. Like searching for hours in lists or making lots of phone calls to find out who is the person we need and that he/she is away.
What we need, is finding exactly the right person (or persons, or projects, or institutes, or literature) within seconds.
And if we participate in such a network we do not want to fill out large forms about our expertise.

Sustainable fragmentation

In most fields of knowledge the number of networks has increased enormously, it is probably not different in your own field. This shows that many people around the globe are involved and that is great.
The other side of this medal is the severe fragmentation which leads to an enormous waste of our planets intellectual resources.
For most experts in your knowledge area the transparency is gone. "Who is doing what" is a question you can hear in any organisation, let alone in a loose collection of knowledge networks or a new network.

One reason for this fragmentation is that we just do not know what others are doing. Another reason is that cooperation always means giving up some of our independence.
And of course the language problem has not greatly decreased since the tower was built in Babel.

Advanced networking does not solve these problems but it certainly helps to decrease the fragmentation of efforts.

Setting up an advanced network

Using the so-called fingerprinting technology (see below) all relevant information available in an existing network can be searched.
All participants can be found on the basis of their profiles which, in a pilot project, could be based on one or two articles per person. While adding more articles or other documents your personal fingerprint is enriched.
This is the first step and the advantages will be immediately apparent to all participants.

Serendipity

Networks using the same method are easily connected and this leads to something you might call forced serendipity. ³
As the fingerprints are stored in a central database and the matching of questions and answers is done on the basis of similarity of sets of concepts, the "hit" might come from a totally unexpected direction or source!

Practice

In a network of 76 universities the participants send in articles, or other documents, which are added to their expertise profile. Everyone in the network is able to find that person, just by asking a question (pasting a text).
The same profile is used to send someone, or a group of people, information that is only relevant for those people. Finding expertise should not be harder than that.

Different applications

It takes a long time before even splendid ideas are implemented. That is because, as you know, in most organisations hardly anyone knows what everyone is doing. Or, as one CEO sighed: "if we only knew what we know!".

Just making a fingerprint of (the profiles of) all employees does not solve everything but it certainly helps.
Innovation factory is taking this a step further. Fingerprinting not only all experts in your organisation but also all patents, innovation proposals, relevant articles, etc. will increase efficiency. Within five minutes you can find out if your idea is worthwhile and where to go with it.

Most helpdesks are unable to cope with the flood of requests for information and would be much more effective if all the standard questions could be answered adequately by their servers. When all the answers that have been given before and all the questions are fingerprinted, most clients will find the right answer on top of a short list and be satisfied.
Would you like e-mails to go to the only person it concerns or receive new articles which are relevant for you?
It is not hard to find other uses.

Fingerprinting

The technology

Fingerprints are extremely small (max. 400 bytes) but unique representations of documents, competence sheets, project descriptions, etc. And anything that you have written or that describes your competence will become part of your personal fingerprint. Organisations are thus represented through the sum of the personal fingerprints of their employees.
If you are searching in the central fingerprint-database, your question is translated into a fingerprint and matched (in milliseconds). The technology is not ploughing through buckets full of data but only through the fingerprints and they will lead you to the source, which could be the owner of the information.

Thesaurus

The fingerprinting or indexing process makes use of a structure of professional terminology of a particular field, essentially a thesaurus.
The Unified Medical Language System is such a thesaurus; one of the biggest, with more than a million concepts.
A thesaurus is available for most fields of knowledge and if not, it is relatively easy to make one.

Adaptable

As the network operates on internet software, just logging in will make you ready to start working.
It does not require large (hard- or software) investments.
Nor does it need any radical restructuring of existing database systems. A simple access shell is all that is needed. It interfaces with a wide variety of database technologies.

Adding content

Joining the network and getting started, is not difficult: just log in and add your content to the database.
If necessary the websites of the participating organisations are screened (crawled) and fingerprinted.

Defining a Search
Defining a Search

Language independent

When the thesaurus is multilingual your search will be language independent.
Example: give a search instruction in French and yield both French and English results.

Closing the digital gap

Analysing the use of the networks that have been built for food, sustainable development and health, makes it very clear that they are extensively used by experts from developing countries. 4
The threshold for participation in knowledge networks has never been lower. Even in areas with moderate connectivity, participation is high; one of the reasons being that the login time needed is very short.

Conclusion

Advanced networking is not changing the world. The world is changing advanced networking and we are picking up the signals to help networks become more exciting, efficient and transparent.

Notes

  1. And many experts around the world do not have the time and/or the money to go to conferences anyway!
  2. Advanced networking, innovation factory and forced serendipity are methods developed by ENF Foundation.
  3. The talent to do discoveries by chance
  4. www.networking-facilities.net ENF
    www.sharingpoint.net (public site)

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