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Is There a Doctrinaire in the House?

The queasy feeling started when Peter wrote in an e-mail: "The collaboration market is completely confused. I'll tell you what I mean next week."

So naturally, the first thing I did was give up. I mean, if a market is confusing to one of the market's top marketers, then what chance did I have? So I went and got a haircut instead.

Peter is Peter Auditore, Vice President of U.S. Marketing for Hummingbird USA, which is in the "magic quadrant" of every analyst company's analysis of the collaboration space. So that should make Peter the least confused guy on earth when it comes to collaboration, right?

Well....

"What is collaboration?" asked Peter, rather rhetorically on the phone the following week. We had arranged to spend some time solving this riddle of collaboration and its place in information management. "We're collaborating right now, right?" I agreed that to some extent our simple telephone call was indeed a form of collaboration. But that wasn't helping.

"Collaboration is going to be a huge, huge market, but only for those companies that can correctly identify the true value of collaboration," Peter stated. "Like knowledge management, collaboration has many definitions." Which he proceeded to list (and I paraphrase):

The number-one, worldwide personal collaborative tool is e-mail.

Following that are the interactive collaboration products-things like Web conferencing, video conferencing, etc.

Then you've got what I call ‘fluffy' collaboration ... instant messaging tools that leverage e-mail and simply alert people when something changes in the "shared space." Then you've got true collaborative environments, the "team collaborative products." Tools like these (EDS's Metaphase, for example) allow, for instance, engineers to work together to design a product.

Now, that seems simple on the surface. But imagine the way an automobile is designed: First, there are the engineers, who themselves are divided up into disparate domains of expertise: power-train experts, aerodynamic experts, safety experts, environmental experts. Then come the design guys, who must cram all the engineers' pipe dreams into a package that can be built. And despite the unforgivable ugliness of most cars today, design teams spend a lot of time either in a wind tunnel or in a focus group.

Product manufacturing also brings in elements of marketing, of course, but also don't forget finance, production, facilities management, even HR and customer service, eventually.

Of the total cost of creating a new product, 95% is in this multilayered, cross-disciplinary design phase. And it can be a real nightmare.

Software vendors have addressed this problem with satisfactory solutions for a while. So why is the collaboration marketplace considered by Peter and others to be so confused?

Because it seems that-contrary to common wisdom-as the collaboration market has matured it has also remained thoroughly fragmented. And that's not the way it is supposed to work. Mature businesses are supposed to consolidate over time. Yet, here's a case where disciplines such as facilities design for buildings, process design for pharmaceuticals, packaging design for retail products each has its "collaboration product."

There are as many examples of collaborative products and specialized applications as there are business processes that they support. Here's one: A guy in Arizona makes spas. He has design engineers all over the world, and sometimes there are problems with the spas. (Personally, I've never had trouble with any spa, but....)

Anyway, this guy has a "wish list." He wants to create a series of "collaborative design rooms," one for each product in the line, where the sales team (who hears the complaints) and the engineering teams can get together and "design the flaws out of the spas." That's a mission statement, with a clear ROI, that I can get behind. From the virtual design studios that product manufacturing loves, to the virtual deal rooms now taking the legal business by storm, there's room for specialized vendors to find a comfy niche.

The Gathering Whatever

Swirling around the background of this picture is another trend that is having enormous impact on collaboration: technology convergence and interdependence. Even though the individual collaboration products in place remain separate and distinct along vertical market lines, the underlying trend in information technology is the opposite. All our technologies are collapsing into one dense black hole of convergence. This trend has already begun to suck the light right out of any thoughtful attempts to neatly categorize and parse it. It's a jumble out there.

For example, collaboration is messaging on steroids, but can't exist without document management. DM is now umbilically linked to unstructured data management. UDM is the final hurdle to jump in delivering true enterprise content management. ECM is the ultimate expression of "everything management." (If you don't believe this convergence is taking place, just look at the example set by the big database vendors, such as Oracle, who have been quietly adding UDM capabilities to their engines, and check out the smart systems integrators who are leveraging Oracle's penetration in the Fortune 500 to create content management infrastructures in the very largest of the world's businesses.)

