Trampoline Systems: Social Lessons
Charles Armstrong, co-founder and chief executive of Trampoline Systems, which bills itself as “Enterprise Software That Harnesses Social Behaviour,” is an ethnographer by trade and the study of human social phenomena, based on fieldwork, lies at the heart of Trampoline’s applications.
In 1999, Armstrong became frustrated with the “dysfunctional” nature of corporate systems and decided to see if he could figure out how people naturally organize and communicate in an environment without access to the technology and tools of modern communications.
He moved for a year to St Agnes, an island with 72 inhabitants that is one of the Isles of Scilly, an archipelago of islands off the southwesternmost tip of the United Kingdom.
While there Armstrong started an initiative to build local IT training skills but mostly he watched and listened to how the locals interacted and shared information in their daily comings and goings. One of the “big events” of each week was the arrival of a boat from neighboring St. Mary. When the boat was cancelled, which it sometimes was, there might be six people in the village who needed to know. Armstrong found consistently that they would all have that information within hours, even without a formal distribution system, and there would be no ‘verbal’ spam for uninterested people. This feat was accomplished without any formal or even conscious processes.
Armstrong reasoned that employees of modern corporations have the same native instincts and tacit intelligence but they seem to have become crippled by the formal structures and electronic information systems. Based on his observations, Armstrong patented a new technique for distributing items through a social network that aims to harness social behavior to manage information better.
He also formulated a set of of basic principles which the British Knowledge Management guru Richard Cross describes thusly:
- The requirement to understand useful social mechanisms in the enterprise
- The nature of implicit authorization parameters within groups or communities
- How Groups pool intelligence on relay targets
- How Groups can function as targets for relaying
- How Relaying is activated by semantic triggers
- The notion of trigger thresholds governed by social network and the need to access activity, content and user preference data from across the whole corporate ecosystem
Armstrong and chief technologist Craig McMillan formed Trampoline Systems in 2003 with seed finance from funds and private investors in San Francisco, London and Tokyo. Further investment was raised in April 2006.
The company’s main application is called SONAR (Social Networks And Relevance), an appliance that plugs into the corporate network and connects to existing systems such as email servers, contact databases and document archives.
SONAR analyzes data in the systems to build a map of social networks, information flows, expertise and individuals’ interests throughout the enterprise. Basically, it looks for trigger words and phrases that recur frequently, then, like gossip spreads on an island, passes on the information to the people for whom it will be relevant.
As Richard Cross describes it: “This alert mechanism mimics a core, element in natural communications: the ‘delight’ of discovery, the joy of serendipity. Users can also set levels of authorization on their data, to ensure intimate messages don’t inadvertently become ‘broadcast news’.”
In mid-November, Trampoline uploaded the 200,000 publicly available Enron e-mails and created an amazing SONAR testbed called the Enron Explorer that allows you sift through the wreckage to find the smoking guns. If you’ve ever wondered what Ken Lay knew and when he knew it, this is your chance.
Jerry Bowles has more than 30 years of varied experience as a writer, editor, marketing consultant, corporate communications director and blogger. For the past 20 years, he has produced and written special supplements on new technologies for a number of magazines, including Forbes, Fortune and Newsweek.