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Collaboration is working

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Ever since I passed the big five-o, I have noticed more and more youngsters who believe their generation invented something we older guys were using decades ago.

At a recent event, for example, I overheard a bunch of 20-something industry analysts seriously discussing how the 50-something CIOs running IT departments today need to get more social.

Their theory was that this old guard just didn’t understand the idea of collaborative working. Such people had no chance of supporting their business as it made its transition to a “social enterprise” (or whatever buzz phrase the analysts were promoting that month).

The conclusion was that until these dinosaurs give way to the next generation of Facebook-savvy managers, corporate IT will continue to stifle business productivity and innovation.

Lessons of history

It is at times like this that you want to step in and smack some heads together deliver an impromptu history lesson.

Explain, for example, that many of those “dinosaurs” began their careers in the 80s or early 90s and came up through the technical ranks. And two or three decades ago, people like me were using electronic bulletin boards and Usenet newsgroups routinely as part of our jobs to exchange ideas, share problems and generally stay up to date with developments in our field.

Apart from helping to put the upstarts in their place, this historical perspective raises the question of what all the fuss is about when it comes to modern social collaboration systems, and particularly their use in business.

And it is a very pertinent question when some of the basic mechanisms upon which social networking is based look a lot less effective.

I remember thinking when someone first introduced me to blogs that the whole idea seemed unlikely to provide any degree of meaningful collaboration. Most blogs revolve around individuals, and while they might have certain interests and others can comment on their posts, that is nowhere near as useful as a topic-based forum where the group of people can contribute in a much more free-flowing and open manner.

“Aha!”, was the reply from social evangelists. “That’s why the great god of social invented wikis.”

So a group of us who were writing a book together at the time decided to set up a wiki to capture and coordinate the thoughts and contributions of the four co-authors. It didn’t go well.

One of the problems was that we were all pretty mobile, and getting a stable connection to access the wiki from the road was a perennial problem. We ended up going back to the tried and trusted “track changes” feature in Microsoft Word and emailing drafts around as attachments for review.

Twitter ye not

Meanwhile, back in the social universe, people started using RSS feeds and aggregators as a way of grouping social content so you could at least make a bit more sense of the sprawl of fragmented input.

The high-maintenance nature of this, however, meant that once you had settled on a range of sources you tended not to update it that frequently, which kind of screwed up the whole idea of tapping into the hyper-dynamic and ever-changing Web 2.0 world.

Then along came Twitter, and I must confess that when I first saw it, my conclusion was that its horrible signal-to-noise ratio and tendency to reinforce echo-chamber thinking made it pretty useless.

Even today, as a professional researcher who is used to correcting for sample skew when analysing data, I often find it impossible to reconcile the picture you get from Twitter with more balanced and reliable information sources.

All I can say is that if you form your world view from your Twitter feed, you probably have a pretty screwed-up impression of your fellow human beings and what is going on in industries and markets.

And the rise of Facebook? Well, I’d better stop there. You can probably guess some of my thoughts on that.

And yet, with either my industry-analyst or business-owner hat on, I am a huge advocate of collaboration tools in the workplace today, even those with a social flavour to them.

How can I possibly say that after my hatchet job on blogs, wikis and Twitter? Well, a number of things have changed or come together to allow you to create a pretty efficient and effective environment.

The trick is to combine elements of social media with more established solutions

Firstly, after all of the wild claims that social networking would replace email and older forms of enterprise collaboration, most serious observers now agree that this is nonsense.

The trick is to combine elements of social media with more established solutions – email, of course, but also more structured document and workflow approaches. Social functionality enhances familiar tools rather than replacing them.

The larger vendors have responded to this by integrating social functionality into their software suites. Microsoft’s Office 365 is arguably the most complete example of this, although other players have such hybrid solutions too.

And the same principle has been used in relation to core business systems, with social and standard collaboration capability now often seamlessly embedded into CRM, ERP and HCM applications.

All this matters because it provides context and purpose for social and collaborative activity, as well as convenient access through integrated user interfaces. Given that many enterprise social pilots have stumbled through lack of focus, the importance of this should not be underestimated.

Most of my own frustrations with first-generation social networking have now been addressed. Much more configurable and usable aggregation, filtering and search capability is now available to help overcome the problems of sprawl and overload.

Raising the tone

Maturing usage patterns help this further. In contrast to the consumer space, many organisations have policies in place to encourage proper etiquette and minimise misuse and abuse.

From an underlying technology perspective, broader trends and developments have also removed many of the original constraints. Wired and wireless networks are faster and provide wider coverage, making a lot of connectivity problems go away.

Advances here have also extended the practical reach of real-time collaboration through video, web conferencing and instant messaging.

We then have the added power and convenience of smart mobile devices, which together with synchronisation technology mean that collaboration really can take place any time and anywhere, even when connectivity is slow or intermittent.

Lastly, given that collaboration activity generates a lot of data, exploiting the cloud makes everything a lot easier if you are that way inclined.

You don’t have to have the hassle of managing secure connectivity, and with the huge allocations of space that now come bundled with many cloud services all your storage worries evaporate.

OK, I might be exaggerating a bit here, but collaboration really is a natural candidate for cloud-based deployment.

So, if you haven’t reviewed your own collaboration capability for a couple of years or more, it is worth looking again because an awful lot has changed. ®

Dale Vile is CEO and research director of Freeform Dynamics

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