Yesterday I read a really interesting story about a project to develop a new tool for researchers at the massive CERN laboratory (the folks who made that gigantic particle accelerator in Switzerland) to collaborate and share expertise more effectively.

It’s a great complement to what John Seely Brown and John Hagel recently wrote about growing from a do-it-yourself culture to a do-it-together culture:

… the second and third level of pull begin to move us beyond “free-agent nation” stories into a new domain of scalable peer learning that can lead to the emergence and rapid evolution of very large and highly innovative global institutions. Scalable DIT offers the potential to turn the experience curve on its side, generating increasing returns to learning and performance improvement.

CERN might qualify as such an institution. It’s composed of thousands of researchers, representing hundreds of universities and dozens of nationalities. Many of the scientists and engineers are based in different countries and spend very little time together on-site…

Then along comes this young hotshot who knows his way around computers, thinking about setting up new systems to connect and keep track of all the experts and their expertise — especially as things are constantly changing and new researchers are always coming and going.

At one point he was thinking that each researcher would have their own page and it would link to other researchers’ pages — sort of like a Facebook for scientists, I suppose.

This is what he was thinking when they started pushing to build the Large Hadron Collider:

In addition to keeping track of relationships between all the people, experiments, and machines, I wanted to access different kinds of information, such as researchers’ technical papers, the manuals for different software modules, minutes of meetings, hastily scribbled notes, and so on. Furthermore, I found myself answering the same questions asked frequently of me by different people…

In a way it doesn’t sound all that original. In the past couple of years we’ve heard a lot about organizations using social media-type tools to facilitate knowledge sharing and collaboration through the web.

There are also a growing number of more academic initiatives, including OpenWetWare (for biology), and more commercial communities like InnoCentive.

But in another way, what this guy is doing — or perhaps I should say, what he already did — was original. The guy I’m talking about is Tim Berners-Lee, the platform he developed at CERN in the 90’s is called the World Wide Web.

The More Things Change…

With all the recent buzz about the social web, it’s been too easy to forget that the web is simply continuing to get better at what it was always intended to do: make people more knowledgeable and make knowledge more sociable.

It’s a good idea not to stray too far from that. It seems to keep recurring… But we also need to stay busy making and doing things to take advantage of both the social and the knowledge aspects of the still-growing web.

It took about twenty years for the web to become genuinely embedded in our society. It is important now — i.e. we can more or less take it for granted — in a more profound way than we could only a few years ago.

But the momentum has not slowed. The web is far from maturing. Let’s assume it has only begun to affect society, and we’ll need to prepare for more drastic changes.

While we can’t predict what new things will come, we can anticipate the general shape of change will continue to emphasize making people more knowledgeable and making knowledge more sociable. Work on projects that go towards those ends; it’s hard to imagine going wrong like that.

The above quote is from Weaving the Web, written by Berners-Lee and published in 1999. You can start with his original proposal.