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Time to (re)innovate the office?

It isn't news to anyone reading this that Microsoft (www.microsoft.com) and IBM (www.ibm.com) have been fighting over the knowledge sharing and collaboration (collectively: collaborative business knowledge) space for many years. Despite the time that has passed, Microsoft and IBM have not even begun to recognize the challenges ahead. The reason: They simply don't get what collaboration and knowledge sharing is; their products reflect a lack of understanding of the needs of knowledge/information workers and how they work--and how they use the software they have been given.

While technology seems to have made tremendous progress over the past decade, the way knowledge workers perform their tasks has not changed much. We may use more advanced word processing tools today, allowing us to knock out 15 drafts of a report instead of one or two on an IBM Selectric typewriter, but the core of knowledge work and the methodologies surrounding it have not changed.

Despite all the hoopla in the late 1980s about artificial intelligence and how it was going to revolutionize work, there is little evidence of that in the tools we use today. Much of the software used by the knowledge work force hasn't changed in years. Office 97 is still the most prevalent version of Microsoft Office, while Office 2003 has only 6 percent of the market 1.5 years after release. While Microsoft Office has been updated with new collaboration and knowledge sharing features and has become part of Office System, the offering still represents an amalgamation of tools--some having been around for more than a decade--rather than a unified, cohesive toolset. IBM's strategy has been based on Lotus Notes, a 15-year-old design, and only recently has included Workplace, a new architecture that does not yet represent a large installed base.

Microsoft is continuing to build on a desktop PC strategy, while IBM is embarking on a strategy that is network-centric. Which one will ultimately prevail is not the issue here--what is interesting is that there are two diametrically opposed architectures and viewpoints vying to solve the same problem.

At the moment, the battle is centered on the tool used most: e-mail messaging. Winston Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government, except all the others that have been tried. Well, e-mail messaging, however ubiquitous, is one of the worst ways to exchange information except all the others that have been tried.

Too many knowledge workers live in e-mail--be it of the IBM or Microsoft flavor--and use that tool, which is effectively the path of least resistance, for extensive knowledge sharing and collaboration when they should be using document sharing and collaboration tools. That happens for many reasons, the most prominent of which is that users know how e-mail works--unlike many other applications.

But why don't they?

There are far better tools on the market for that purpose, at least on the surface, than e-mail. They are not used as widely as they should be primarily because most of them are not integrated (or integrated well) into a unified work environment. Indeed, they have become a barrier rather than a facilitator of work because they create too much friction at the point where information needs to be entered or accessed.

At the same time, managers are not yet prepared to manage the more creative knowledge/information worker contingent and to measure that workgroup's productivity; neither corporations nor business schools teach managers to think creatively and manage innovation--processes that form the foundation of the Information Age. Applying knowledge to work enriches both the worker and the organization.

The solution, however, is not an impossible dream; rather it is something that requires software makers to start fresh, learning more about the underpinnings of knowledge work while studying how knowledge workers use extant tools. In fact, by doing the latter, companies will be surprised to see how users themselves have adapted applications and platforms to take the first step in managing their knowledge work.

Microsoft and IBM should build new, all-encompassing environments that are designed from the bottom up for knowledge and information work, that minimize friction and keep the worker focused on the job at hand, rather than on the tools. At the same time, we must educate managers on the needs of the changing work force, the role of creativity in the workplace, how knowledge/information workers innovate and why companies that don't make the transition from the industrial to the knowledge economy will fail to lead.

Following the three high-level tenets of collaborative business knowledge will help software companies create platforms that work for knowledge workers. They include:

• the one-environment rule--being in one environment for all tasks,

• friction-free knowledge sharing--easily sharing information without having to think about it, and

• embedded community--being able to communicate and collaborate contextually.

To get there, we must vanquish the many unrealistic views of the future of "office work." When video conferencing was first introduced, it was imagined that the most important aspect of a meeting was seeing the faces of everyone. Now that online conferencing has become part of the landscape, we know that knowledge workers eschew live video images and focus on document sharing and whiteboarding. One reason: The increased number of telecommuters means that many conference participants are wearing pajamas or Bermuda shorts on such occasions.

Collaboration and knowledge sharing are less a question of technology than of systems that facilitate people working together. People think that whiteboarding, instant messaging, and video are the keys to collaboration, but they're not. Rather, success in collaboration and knowledge sharing comes from companies learning to play nicely together in the corporate sandbox. That requires massive shifts in corporate culture as well as in employee education. Many managers, despite an embrace of technology, still view productivity in industrial-age terms, despite the fact that knowledge work productivity is a far different animal.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and chief analyst of Basex (basex.com), e-mail jspira@basex.com.

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