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Knowledge management past and future

Collaboration tools are central to effective IT support for knowledge and information management, and many developments occurred in that sector in 2005. Some interested changes have also taken place in such closely related areas as content management and search. In examining the past and future of KM in this article, we focus on developments among the largest IT vendors in this dynamic space.

At the annual Lotusphere conference in January 2005, a major theme was the importance that IBM places on continuing to develop and sell both Lotus Domino and its growing collection of Workplace Collaboration technologies--now known as IBM Workplace Collaboration Services (WCS). One driver was the continuing confusion among many users of the relationship between those overlapping product families. The publicity for IBM Workplace through 2004 had led many existing Notes Domino users to believe that there was, at best, a "two-lane highway" for development.

Not surprisingly, IBM strongly denied that, and this year's Lotusphere was the first time I have heard so many senior IBM executives talking about convergence. It has been pretty clear from both publicity and discussions with senior IBM executives that the company expects Notes Domino to continue to be a major product (and revenue stream), and that it will be around and supported for decades.

Notes Domino and WCS have clear and ambitious development paths defined for some years into the future, and there are an increasing number of overlaps in the road map. It is already possible for WCS to use Notes through a plug-in. Domino can use many of the WCS components in Release 7, which appeared mid-year. WCS currently uses the Websphere Portal as its user interface, and Release 7 of Notes will also be able to use the portal as its user interface. None of this means that users actually have to change over to different software—it's an upgrade to a new version that retains full backward compatibility. While software upgrades are often not trivial, at least this approach means that the IT department will go through a traditional product upgrade rather than swap to a different product.

Some interesting developments have taken place around Activity Explorer. Activity-centric collaboration allows users to collect activities so that a task such as "develop presentation" can be created. That can then be used to create the first draft of the presentation, hold discussions on its development recorded as part of the activity, and then save the completed thread of discussions as a single unit. Another significant change is the addition of "activity presence"--identifying if a piece of content is currently being edited within an activity thread. That allows you to start instant messaging (IM) sessions at the point when a colleague is engaged in a task in the activity thread, which gives an interesting new use of the presence concept.

All of the developments for both the Lotus products and the newer Workplace tools show the high degree of emphasis that IBM is placing on its collaboration software. IBM is certainly not going to give up its place on the leader board in the face of the increasing competition from organizations like Microsoft and Oracle.

Microsoft's acquisition of Groove Networks in March was hardly a big surprise--Microsoft has been an investor in the company since 2001, when it put in $50 million. The release of Office Communicator 2005 this summer has added further functionality to Microsoft's collaboration offering.

An interesting difference between those products is that Microsoft follows a model of centralization, whereas Groove offers decentralized collaboration tools that are IT-infrastructure agnostic and offer offline and cross-organizational capabilities. The arguments for and against the centralized and decentralized models are as old as the operating models themselves. The automated synchronization delivered by Groove Networks can potentially overcome some of the difficulties by ensuring that all newly changed content is replicated and distributed. Neither approach rules supreme--deploying both centralized and decentralized approaches in conjunction can deliver considerable benefits to workers on the move and contribute to greater efficiency.

The latest addition to the Microsoft collaboration stable is Office Communicator, which has been much trailed under the code name "Istanbul." It is not as comprehensive as originally planned, but nevertheless provides some impressive functionality. That includes presence information with multiple categories of presence--for example, available, away, do not disturb and offline. Individuals can also customize presence status messages. Microsoft also provides connectors so that you can determine the presence of individuals using IM tools from AOL, Yahoo and MSN.

Office Communicator provides Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and can connect directly into a Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) gateway for seamless connectivity. So, for example, if you initiate an IM session, you can add new participants or convert it into a voice conference. If you want to use the public network for some or all of the participants, the server will directly call each person automatically on his or her preferred method of communication. You can also initiate a LiveMeeting session automatically, potentially in parallel with a VoIP or PSTN-based teleconference.

The Microsoft story seems to be increasingly integrated, but it is not really reflected in the plethora of collaboration tools available and the existence of some duplication of functionality. Challenges arise when you need an integrated solution--the sheer number of products instantly complicates the picture. That problem could be diminished following the major company reorganization that was announced in the autumn.

Oracle OpenWorld in September demonstrated that the company is making strong progress in the related areas of collaboration, portals and content management, and showed just how far Oracle is moving from its original stamping ground of databases.

The latest release of Oracle Collaboration Services 10g (OCS 10g) offers significant updates. Workspaces provide a team environment for carrying out collaborative tasks and for managing content and activities. The instant messaging functions include chat conferencing, Web conferencing and voice chat, as well as presence facilities for individuals and groups. A range of other updates include improved calendaring and mobile access. The release raises Oracle's game significantly. In terms of functions offered, OCS 10g is now at a level where it can compete directly with collaboration offerings from vendors such as IBM (Workplace and Lotus) and Open Text.

The new Content Services software was also finally released as part of OCS 10g after some delays. That was heavily reported in the second half of 2004 and is a substantial development on the Oracle Files software, which had been delivering basic content management services for some years. It delivers "content management for the rest of us" and is targeted at the audience that needs middleweight content management--more than is delivered by Microsoft WSS but less than is provided by the heavy-duty functionality of the CM specialists like FileNet and EMC Documentum.

These updates push Oracle much further into the world of unstructured content. The company's biggest challenge will be to ensure that all the components can be mixed and matched in the heterogeneous environment in most user organizations. There was considerable talk at the conference about openness and open standards, but only time and good user reference sites will show just how open and interoperable those pieces of software can become.

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