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Collaboration software: evolution and revolution: Realizing the potential of the networked enterprise

By Eric Woods

What do the following have in common: a petrochemical company trying to improve the performance of its deep-sea drilling operations, an advertising agency working on campaign collateral with a multinational client, an aid agency trying to provide access to volunteers in Tanzania?

They are all looking to collaboration tools as a way to improve efficiency, reduce costs and deliver a better service. Like so many companies operating on a global basis, they want to make the network a shared space where people can work together and exchange ideas, independent of location and time.

The rising value being placed on effective collaboration—both within organizations and with partners, suppliers and customers—is also being paralleled by a new wave of innovation in collaboration technologies, driven by three interlinked but distinct developments:

  • The need exists for new forms of networked environments that can support the extended and distributed enterprise. The pressure to realize the potential of all organizations is even greater today when budgets are tight and competition is fierce. The requirement for collaboration has been further strengthened by restrictions on corporate travel (for budgetary or security reasons).;

  • New technical environments are changing the possibilities for collaboration. The Internet and the Web have made a huge impact, but developments such as peer-to-peer communication, mobile access, instant messaging and Web services are all having an influence.;

  • The market ecology for collaborative software has changed. As the market leaders try to transform their offerings to meet new requirements, new entrants emerge, and players from other sectors try to muscle in on a growth area. ;

Ovum estimates that the collaboration market was worth more than $2 billion in 2002. By 2006, the market will be worth more than $2.5 billion, but in that time the market for the new generation of advanced collaboration tools will more than double, growing from $435 million to $923 million.

The changing forms of collaboration

There is a dichotomy at the heart of organizational collaboration that has in the past hampered many projects and initiatives. How do you balance the different requirements of informal and formal collaboration? That is, how can you support flexible, pragmatic collaboration needs (both within and beyond the firewall), while ensuring the right level of managerial support and supervision? Our better understanding of those requirements and improved flexibility in collaboration software are helping make effective collaboration a much more realistic goal for many organizations.

Informal collaboration

Informal collaboration includes simple social tasks, such as arranging a team event or ad hoc discussions on specific project issues. Those tasks generally require little more than some form of messaging. Informal collaboration also has an important role outside a project-based environment. Individuals may require support from others on an ad hoc basis; for example, the provision of online support through chat or voice/video conferencing embedded in an application as an alternative to the traditional "hotline" telephone support. That may also include screen sharing within an organization, across organizations (for example, supplier to customer) and even within Internet-based transactions. The screen sharing may also be used to deliver presentations to potentially very large groups of people dispersed worldwide, within a single organization or across multiple organizations. In this case, the "team" is simply the participants in the presentation, and may only exist for less than an hour.

One of the most valuable forms of informal collaboration is that embodied in the concept of communities of practice. The knowledge management movement has long identified the importance of non-formal relationships among workers that support key business processes. We are now seeing those communities being given explicit approval and support within many organizations, as they realize that the value of this type of intangible and strongly differentiating social capital is hard to replicate. Therefore, it is important that collaboration software can support communities of practice and help the organization to realize and (where relevant) capture the expertise embedded in those communities and their interactions.

Formal collaboration

While informal collaboration is typically defined bottom-up by the requirements of the team or community supported, formal collaboration is more often defined top-down in accordance with the needs of the organization for process control.

At the intermediate level, most teams need to be managed. That includes task planning and scheduling, task monitoring, scheduling of meetings and passing work around the team for comment and approval. All team members must be fully aware of what is expected of them and how their work fits with the rest of the team. The tracking of progress can be made substantially easier if all work-in-progress and completed tasks are executed in a centrally managed location. That will ensure that everyone has access to consistent information, and will provide an effective audit trail.

In its most developed form, formal collaboration becomes strongly process-driven, with clear management of tasks and responsibilities.

The need for balance between informal and formal collaboration can also be understood as a relationship between practice (how people work together to get the job done) and process (the explicit or formal definition of how work should be done). At best, there is a creative tension between those two aspects of work, but, too often, they are in conflict and thereby undermine the effectiveness of the organization. (For an insightful analysis of the relationship between practice and process, see John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid’s book, "The Social Life of Information.")

The goal for the collaborative enterprise is to combine the best of both aspects. In turn, that is setting the agenda for the development of collaborative software.

Leadership issue

The modern organization inhabits a multidimensional space with fluid boundaries not limited by restrictions of geography, location or time. Finding new and effective ways to work together in that environment is an imperative for all businesses.

That requirement is making collaboration one of the most exciting areas for software innovation. But you should never forget that the technology is only a means for realizing a wider vision of how people can work together. The organizational challenges that have bedeviled attempts to develop a wide-scale and lasting collaborative solution have not gone away. In his thought-provoking 1995 book, "No More Teams! Mastering the Dynamic of Creative Collaboration," Michael Schrage wrote perceptively of the challenge to be faced:

"The single most important issue confronting the leadership of collaborative organizations, then, is how to pose problems and opportunities in forms that will elicit and inspire a collaborative response," he wrote.

In other words, it is not enough to simply bemoan the cultural barriers to knowledge sharing, or the failings of technology; we have to start creatively thinking of how we pose questions in a manner that encourages collaborative solutions. As Schrage says, it is, above all, a matter of leadership.

The evolution of collaboration software

The roots of collaboration software can be traced back to the launch of Lotus (lotus.com) Notes in 1989—which more or less kick-started the groupware market. However, the concept of collaboration has long been praised and less often implemented.

During the 1990s, actual deployments of Notes and its competitors grew slowly. The mid-1990s saw further expansion due to Microsoft’s (microsoft.com) entry into the corporate e-mail market and the new impetus given to Lotus after its acquisition by IBM (ibm.com). In the late 1990s, it was given another push by the emergence of Internet e-mail, the growing interest in knowledge management and by the development of corporate intranets. That period saw new entrants into the market, such as Open Text (opentext.com) and Intraspect (intraspect.com), which offered to fill the gaps in the offerings from IBM Lotus and Microsoft.

The extension of Internet technologies has provided further impetus to those developments in recent years and offered new dimensions to collaboration in the form of Web-based environments, instant messaging and peer-to-peer communication. Vendors such as eRoom--acquired last year by Documentum (documentum.com), Groove Networks (groove.net), WebEx (webex.com) and PlaceWare (placeware.com, recently acquired by Microsoft) emerged to provide additional approaches to collaboration. Lotus has also developed its own offering in this area with QuickPlace and Sametime.

At one level, the collaboration market has gone through significant consolidation--with IBM Lotus and Microsoft battling between themselves for the dominance of the enterprise messaging market. At other levels, however, the market is more dynamic and fragmented than ever before, with not only a host of startups in the market, but also the entrance of bigger players, such as Oracle (oracle.com) and Documentum.

Over the next two years, we will continue to see much wider adoption of project-based collaboration tools, as well as an increased used of synchronous communications such as instant messaging. We will also see the integration of collaboration tools into a wider range of business applications and also more integrated collaboration services with enterprise portals.

However, larger organizations are already becoming concerned about the proliferation of project-based collaboration tools. As a result, they will look for a more cohesive strategy for supporting collaboration across the enterprise. Collaboration solutions must be able to cover the many and varied contexts for collaboration. As a consequence, we are seeing the market evolve toward the provision of a new generation of enterprise collaboration platforms that can support the requirements for both informal and formal collaboration--both the bottom-up requirements of communities and teams, and the top-down requirements for management and process control.

A new class of enterprise collaborative platforms will emerge over the next two or three years to support that requirement.

Eric Woods is research director at Ovum, e-mail exw@ovum.com.

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