The Document DNA

How is it, in this time of hardship for the overall enterprise software market, that document and content management seem to remain relatively intact-showing roughly 10% to 12% year-over-year growth figures, as compared to the overall enterprise software market's wan 5%?

Peter thinks it's based on a fundamentally new value proposition that is beginning to dawn on the users of document and content management technologies.

"How are all these technologies used to deliver value right away?" asks Peter, always the rhetorician. "In every case, the value comes when they are applied to optimize an existing business process. To fundamentally change the way business processes are done, changing it from where it sits today and making it more competitive. That's how I view collaborative e-commerce: it's an environment that lets you do your business in an entirely new way."

And that, Peter argues, is what makes the convergence of content technologies in a collaborative setting such a revolutionary event.

But why is document management-lowly, simple document management-the holder of this One Ring of Power? That's the key to this epiphany about value.

Person-to-person knowledge exchange is nice, but at the heart of collaboration is the integration not so much of people, but of various business processes. The functional departments in an enterprise must be able to easily exchange information before the grail of knowledge can be passed from hand to hand.

And let's face it, when we say "information," we essentially mean documents. With the possible exception of a personal phone call, every action taken in a business process depends on the presence of a document of some kind: a contract, an e-mail, a record, or a spreadsheet. Even a database-intensive process-say, an OLAP BI analysis-eventually becomes a report that is human-readable in order to have any value at all.

So, let's take the bold step of redefining "information management" as "document and content management." And then let's look at the numbers:

Gartner estimates the "information management" market (which includes collaboration, personal software, e-mail and business process management) is going to be a $32 billion market opportunity. And collaboration is a huge and growing component of that information management market that is now document-, content- and knowledge-management centric.

This blurring of the boundaries between technologies, and the common DNA of content and document that they share, is what makes business process management, business performance management and collaboration inextricable from one another. This convergence of reliance upon one another is what makes the collaboration market (and since we're talking about it, DM and BPM, too) so damn confusing.

What to Do About It?

Collaborative environments are not automatic. They do not emerge, fully successful, just because there's a means of exposing document repositories with search-and-retrieval and an underlying DM control. To make such environments actually work, you've got to mandate it. You've got to require all those engineers change some of the familiar patterns, and learn to develop their products using a new collaborative environment. This, and many more disruptive changes like it, will be the biggest management challenge of the next decade.

Not to be dismissed is the impact that collaborative technologies have on the notion of the "virtual" workforce. It's a great accomplishment to provide high-speed pipes and script applications for the at-home mom who does data entry. And it's pretty cool to create virtual "design labs" where engineers with domain expertise can contribute to the creation of a new manufactured good.

But it's quite another thing to enable pan-national organizations to work on the same document resources and accomplish very process-intensive functions, such as organizing an M&A, or a bankruptcy or what have you. And in an economy where organizational success is measured by one's ability to manage value-chain-style relationships, and do so more or less flawlessly, contract management and "matter" management (as they say in the legal biz) are just emerging as the biggest drivers for collaborative document management.

The buying public in search of a collaborative solution has a tough decision to make. All this variety and specialization can lead in one of two ways. The market could follow the vertically focused products and adopt strict, mandated and functionally narrow solutions, which may be sharply tuned to the specific market (AutoDesk and engineering, for example). This approach works adequately for many user organizations and is the currently accepted approach to team collaboration. In many ways, this approach is to automate the existing process.

Here's another possibility: the industry can adopt customizable, pre-integrated solutions that may not be sold as the vertical solution you're looking for, but are flexible enough to be molded for the applications and open enough to act as truly cross-departmental information-sharing spaces. In this option, the customer is signing on to utterly change the business process, and to trade whatever well-known restrictions that process had for the unknown option of utter change.

Not a comfortable choice. But that's what we're looking at folks.

Either way, the basic component has to be the document-it's the Rosetta Stone that translates every process's home language into something that can enlighten and educate your many communities and processes.

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