Posts Tagged ‘Our Philosophy’

2 Teammates > 3 Individuals

February 25, 2010


The scope and complexity of today’s problems are outpacing our ability to solve them.  Time and resources are chronically scarce; we have no choice but to collaborate.

It’s a fundamental tenet of our philosophy that two teammates working in synch will beat three individuals working separately every time.  Members of a team can complement each other’s skills, and every difference in opinion is a chance for everyone to learn something and strengthen the team.

We built our software to identify and resolve such differences in a productive fashion.

As entrepreneurs, we are hopeful about how our nation is recovering from this recession, but there is so much work ahead of us all.  There are many promising forms of collaboration which have not yet fully blossomed: widespread collaboration among agencies, among NGO’s, between the public and private sectors, online and offline.

We look forward to exploring these forms of collaboration with some great organizations in 2010 and beyond.  If you’re involved in some interesting projects, drop us a note and let us know how we can help!

Also, you may be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.


Evolving Beyond Two-Way Dialogue

February 24, 2010

This article is written for non-profit organizations and government agencies that are having difficulty transitioning from a broadcast model of communication to one that is participatory and engaging.

Your organization is probably better at organizing its members and its public rather than empowering them, and that’s understandable– after all, that model has been successful for a long time!

But culture change is running deep and wide across our economy; entire industries are being reshaped by the decentralized nature of the Internet.  These trends reveal an opportunity for you to connect with the public and authentically empower them as partners in solving the problems that your organization set out to solve.

There are three generations of organizational communications: one-to-many, two-way, and many-to-many.  If your organization has resisted the trend toward two-way dialogue of recent years and currently uses a one-to-many model, there’s still time for it to catch up and perhaps even leap ahead of its peers.

Just as many developing nations skipped the era of land line telephones and jumped straight to mobile technology, your organization can skip the growing pains associated with two-way dialogue and ease right into a more resilient, networked model of many-to-many communication.

Three Models of Communication

One-to-many communication includes TV ads, speeches, and brochures. Two-way dialogue includes Facebook pages with limited discussion capabilities. Many-to-many communication involves large conversations with advanced forum software, just one of which is AthenaBridge.

Each form of communication is useful for different purposes, depending on the level of engagement you desire and whether you are seeking convergent or divergent thinking:

We’re definitely not saying our software is the only solution; we are saying that methods involving many-to-many communication offer significant advantages over two-way communication:

  • It’s easier (and more cost-effective) for your organization to listen to 500 people converse with each other than it is to respond to 500 individual emails.  After listening, you can engage your network with the benefit of learning where they stand and hearing what they are prepared to do to help you.  After all, every person you hire to respond to emails and Twitter messages is a person you could have hired to help you directly with your mission.  However by effectively tapping the network, your communications staff can create a disproportionately large and positive impact on your mission.
  • Many-to-many communication empowers your network to embrace your mission on a deeper level; it’s easy to forget that you are not alone– the public, your public, cares. Members of your public are eager to help you accomplish your mission at their local level while these large conversations help you flex your network and prepare for focused and synchronized action at the national level.
  • As more people engage, the value of the conversation increases while your workload does not.  Larger audiences provide balance and serve as more resilient filters and quality control.

Successful communication is work, and many-to-many communication faces the following obstacles:

  • More often than we’d like to see, non-profit organizations are afraid to lose control.  They fear that if they empower their members to speak, then the ensuing conversation will reveal internal divisions.  Solution: This shouldn’t hold you back; a diversity of opinion makes your organization more resilient and relevant by injecting vital ideas into your decision-making cycle.  Healthy discussion is essential.
  • Government agencies and non-profits are understaffed and are not enthusiastic about handling waves of public comments.  Solution: Rather than relying on a channel for two-way communication and collecting isolated and conflicting comments that your staff will have to process, enable a conversation among your network.  It’s far easier to take a listening role, have your network sort out their disagreements, and filter out the best ideas for you.  Once you’re at this stage, you will know exactly how to reach and inspire them to action.

