New tools are putting the collaboration into “collaboration software” by creating a social media-inspired user experience for Enterprise knowledge management. But it’s taken a long time to get here.
Old school collaboration: floppy-net and shared drives
Until around ten years ago, when people talked about using software for “collaboration” in an Enterprise setting they usually meant transferring files point-to-point by email or handing off a diskette, aka “floppy-net” (or worse, by passing paper that would require re-typing). Advanced collaboration involved establishing shared “network drives” where documents could be stored in folders accessible to everyone on the local network. But under this “system” for collaboration, even when people devoted a significant amount of time to maintaining document repositories it could be difficult for others to find useful documents, or even know whether useful documents existed in the first place. Labeling was limited, document sets might be incomplete or out of date, authors, owners, or other contextual information might be unclear. Much like the internet before Google-quality search, folks could spend a lot of time browsing without getting any payoff.
Such collaboration systems are still quite common even though they aren’t very efficient because of the way that they rely on limited personal connections, memories and attention spans. In such a system the best strategy when hunting for a document is to ask around to try to figure out who might know where to find useful documents. People asked for help – if they have time – try to remember what documents are available, then either hunt through the repository themselves or point towards likely places to look. This system obviously doesn’t scale very well because there is a linear relationship between the number of documents being managed and the time and expertise required to manage them. Emails sent by people seeking help finding information can become a significant burden, particularly in the inboxes of the most knowledgeable or best connected. And because managing documents in this system is relatively time consuming and unrewarding, most people have little incentive to use or contribute to document management. Countless document repositories under this model suffered from neglect or abandonment simply because they were so impractical. And unless a critical mass of use and contribution is achieved, the appearance that a repository is abandoned or neglected in turn reduces the incentive of new or returning community member to participate. Instead people would rationally choose to “reinvent the wheel”, recreating documents or processes from scratch simply because the barriers to finding out whether what they need already exists are too high.
SharePoint and other web-like Information Management solutions
The rise of the internet has helped propel Enterprise collaboration forward, thanks in part to a new generation of internet-inspired collaboration software exemplified by Microsoft’s SharePoint. Sharepoint offers features such as alerts, discussion boards, document libraries, categorization, shared workspaces, forms and surveys, personal pages and profiles, and the ability to pull in and display information from data sources outside of SharePoint itself, including the internet (“web parts”). Access controls have also evolved, enabling people to have access to the files and directories that pertain to them, while limiting access to others. Meanwhile data storage capacity has exploded, costs have plummeted, and access speed has rocketed. Naturally, for most organizations the volume of documents being managed has ballooned exponentially. But we still need to ask: have knowledge management and collaboration scaled in proportion to the volume of information that is available and could be useful if more people could get their hands on it?
Notwithstanding features like Enterprise search, notifications, and improved metadata, many information management hubs are, in effect, still data silos where information is safe and organized but inconvenient to explore and share. In truth, despite powerful automated solutions now available, effective collaboration is still largely dependent on the quality of user participation.
Adoption and Engagement
Two key elements of effective collaboration are adoption, which corresponds to the percentage of team members who are able to use the system, and engagement, which corresponds to how many of them use the system regularly.
For a collaboration system to be effective it must maintain a critical mass of active users or risk becoming ignored and thus irrelevant. There’s a chicken and egg relationship here. A collaboration system must achieve and maintain a critical mass of adoption and engagement to be self-sustaining. Few people are going to adopt and engage if nothing of value is happening on the system because not enough other people have adopted and engaged. To attract this level of participation the experience should be easy (low frustration), useful (practical results are usually obtained), and emotionally rewarding (users experience satisfaction or even enjoy using it). Otherwise a collaboration system risks turning into a quiet information cul de sac no matter how impressive its technology.
Enter social media
Lessons learned from the social media phenomenon – examining the virtual footprints of the hundreds of millions of people using Facebook – are radically enhancing Enterprise knowledge management by promoting ease of use, practical results, and emotional gratification within collaboration systems. To get more information about this development I recently met with J. B. Holston, CEO of NewsGator, whose Social Sites solution adds Facebook-like features to SharePoint. Available for only 3-1/2 years, Social Sites’ committed customers already include Accenture, Novartis, Biogen, Edelman, and Deloitte, among others.
The basic idea behind Social Sites (my take, not necessarily J. B.’s) is that SharePoint users experience less frustration, find better quality material, and receive more emotional gratification when their SharePoint experience is more like Facebook. And because a social media approach to collaboration is both useful and gratifying, more people use the collaboration system – adoption increases – and they use it more often for more purposes – engagement increases. Teams get more done while having more fun. Additional benefits of a social media overlay on top of a standard SharePoint install is that it to draws attention to and promotes increased use of available resources and encourages users to find out about and experiment with collaboration options they weren’t using before, which may convert them into more valuable collaborators themselves.
Social Sites extends the functionality of SharePoint in a number of respects. The first generation of Social Sites added features including:
- marking and tagging items;
- providing custom streams of their “friends” activity updates (imagine keeping up with important developments with key people down the hall, in other regions or departments as they happen);
- making it easier to move content in and out of SharePoint; and
- making it easy for people to connect with the people who posted specific items with a single click.
The latest generation of Social Sites offers even more features (70 webparts in all are available), such as:
- idea development (“ideation”);
- threaded conversations;
- the ability to follow people and events;
- automatic updates when specific things of interest happen;
- the ability to ask questions;
- the ability to make requests; and
- the ability to pass word along about things that are happening.
An open API makes it possible to customize activity streams open to groups of users that is also accessible from mobile devices. Social Sites also lends itself to community management and governance.
As icing on the cake, Newsgator also offers iPhone and iPad applications for Social Sites to enable everywhere, all of the time mobile interaction with SharePoint (including Social Sites social media features), completing the Facebook-like user experience.
For companies already using SharePoint, Social Sites allows them to upgrade their team’s collaborative performance without fundamentally reengineering their current knowledge management systems. For example the way information is stored and structured and integrations like workflows can be preserved. They can also avoid the costs of migration, retraining employees on new systems, or hiring specialists to manage the new systems. On the flip side, to the extent that Social Sites upgrades SharePoint to make it competitive with, or superior to, other collaboration options, the combination improves SharePoint’s attractiveness to companies considering swicthing over from competing knowledge management solutions. Finally, customers who seek to make this level of interaction widely available within their organizations may buy even more SharePoint licenses and invest in more customization.