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An Introduction to Work Objects

As we’ve gone about charting our course on what what the next generation of mobile, social enterprise software should look like, we’ve drawn inspiration from a number of different sources: problems in collaboration that we ourselves have, innovative consumer apps, entrepreneurs and advisors, and of course, from the theory and research of others.

One such theory that has greatly influenced us in the development of enterprise mobile apps is the concept of “social objects” or “object centered sociality.”

The first known research in this area was by sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina in her 1997 paper “Sociality with Objects: Social Relations in Postsocial Knowledge Societies.”  In this paper, Cetina argues that objects, not people, are the glue that holds human relationships together:

“A strong thesis of ‘objectualization’ would imply that objects displace human beings as relationship partners and embedding environments, or that they increasingly mediate human relationships, making the latter dependent on the former.”

Entrepreneur Jyri Engestrom (Jaiku, Ditto) applied this theory to the online world in his seminal 2005 post on what makes a successful social network, and goes so far as to say that Social Objects need to be part of the definition of what constitutes a social network:

“The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.”

But perhaps the clearest definition I’ve seen of the Social Object comes from blogger, marketer, and cartoonist Hugh McLeod, of GapingVoid fame:

“The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else. Human beings are social animals. We like to socialize. But if think about it, there needs to be a reason for it to happen in the first place. That reason, that “node” in the social network, is what we call the Social Object.”

In real life, social objects can be everything from a sports team to a shared interest in a musician to a person known in common.

Online, these social objects vary from service to service.  On location based networks like Yelp and Foursquare, the social object is typically a bar or restaurant.  On Flickr and Facebook, the primary social object is the photograph.  On Plancast and Eventbrite, it’s the event.

So, to summarize: social objects are those little bits of structure that serve as the excuse / impetus / nudge to bring people together.

Social Objects in the Workplace

If the social fabric of one’s non-work life is held together by social objects, what can we make of the workplace?

Just like the consumer world, the workplace is teeming with objects around which people connect and collaborate.  But as opposed to things like photos, videos, and bars, the enterprise is structured around “work objects” such as customers, projects, products, job candidates, investors, software, and more.

Given the fact that the vast majority of employees don’t have a say in choosing their co-workers, we believe that the influence of shared work objects is perhaps even stronger than it is in a non work environment.  In many companies, shared objects such as projects and tasks would seem to be the only reason that a given set of people collaborate.  We might even go so far as to say that work objects define the workplace’s network of relationships.

Which brings us to a key question: if our work is structured around mission critical objects like customers and projects, why isn’t the dominant collaboration tool of the enterprise, email, built around those same objects, like Facebook is for photos, or YouTube is for videos?

Email is not Architected for Work

If you believe that the workplace is structured around work objects, it would be make sense that enterprise software would reflect these crucial nodes.

And some enterprise software does.  QuickBooks, for example, is built around structured objects for Customers, Vendors, Employees, and more.  Project management software Liquid Planner is built around tasks and projects.

Email, on the other hand, is made up of two structured objects (senders and recipients), and a bunch of free form text (subject line and body).  Gmail brute forces a third type of object into the mix: Conversations, or the forced grouping of emails into the same thread.

Given this architecture, it's not surprising that email does an extremely poor job of handling the real work objects of the enterprise - things like customers and projects.  Users are forced to try and manage these shortcomings by creating Customer and Project folders, adding priority levels, and adding tags.  None of these are optimal, and each are designed to mask the real flaw of email - that it’s not structured in a way that matches the work at hand.

Structure In, Structure Out

One final comment on our fascination with work objects.  As a software developer, if you are able to capture structured data on the input side, you are able to easily provide structured analytics regarding the output.

As a data point, compare the stiff competition in the social media monitoring space between companies like Radian6, Trackur, Visible Technologies, and more.  These services sprang up to make sense of the firehouse of free form text that is Twitter.  Their challenge is enormous - to try and create structured reports out of an impossibly unstructured flow of data.

It's not just brands and companies with a thirst for a bit of structure on Twitter.  Twitter users themselves invented the hashtag hack as a means to self organize around themes and topics.

As a comparison, Foursquare users face no such trouble.  Tips and check-ins are neatly structured around defined social objects - venues - and are automatically trackable and understandable.  There will be no arms race of services designed to parse Foursquare data.  It's already parsed.

If you are able to capture structure on the input side, you can provide structure on the output side in the form of compelling reports and analytics.  This is yet another failing of enterprise email.  Why isn't it possible for me to pull up a list of messages related to a particular customer or project regardless of sender, without manually sorting them in folders?

A Disconnect and an Opportunity

OK, let's review our assumptions:

1) Human interactions and engagement revolve around Social Objects

2) Social Objects also exist in the workplace (“Work Objects”), such as customers, projects, and products

3) The current dominant collaboration app in the enterprise, Email, does a poor job of organizing content and engagement around work objects.

4) Structure on the input side allows for superior data organization and analytics

5) This disconnect between email and work objects is a problem (for companies), and an opportunity (for vendors).

This is the opportunity we are trying to address with the DoubleDutch Enterprise App Suite, why our design principle is "tapping not typing," and why we love the check in gesture.

Feedback welcome.


Jyri Engestrom


Karin Knorr Cetina

By Lawrence Coburn | 9 August, 2011

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About the Author: Lawrence Coburn

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Founder & CEO