There is no easy path, and many-to-many communication takes significant work to get right.  Fortunately, it’s less work than two-way dialogue which often gives the public the unreasonable expectation that you can respond to every email with a unique and personal note.  Here are some of the key elements for successful many-to-many communication campaigns:

  • Trust your public.  Harness the best of their energy and expertise.
  • Stay engaged and curate the conversation.  A little structure and guidance up front can provide significant returns on investment down the road.
  • Demonstrate that you’re eager to learn and not afraid to innovate.

We don’t pretend to have all the answers, but the trends are becoming increasingly clear: the transformative organizations of the next decade will embrace a networked model of openness and mass collaboration.

You may also be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.

Do You Need Comments or Conversation?

February 7, 2010

There’s a big difference between comments and conversation online.  Sometimes comments are more useful and sometimes conversation is more useful– each method has its place, and choosing the right one depends on the purpose of your outreach effort.

Comments are great for brainstorming and getting a lot of ideas quickly; conversation is more appropriate for in-depth problem solving and for helping participants ask each other questions and learn from each other.

(click to enlarge)

With AthenaBridge, we’re focusing on the conversation side of the spectrum, because our national dialogue leaves much to be desired.  Interest groups have no option except to simplify an issue to fit it into sound bites and the subject lines of emails.  This helps get attention for individual issues, but it does a disservice for the health of our democracy in the long-term.

We’re excited to see the possibilities that the Open Government Directive and “Gov 2.0” create.  Government agencies and elected officials can effect lasting change when they open spaces for citizens to connect, converse, and learn from each other. Through conversation, we can learn from each other.

Does the above diagram represent how you see comments and conversation?  How would you improve it?  Also, you may be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.

How to handle large conversations online

May 18, 2009
Standard layout of blog comments

Typical layout of blog comments, representing the 120 comments to this article

Same blog comments with color. Same color indicates agreement.

Same 120 blog comments with color added (Same color = agreement.)

Same blog comments mapped in DeepDebate

Compress the blank space top-to-bottom and it looks similar to our style of maps.



This is what the same 120 comments actually look like in a AthenaBridge conversation map. This looks complex, but compared to the comment section of this blog, which has the same 120 comments, it only takes up 4% of the vertical space. Most importantly, related comments are displayed right next to each other, to make browsing more efficient.


Blog comments cannot handle large conversations. The above images make a side-by-side comparison possible to see what the same conversation from the comment section of this blog looks like in an AthenaBridge conversation map.

There are several significant advantages of AthenaBridge over the format of blog comments:

  • Blog comments are trapped in the vertical dimension. They do not take advantage of the horizontal dimension, and therefore take up much more space on the screen (see the images above). In this particular example the AthenaBridge conversation map displayed the same amount of information while only using 1/25th of the space.
  • AthenaBridge conversation maps preserve context; related ideas are right next to each other. With blog comments, often related ideas are pushed so far apart from each other, they won’t even show on the same screen.
  • Blog comments are not color-coded to indicate agreement or disagreement. Color coding provides an executive-level overview to understand which comments are in agreement with each other even before you read them.
  • Unlike AthenaBridge, blog comments do not ask participants for a summary of their comment. Having summaries makes browsing the conversation much more efficient.
  • Blog comments are free-form and do not challenge the user to categorize their response. Simply asking participants in a conversation whether they agree or disagree helps to limit out irrelevant responses. This can significantly increase the quality of conversation.
  • The comment software on this blog does not have a rating function so, unlike with AthenaBridge, a reader has no way of differentiating between the best comments and all the others.

Case Study: 12 Angry Men

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

The conversation that we used in this case study comes from the iconic movie entitled 12 Angry Men (1957). This movie documents a jury’s deliberations in a murder trial. The movie provides a powerful example of what one person with conviction and logic can do to change the course of a life-and-death decision.

(Interestingly, the idea of a completely male jury wouldn’t have raised any eyebrows in 1957. It wasn’t until 1975 that the Supreme Court ruled that women should be allowed to serve on juries.)

