Email, instant messaging, forums, code forges and other collaboration tools make it possible for distributed teams to get work done - but they're not great tools for making decisions. The team behind Loomio wants to solve that with a new Web-based tool for focused, concise discussions that allow all team members to be heard.
If you've ever worked with a distributed team, you know how difficult it can be to make decisions as a group. Discussions are unstructured, rambling affairs with dozens of messages flying about and no good way to track consensus. Even worse, requests for feedback can go without comment entirely, or with only a few stakeholders raising a voice.
Agree, Disagree, Abstain, Block
Discussion in Loomio starts with a discussion and specific proposal, and members have the option of voting on the proposal. A group can define the options (defaults are yes/no, abstain and block), and each member can give their view summary. As votes are tallied, everyone can see get a chart that shows how many folks are in agreement, how many aren't, how many have abstained, etc.
This sounds pretty simple, but most of today's collaboration tools don't provide a good way to focus a discussion. The key to Loomio is that it provides a central tool for discussions and (if used properly) narrows things down to decisions that are easy to vote on. Central is key here. It helps a lot to confine activity to one tool rather than making users look all over for information.
A lot of online teams communicate in several ways, including email, IM, IRC, over the phone and face to face. Stakeholders who prefer one medium (like email) lose out if discussions are held in IRC, or vice-versa. Even worse, stakeholders may be totally unaware a decision is being made at all. If a group settles on Loomio, it would enable the group to say "decisions are made here and nowhere else." If something isn't put up in Loomio (or another approved tool), then a decision wouldn't be legitimate.
Settling on a decision tool like Loomio should also help cut down on noise in other communication channels. It's popular to have discussions in email and CC everyone who might have an opinion or might need to vote on something. An active team can inspire email fatigue pretty quickly with discussions that are neverending. Loomio would allow users to visit, vote and get back to work.
Actually, Loomio isn't only for distributed teams. There's no reason it couldn't be used in any organization, but its especially appropriate for situations where team members or stakeholders are far-flung.
Can Loomio Solve the Problem?
Like any tool, Loomio would only be effective if used properly. The early design could probably do with some modification - a more obvious start and end date for votes, for example - but the initial design is solid. The Loomio team says it's already in use by some organizations. New Zealand companies or organizations like Enspiral and BuckyBox are among the first adopters - though no one seems to be providing a public instance that we can point to.
If you want to help, the group is looking for contributions from Ruby on Rails developers, as well as a little extra cash (NZ $5,000) to help the volunteer team devote more time to Loomio development. The project is sort-of open source and already on GitHub. It's "sort-of" open source because the site says it's open source, but if you look at the license text on GitHub it's basically a stump saying: "We need to add the license. GPLv2?" The pledge drive (through the Pledge Me platform) ends on May 18th. The developers have already raised more than their target, but more money might mean more time spent on development.
If adopted a bit more widely, Loomio might help take distributed teams to a new level - much like GitHub has helped with development. It is a simple concept, but bringing order to decision-making could help teams communicate better and make better decisions, no matter where they happen to be located.