Charles Armstrong had one day job in his life — working as an
account manager for an internet marketing firm in London. He didn’t
like it. Communication was dysfunctional, morale was terrible. Like
anyone who’s served time in cubical hell, Armstrong was certain people
could do better.
So in 1999 he set out to conduct an ethnographic study of how people
naturally communicate and organize when shorn of externalities like
e-mail and PowerPoint. His quest took him to the tiny island of St.
Agnes, the smallest of the Isles of Scilly, 28 miles off the coast of
Britain. He lived there for a year, studying how the 80-or-so island
villagers interacted and functioned.
Not surprisingly, life on the island contrasted powerfully with the
corporate culture of London business. "Looking at how people schedule
tasks and priorities, in most conventional organizations people make a
to-do list, then they will do the highest-priority things first," he
says. "On St. Agnes, somebody wakes up, has breakfast, walks out the
door and looks up at the sky…. If it looks like the right kind of
wind and tide to catch a kind of fish they like, they might just do
That same fluidity extended to communications, says Armstrong, with
unexpected efficiency. If Friday’s boat from St. Mary was canceled,
there might be six people in the village that needed to know. Armstrong
found consistently they would all have that information within hours,
even without a formal distribution system, and few uninterested people
would be burdened with the knowledge.
From studying how this and other situations played out, Armstrong
formulated a set of fundamental principles on how people communicate.
Now Armstrong is readying a productivity tool that he hopes will put
those precepts into action. Called Trampoline, the program will
integrate with a company’s existing desktop and enterprise server
applications, sitting quietly on a company’s network and vacuuming in
e-mail, files, spreadsheets and anything else it can find.
From there, Trampoline indexes the data by parameters like
authorization, originator and destination, and scours it for "semantic
triggers" — interesting words that tend to crop up a lot. Then, like a
village gossip, it shares information with people who might have use
for it within the organization.
If, for instance, one of the semantic triggers matches the interests
of another person on the network, that new bit of data will be added to
a weekly e-mail of interesting items sent to that person.
This alert mechanism automates what Armstrong says is an intangible,
but crucial, element in natural communications: the "delight" of
On St. Agnes, "you never know what you’re going to hear or learn,"
says Armstrong. "If I walked out of my door, I was going to bump into a
half-dozen people…. I might find the Hicks doing something with
planting bulbs, and they would tell me about it, and it’s this
fascinating piece of wisdom."
By Quinn Norton