The proposition– or topic sentence– in this debate is “The defendant in 12 Angry Men is guilty of murder.” There are eight primary arguments which support this proposition:

  1. The lady across the street saw the defendant stab the victim.
  2. The man living below the victim’s apartment heard the argument and identified the defendant running down the stairs.
  3. The defendant had a motive to stab the victim.
  4. The victim was stabbed in the chest with a knife that is traceable to the defendant.
  5. The defendant has no alibi, therefore he must be guilty.
  6. The defendant’s background indicates he is likely to be guilty.
  7. The evidence is sufficient to remove all reasonable doubt.
  8. The defendant had sufficiently competent legal representation to ensure a fair trial.

In total, there are 120 comments in this conversation and the entire conversation is displayed in the comment section of this blog. You’ll see a few of the comments multiple times because they are applicable in more than one place.

Once you’ve skimmed the comment section, you might want to look at the same 120 comments displayed in this AthenaBridge conversation map to experience the difference firsthand.

Also, you may be interested in these other articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.

What makes AthenaBridge different?

May 18, 2009

AthenaBridge provides structure to make online conversations of all sizes more productive. You might ask, “Wait– how large can these conversations get?!” Well, because AthenaBridge is hosted on Amazon’s Elastic Computing Cloud, there can be millions of people in the same structured conversation.

The quality of a typical conversation– either online or face-to-face– decreases as the number of participants increases due to a lack of structure. The key is to provide just enough structure so that the conversation improves as more people join; this is a big challenge, and it’s one that we’re passionate about.

AthenaBridge helps to find the best ideas on each side of an issue and opens those ideas to critical analysis. It’s not enough to just list pros and cons; we must follow up and dig deeper to get past sound bites and talking points.

There are several advantages of the AthenaBridge method:

  • Efficiency: Creates a map of each conversation for simpler navigation of complex conversations
  • Quality: Sorts the highest-rated ideas to the top to make the most of your time
  • Scale: Allows an unlimited number of simultaneous participants to collaborate in the same conversation. More people = more ideas. Having more ideas is better as long as you have a system like AthenaBridge to empower the participants to separate the good ones from the uhh… not so good.
  • Structure: Can be used to provide structure for almost any type of conversation- collecting feedback, multi-linear instant messaging, group brainstorming, two-sided debate, etc.
  • Credibility: Track of each participant’s reputation over time, and find out who your superstars are
  • Logic-Based: Opens all ideas to logical discussion based on facts, assumptions, logic, and definitions
  • Optional Anonymity: Anonymity, if used correctly, can be critical to creating an atmosphere of honest dialogue. Tied to reputation and credibility, the risk of abuse is minimal.
  • “Red Team” Analysis: Giving a voice to dissenting opinions, or even assigning people in your organization to take a divergent view and challenge conventional wisdom is essential to reducing the risk of groupthink.
  • Common Ground: Using the map, participants can visualize the common ground so you can move forward as a group on the items with which you agree, and focus on the disagreements when appropriate.
  • Context: The same exact conversation can exist in many contexts across many URLs. This means you can engage many different audiences in the same conversation without them having to leave the websites they are on. If you’re interested in doing this, please contact us for more information.

However, there are several barriers to adoption in many organizations:

  • Logic-Based: Some people are afraid to have their ideas open to constructive feedback and do not want honest dialogue. (What are these people doing in your organization?!)
  • Unconventional: It’s a commonly held assumption that, as more people join a conversation, the less productive it gets. That’s generally true for face-to-face discussions. AthenaBridge software creates the possibility of harnessing the intelligence from very large conversations using just the right amount of structure.
The best time to use AthenaBridge is when you’d like to organize a lot of ideas from a bunch of people. AthenaBridge will not produce an absolute answer, but it can arrange the group’s thoughts so that you can make an informed decision in a short amount of time.

For information about our software, please visit our page of frequently asked questions or these articles about the AthenaBridge Philosophy.