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Transfert - Start-up

Jean-Michel Prima - 14/04/2016

Tools for organising discussion processes

Christophe Morvan, maître de conférences et membre de l'équipe SUMO

Christophe Morvan - a scientist with the Sumo research team at the INRIA Rennes - Bretagne Atlantique research centre - and his two partners are preparing to launch Open Agora, a startup that designs innovative computer-aided decision-making software.

Slack? Collaborative communication platform released in February 2014 in the United States. A stunning success One million subscribers including 300,000 paying users. Entry-level pricing: 8 dollars per month. Companies are signing up their employees, whole departments at a time.  Even NASA uses it for its project management needs. Why such an enthusiastic response? Partly because Slack aims to be a very open platform? The site integrates with Google Drive, Dropbox and Github. However, it also supports plugins developed by third parties to provide additional functions. One of the next on the list was designed in Rennes by Open Agora. This startup is a natural extension of research conducted at the INRIA centre.

We are offering a plug-in tool for Slack to enable users to hold votes. Ours is a very workaday feature, but one that can be very usefu l”, sums up Christophe Morvan, the scientist behind the project. In the context of a team or company, it can be used to reach decisions regarding a problem, or for example, to help choose a product or design. ” For a dollar a month, Slack users will be able to adopt this function, which until now did not exist. “We already have a user base for the basic version, which is free. We are using this feedback to gather suggestions and include new functionality. ” As well as straightforward majority voting, the software can be used to organise votes using the Condorcet method, named after the well-known mathematician. “With this method, a user can say: I prefer option D, followed by option C, then option B, and lastly option A. Condorcet voting enables more nuanced expression while still determining the most consensual solution.

Computer-aided decision-making

After this voting pluin, the startup plans to launch another online software application. This application is designed to facilitate joint decision-making. In 1876, the American Henry Martyn Robert published a guide entitled Robert's Rules of Order. This short book, which is still in print today, codifies parliamentary decision-making processes. “It is a catalogue of rules for framing public debate, covering arguments, counter-arguments, etc. But these ‘rules of order’ are too complex to be put into practice in everyday life. Here in the Sumo team, we have developed a theory that we refer to as “guarded attribute grammars; we apply this theory in our decision support software. We use these grammars to model the aforementioned rules of order. ”
This software will run a three-stage process. “The first stage relates to discussion. Participants will suggest solutions relating to a decision that must be taken, express their opinion on the proposed solutions, and contribute documents and factual information to enrich the discussion, including pointers, documents, images, sounds, etc. This is implemented in a highly structured manner, and within a time limit set by the “agora’s” manager. The discussion will remained relatively controlled, as the aim is to answer a question or make a clearly identified and expressed decision. Phase two: voting. Individuals who did not take part in the discussion can still vote. Each voter ranks the proposed solutions in order, as they see fit. Final stage: reporting This stage summarises the discussion content, incorporates factual information relating to the actual vote and presents everything in a permanent, stable and referenceable form. ”
 The tool will generate this summary report quasi-automatically. Ultimately, however, “it is up to the agora manager to decide what to keep. He or she may decide to publish two or more separate summary reports.  This feature would, for example, enable a marketing manager to use the application to communicate in a focused manner with a consumer community, in order to gather opinions about a product. After the vote, the manager may decide to release certain information to users while sharing other information with coworkers only. ” What is the target audience for this tool? “Businesses, mainly. In a project management context, it can be used both internally - for employees involved in a project - and externally, for example during discussions with customers. ” This software, based on research by the SUMO project team, must now undergo a “maturation phase”, for which Open Agora intends to seek technological support from INRIA.

Keywords: Christophe Morvan SUMO INRIA Rennes - Bretagne Atlantique Start-up Transfert Open Agora