The Business Of Collaboration

Some Background

The last few years can be described as the age of social business and collaboration. The demands and expectations of today’s knowledge workers have been shaped by the plethora of social networks and social media tools. Communicating and sharing information has never been easier.  Staying connected with news and status updates from friends, family, or at work is real-time and no longer constrained to an office PC.  This has coincided with the business realisation that a greater degree of interaction with customers, whether consumers or businesses, makes for a higher degree of customer retention.

Ironically, in many cases, workplace policy and technology constraints have meant that staff resorts to using the technology they have brought with them in their pockets or handbags in order to remain connected with their networks.  The ubiquity of mobile devices and ease of use of many web services means that almost anyone can originate or contribute to digital content, and information is increasingly consumed on the move. Recent analysis from Nielson shows that we spend 110 billion minutes on social networks and blog sites per month, or 22 per cent of all time is spent on-line. And the expectation now is that the tools that people use at work should be as easy and fun to use as the ones they use in their personal life.

But is this tsunami of data and information making us all better informed? How do we overcome information overload and ensure the relevance and utility of the information we consume? Can we provide environments that tap into the collective intelligence of groups or knowledge domains that match our specific needs?

And so the scene was set for the “Business of Collaboration” event hosted by PFI Knowledge Solutions (PFIKS) on 8th November 2011. PFIKS are one of the leading vendors of  “Enterprise Social Software” systems with their open sources, open standards Intelligus platform.

What is Enterprise Social Software?

Enterprise Social Software (ESS) is the next generation of platforms that are built to manage high volumes of collaborative engagement and conversations among distributed teams, project groups or communities of practice. They build on the conceptual ideas of popular social networking platforms such as Facebook and LinkedIn, but with a host of enterprise-ready features to make them secure, private, collaborative and business integration-friendly.

As many organisations have discovered, implementing a technology solution by itself rarely results in more effective collaboration and knowledge sharing.  Sustainable implementation of ESS requires:

1. Understanding of how and why successful knowledge-sharing communities and networks perform.

2. A system that implicitly acknowledges the constraints (time, process) and motivations (reciprocity, reward) that individuals experience within such networks.

3. A blended approach where technology seamlessly supports the behavioural characteristics that will encourage users to self-organize, collaborate and co-create.

But what about the investment in ICT systems that organisations have made over the past decade?

The good news is that it’s not a matter of ripping out legacy systems, but extending what you have, adding new capabilities and integrating new applications and services.

Delegates at the event included representatives from private and public sectors, large organisations and SME’s, all with a common purpose: to get a better understanding of this “social business ecosystem” and how the blend of technology, people and processes can be effectively combined to support more fluid knowledge flows, drive collaboration initiatives and open up opportunities for innovation.

One of the delegates, David Wilcox, Social Reporter working with the Big Lottery Fund posted this excellent blog about the event.

All of the slide presentations from the event are available from the Intelligus website, including my own. However, I wanted to elaborate on some of the points I made in my  presentation. Hopefully you can follow these points with reference to the embedded slide presentation below, or from Slideshare.

The Presentation

Slides 1-4

What is the question that connects the images?

Collaboration pre-supposes that we have someone to collaborate with – in this example the person on the other side of the seesaw. The seesaw will only work with the collaboration of the people involved, in this instance, the child at each end of the seesaw.

Knowledge sharing makes no assumptions about collaboration; it’s possible to share knowledge with people we don’t know, e.g. by posting something to an on-line forum, or writing a blog about something we have seen or read or experienced. We may not know who is going to read our missive, or what value they may place on it. The posting might lead to some form of collaboration with the readers/consumers, but that is not necessarily the primary purpose for knowledge sharing.

Most of us are happy to collaborate and share ideas with the people we know (i.e. the definition of “collaboration”).

Slides 5-7

But what about the huge untapped resources and expertise that we don’t know about? We may get to hear about people in this “unknown world” via recommendations or word of mouth, but how do we connect and engage with them? How can we know what we don’t know? How do we find the answers to our questions in this “unknown world”?

If nothing else, this is where the power of social networks comes to the fore. We have the tools and technology to be able to “crowd-source” our questions. Social media tools such as Twitter or Quora make it easy to post queries to a largely anonymous network of people in the hope that someone will have the answer or the appropriate knowledge and experience we are seeking. By engaging and connecting with the people that respond we can grow our personal network, often referred to as our “Social Graph”.

Better still if the system or network we have joined can suggest contacts for us, based on what it knows about us, either explicitly (our digital identity and personal profile), or implicitly (our digital footprint, i.e. our ‘likes’, the people we have connected with and the on-line places we have visited).

Slides 8 – 10

Social networks have proliferated over the past 4 or 5 years. Some have been more successful than others. Remember that even a blog can be a form of social network, and we now have over 200 billion of these (yes, more than the population of the planet!)

New users can be intimidated by large/mature social networks which have lots of users and content, and where engagement and conversations protocols have been established.

Slides 12-13

But are we beginning to see the onset of “social network fatigue”? Each new social network adds to the internet background noise. Search engines have never really delivered on the promise of relevant information, and many of us resort to serendipitous discovery of key information and conversations – it’s a bit ad hoc, where knowledge discovery is more by accident than design.

