Collaboration fit for the 21st Century

A new generation of tools have emerged in the last decade that can empower smarter workforces to come together to create more effective and efficient organisations (what IBM terms “social businesses”) by supporting social collaboration. This isn’t just about adding a few new features to existing collaboration tools, it’s about a new engagement platform (in the same way that Facebook on the public Internet provided a different form of engagement to previous social media tools, like blogs and wikis).

If you like, it’s a shift from social media to social networking (although the need for social networking in the enterprise still hasn’t been accepted by some, so we’ll stick with social collaboration for now).

In an AIIM white paperGeoffrey Moore articulated the difference between Systems of Record (i.e. structured data or unstructured documents and the processes we put around them) and Systems of Engagement (i.e. the way people interact with each other to execute processes), but some organisations still don’t understand or are unwilling to accept the need for different tools in these different worlds.

It’s not helped when those passionate about social tools talk about them as if they are a replacement for existing collaboration tools – whether it is predicting the end of email or decrying existing team focussed collaboration tools as inevitably creating information silos. The answer, they seem to say, is to replace them with a new set of tools enabling a different sort of collaboration.

To my mind, this ignores several realities. First, existing tools do what they were designed to do, usually pretty well. Secondly, the content that currently resides in them, and the established processes built on them, make their removal difficult. Finally, their users understand how to use them, so they tend to see them as the natural solution to challenges they face – and changing that behaviour takes effort, requires motivation, introduces a level of risk, and needs to be done collaboratively across different groups of people (which isn’t something the current tools support very well).

I believe that the reality is that we need new capabilities that complement existing collaboration tools, not replace them.

New CapabilitiesHowever this is not just about adding a few new features to an existing collaboration platform. Systems of engagement are different to systems of record.

Indeed, the difference between an effective social collaboration platform and, say, a team collaboration platform like SharePoint, is as large as the difference between SharePoint and an email platform like Exchange.

This comparison is highly relevant:

  • email is about inter-personal collaboration (I send a message to you)
  • team collaboration is about groups working together on a project (the team creates documents)
  • social collaboration is about organisation wide staff engagement (employees discovering and accessing the knowledge they need, whether it is written down or resides in someone’s head)

Providing enterprise wide social collaboration doesn’t mean that the need for inter-personal messaging or team projects goes away. While I would expect usage of existing tools to decline as interactions and processes start to move to using the new tools instead of the old, many proven and effective ways of working, and the processes they use, will not change quickly.

This can be hard for IT budget holder as they need to justify the cost of adding new tools, rather replacing existing ones. Which is why they would like to believe that adding an enterprise search tool, a basic profile page and some activity streams to an existing team collaboration solution will allow it to be used for enterprise wide knowledge and expertise discovery. It’s easier to go into denial about existing tools proven tendency to create knowledge silos, stifle innovation and prevent information from flowing across organisations, than it is to accept that existing tools need to be complemented by a people-centric fabric that can bind an engaged workforce together, aligning its efforts to efficiently and effectively achieving the organisation’s goals.

My vision of social collaboration is that it integrates existing collaboration tools, content repositories and business applications – as well as providing a new set of social media content types.

Social Collaboration PlatformThe key to an effective social collaboration layer is its ability to deliver social networking that integrates social networking and media with existing existing systems and documents.  Integration with existing tools (both the personal and team productivity tools) helps users to migrate to these new ways of working at their own pace, minimising risk and letting organisations focus on the areas of maximum return.

IBM naturally integrates its IBM Connections platform with its own email and team collaboration platforms, as well as open source solutions like OpenOffice and Sugar CRM, but it does just as good a job of integration for enterprises deploying Microsoft Office, Outlook and SharePoint – and with its commitment to continue supporting Connections on premises as well as in the cloud, all organisations can benefit from IBM’s social business prowess.

This has significant advantages, not least in avoiding the costs associated with replacing existing tools and the risks associated with changing working processes – whilst still delivering the benefits of social engagement across the workforce.

Dont rip and replaceIndeed, it can allow organisations to unify existing information silos by letting employees find information in multiple, existing repositories and collaborate effectively with users in remote parts of the business.

Cross silo collaborationFurthermore, a social collaboration solution like IBM Connections, with its visitor model that provides selected external users with carefully controlled, secure access to just the parts of your enterprise social collaboration platform they should be allowed to use, let’s you break down the ultimate collaboration silo created by your corporate firewall, enabling you to work closely with partners, suppliers and customers to better deliver your organisation’s goals.

Inter-organisational collaborationThe steps this illustrates represent the pragmatic evolution of the sort of tightly integrated, monolithic organisation we created in the 20th century, to the federated, agile, adaptive organisation that is needed to thrive in the 21st century.

Through a genuinely smarter workforce.