Relevance as a Service

New tools are just now coming into use that leverage the information latent in our communications and shared work.

Over the years I have applied a small productivity hack that has paid me back every day.

I use a Macbook Air as my primary computer, and in the Finder (the program that acts as the interface to the file system) I have toggled the settings to display folders and files based on ‘Date Last Opened’, instead of the default, which is sorting by name.

As a result, the files and folders that I have used most recently are displayed at the top of the Finder display, and I avoid scrolling down to find what I am looking for in a great many cases, because it’s already near the top.

For example, to add that screenshot to this post, I opened the Finder, Clicked on the Dropbox folder (where most of my files reside), and then clicked on Screenshots, which was quite close to the top because I visit that folder almost everyday. I dragged a recent screenshot — the one above — into the blog editor on Medium, again without having to scroll down.

I figure in the course of a day that tiny hack saves as much as a half hour of searching for files, depending on what sort of work I am involved in.

This hack leverages the idea of temporal locality from computer science, which means that the likelihood of accessing a particular folder or file is largely proportional to how recently I accessed it.

But imagine if the operating system on my Mac was smart enough to learn about the patterns of my work, and could discern that since I am editing a blog post and I just created a screenshot, there is a high likelihood that I want to grab the most recent screenshot when I open the Finder. Then I wouldn’t even have to click on the Screenshots folder: it would already be selected, and the most recent screenshot, too.

This is the starting point for a dramatic turning point in user experience, one that will rapidly shift the way that we interact with our devices, and the way that they interact with us. When intelligent agency is wired into our work tools, and can access the context of our work — who we are, what we are doing, and who we are doing it with — the outcome will be a thousand times more powerful than temporal locality.

New tools are just now coming into use that leverage the information latent in our communications and shared work, what I now call the work graph: the network of people (the nodes on the graph) and metadata about them, their relationships (the arcs on the graph), and the ‘units of work’, which are information elements (tasks, ideas, clients, goals, milestones, and so on). Examples like Microsoft’s Delve, which builds on the work graph in Office365, and IBM’s new Verse business email solution, positioned as ‘Email that understands you’.


IBM Verse

These smart tools reorder the user experience away from us telling tools what to do, and introduce the new pattern: the tools will discern what we are trying to do, and they will offer up information independently. This can be thought of as Relevance as a Service.

Consider this scenario with a hypothetical RaaS social networking app. With access to my email and calendar, such a tool would notify me about various documents and chats associated with the attendees of an upcoming meeting, creating a workspace prepopulated by those work items and inviting all involved to share it. Likely tasks on my to do list might be pulled in, and action items created during the call would be wrapped up into a meeting report, and shared with all involved after the meeting was concluded, and actions to be taken converted to tasks for all those involved.

The folks at the Office for Creative Research recently wrote about a prototype tool they developed to visualize information about meetings called Convene, trying to get at ‘the ebb and flow’ of meeting activities around projects.



As the authors point out, these visualizations are just a jumping off point to represent the networks of individuals and meetings, and to start to think about how to exploit that information, such as the scenario I sketched, or better ways to surface projects that may be exhibiting the profile of too many — or not enough — meetings, both of which indicate problematic projects.

This might have seemed like science fiction only a few years ago, but Relevance-as-a-Service apps and platforms are rolling out today, and our work lives will never be the same.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Written by

Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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