Slide 14

So, the signal to noise ratio is pretty poor at the moment and the ever-increasing volume of information hitting the Internet is likely to make it even worse.

Slides 15-16

It’s a strange paradox that now we have the capability of easily creating new websites and blogs without the need for any programing skills, what we really want now is one place to view and interact with all of this information. A recent (September 2011) audit of LinkedIn illustrates the problem:

  • 26 Alumni groups
  • 32 Corporate groups
  • 20 Conference groups
  • 132 Networking groups
  • 16 Nonprofit groups
  • 196 Professional groups

A total of 422 groups. How do you know which group(s) to join to be sure of getting the best answer to your questions? Maybe ‘all of them’ is the answer!

(Information sourced from blogs by Nick Milton and Ian Wooler)

Slide 18

If we want relevant information to come to us, we have to

  1. tell the system something about ourselves (our digital identity and profile),
  2. enable access to the sources of information that might be useful and
  3. spend some time identifying and validating the sources we like and trust. We can’t leave everything to technology – what you get out is proportional to what you put in!

This is clearly where the likes of Facebook (groups, Timeline) and Google+ (Circles, Sparks) are heading, but neither has yet achieved a ‘simple’ way of doing it.

Slides 19-21

Most of us will be more concerned with what the information is and whether we can trust it rather than where it is. So, do we have to worry about the “where” if we can develop some form of interoperability between systems and networks? RSS/Atom feeds and tagging are only part of the answer. We need a system that can extract meaning from the data (e.g. entity extraction) that will enable ontologies to be created and terms to be categorised for faceted search and discovery.

Slides 22-24

Entity abstraction, aggregation and categorisation.  If our profile is up to date, the Enterprise Social Software system should be able to locate, aggregate and categorise the information that we would find relevant and useful by matching terms against our profile data (who we are, where we work, what we’re interested in, etc.). Precision can be further improved by monitoring our ‘digital footprint’, i.e. the knowledge/information assets that we have ‘liked’, recommended or downloaded.  If we layer on top of this the aggregated behaviour patterns of all the users, we can leverage the opportunities provided by “collective intelligence” to identify “good’ content.

Products/vendors such as Amazon do this all of the time, using explicit data (the user bought an item) and implicit (users who bought this items also looked at these items). Tracking of a user’s progress through a website is not rocket science and is a fundamental part of any web analytics software. Inject a bit of entity extraction and you start to establish the foundations of a system that can begin to ‘intelligently’ connect information with people and people with people.

Slides 25-26

‘Liking’, ‘+1’ or ‘tweeting’ not only enables sharing of information, it can be fed into ‘trending engines’ that will aggregate and categorise the crowd-sourced data to show hot topics and trends. Again, the technology is well established, but little use is made of it in many Enterprise 2.0 systems. How nice it would be if, for example, your job entailed commissioning adult social care services and you could see the trending conversations on adult social care on your Enterprise 2.0 dashboard. This feature is built into the Intelligus platform using a combination of the open source application Carrot2 and the proprietary PFIKS matching engine.

Slide 27

All of the prior discussion refers to an environment (social media, social networks) that are already in place, and for technologies, systems and applications that are currently being delivered in Intelligus and some of the other leading Enterprise Social Software systems. But what of the future? Where is all of this taking us?

Slides 29-32

I will conclude with a few words about the growing importance of ‘Apps’. With apologies to those who don’t know who Peter Kaye is and his oft-repeated reference to Garlic Bread being the future! Maybe do a quick search on YouTube and all will be revealed!

Slide 33

As usual, Dilbert is pretty much attuned to what is happening in the business world. I would argue that most organisations haven’t yet grasped the full impact of the App market, and may view this as being the exclusive domain of the on-line gamers. In fact, (IMHO) it is shaping up to be one of the most disruptive technologies to appear since the start of the social media wave.

Slide 34

The trends reinforce the view that apps are becoming ubiquitous in how we work and play. Note that all of these apps are developed for mobile devices.

Slides 35-40

As I have noted on the slide, the key attributes of an Enterprise App Store are:

  • Empowers the user for self-service
  • Easy to use conduit of software, services and data
  • Model widely understood by developers and consumers of software
  • Recognition that one size doesn’t fit all (e.g. the lobotomised corporate PC)
  • Life-cycles for apps potentially short: discarded when no longer useful/relevant
  • Enterprise App Stores will provide a trusted source of business-ready apps that can be delivered to a rapidly changing work environment.
  • The end device is less important than the application. The mantra is now “develop for mobile, but consider the PC”, and not the other way around.
Slides 41-46

Finally, and in summary, the key ‘take-aways’ from this presentation:

  1. More people suffering “Social Network Fatigue” – desire for one place to do business,
  2. Enterprise Social Software (ESS) solutions must integrate with legacy systems and business processes.
  3. ESS must add value – more fluid knowledge flows, decision support etc.
  4. Mashups and Enterprise App Stores will become increasingly important for business agility
  5. Develop for mobile, think PC, not other way around!

Of course these are just my opinions. I’m happy to receive critical comment and corrections to any incorrect assumptions or poorly constructed arguments I may have made!

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