Whether or not any given software solution was first built as a collaboration tool, chances are that it now has at least some collaborative capability. Every software product from content management to search tools lets users interact with each other and work together. College students routinely use virtual workspaces for team-based academic tasks, and project management software is increasingly collaborative.
Of all the collaboration solutions that dot the landscape, social collaboration software is without question the most rapidly growing segment of the market. IDC expects the worldwide enterprise social software market to grow from $767.4 million to $4.5 billion in revenue by 2016. That represents a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 42.4 percent.
"Enterprise social software will continue to exist as standalone applications, but as social capabilities are embedded into existing enterprise applications, business processes inevitably become more social," says Vanessa Thompson, research manager, enterprise social networks and collaborative technologies at IDC.
The National Health System (NHS) Institute for Innovation and Improvement supports the English healthcare system by identifying and sharing best practices to improve the quality of care and help contain costs. Early in 2012, the NHS asked the NHS Institute to develop a service for promoting high-impact innovations. A fundamental premise of the initiative was that it would be based on social networking to provide an interactive environment in which individuals could comment on case studies, exchange ideas and contribute their own material.
The NHS Institute was given a deadline of just eight weeks to put the system into place. In view of the short timeframe, the organization did not have the option of approaching a systems developer and establishing an elaborate set of requirements. "We needed to deploy a social networking solution that was ready to go to work right out of the box," says Nick Gaunt, chief information and knowledge officer at the NHS Institute, "but at the same time, we also needed a product that could be customized to allow for both internal and external networking."
The internal customer was the NHS Institute itself, and the external groups were the other organizations of the NHS. "Although the NHS may appear to be a single entity, it is actually several hundred organizations working under one umbrella," Gaunt says. "Therefore, we needed to have a mixture of private and public-facing interactions, a capability that many social enterprise networking products do not offer."
After narrowing the search to a half-dozen candidates, the NHS Institute selected Clearvale, an enterprise social networking platform from BroadVision. "We wanted to extend our static website with the capabilities of an interactive site that incorporated blogs, wikis, comments and other features," Gaunt explains. "and Clearvale was able to provide those components out of the box as well as to modify the basic software within our time requirements."
Since the NHS Institute had not previously deployed enterprise social networking, it took an incremental approach to introducing the new application to employees. "We had primed the site with content relevant to our users," Gaunt says, "and we have started by allowing people to comment, participate in polls and join discussion forums." The response has been very positive, with steadily growing participation.
One activity the NHS Institute used to promote engagement by employees was a challenge to put forth ideas that would help improve the patient experience. The competition resulted in 145 nominations of project ideas that could be carried out. The nominations were judged, and the NHS Institute awarded grants to the top nine to share their project ideas throughout the NHS. "There is a tremendous amount of innovation going on in healthcare," Gaunt says. "For us, one of the biggest challenges is to help others discover these innovations and to make sure the good ideas are being adopted."
Changing the dynamics
Over time, the NHS Institute will broaden participation on the site so that users can take more initiative, contributing their own case studies, for example. In doing so, Gaunt anticipates a shift in the roles of the initial organizers in the NHS Institute and the community participants. "We are working on getting the right balance," Gaunt says, "facilitating management of the site centrally while encouraging members of the community to keep the conversation going in their areas of interest."
In addition to providing cross-fertilization among different organizations, online social networking enhanced the interaction of individuals in face-to-face workshops. "We ran some workshops to bring the community together in a physical setting," Gaunt says. "The previous online experiences changed the dynamics of the workshops and made them more productive, because the participants had already shared ideas and had a history of working together."
The ability of Clearvale to segment users into categories makes it versatile in handling different groups. "Like an office building with a public lobby, Clearvale has a guest area that is readily accessible, while protecting the privacy of other areas," says Erin Curtis, VP of marketing at BroadVision. "Guest areas can also be set up to be anonymous, so that individuals—for example, competitors in the same business—can dialog without revealing their identities.
The use of social software for collaboration in a business environment is most successful when there is a clear business purpose. "Social networking can be transformative," Curtis says, "but it needs to be linked clearly to business objectives." Sharing best practices and accomplishing specific tasks are examples of productive applications of social software. Clearvale provides anytime, anywhere access through desktop, laptop, smart phone and tablet applications, and allows for attachments, reminders and other task-related functions.
Collaborative project management
Ellegro Learning Solutions, a Beeline company, develops custom training applications and provides human resources consulting services. Usually the company has about 20 to 30 projects moving ahead in parallel, which presents management and prioritization issues. Project planning and development requires considerable collaboration among programmers, subject matter experts and management. Tracking milestones and content was difficult with the manual systems the company was using.
To streamline its processes and better manage resources, Ellegro deployed LiquidPlanner, a cloud-based collaborative project management platform. LiquidPlanner allows an unlimited number of projects and clients within a single workspace, with tasks, events and milestones. Tasks can be added via e-mail, and alerts and notifications about changes are sent via e-mail as well as being documented in LiquidPlanner.