On the latest blog, we have discussed whether the concept of Corporate Social Networking Software will spread or not. We have spotted few points: volatility of business habits, pragmatism of stakeholders and importance of management fashions. Now it is time to talk about how this concept has been evolved and what it is like.

Firstly we should underline the word: 'collaboration'. According to Wikipedia article several parameters stand out:
 
  • Communication
  • Decentralized groups
  • Coordination
  • Common goals
  • Sharing knowledge
  • Sharing ideas

Applications like Lotus Notes/Domino or Microsoft Outlook/Exchange could be categorized as messaging software, instead of 'collaboration'. Of couse, Lotus Notes is one step ahead thanks to some extra functionalities and its application development potential. That is why Lotus Notes/Domino is called as 'groupware'. Thus, Microsoft is attacking its messaging features, trying to pull it to Exchange's ground of competition. However they also try to develop a rival product (by acquiring Groove software). Since they don't actually prefer acquisition as a strategy, this progress seems very slow.

Well, is it possible to convert our Domino infrastructure to a 'collaboration' system? It will meet some collaborating functionalities by some other products. IBM Lotus has always provided a product portfolio that can be used integrated to the Domino infrastructure. Lotus Workflow for form-based workflow applications, Lotus Sametime for instant messaging and awareness, Lotus Quickplace/Quickr for team collaboration, Domino.Doc/Quickr for document management or Websphere Portal for corporate portals are examples of these components. As long as these components configured and implemented properly, they provide an effective collaborative environment for companies.

But we expect more ad-hoc platform solution for the next step. It is a common problem that classical approaches leaded by IT professionals could be incapable for some problems. A Lotus Workflow implementation (unlike IBM's promises) cannot be used efficiently without involvement of an IT team. These implementations are analyzed, developed and shaped according to industry-based needs and/or business functions. Likely, for document management projects, an 'authority' prepares a 'meta-information' for different kinds of documents (legal, quality, etc.) and assigns special processes for each different document type. They solve our 'function needs', not our 'doing business' problems...

E-Mail Addiction


When we are interested in daily usage, our applications are not dealing with day-to-day business problems. Document and information sharing methods cannot be bounded by solid structures. Since current collaboration systems do not provide open and flexible utilities, users prefer the most flexible system to solve their problems: E-mail. Large inboxes are not the only nightmare of IT departments. After an employee left, his/her mail database, chronological encyclopedia of what he/she did, is going to garbage. I see that several customers are transferring e-mail data to later employee but except some types of users (such as sales people or customer representatives that know what to look for), this data cannot be utilized. Another problem is that e-mail data is personal but not sharable information. Other employees with similar position cannot access the information. Sometimes, even the owners of mailboxes cannot find what they look for in the swamp of messages.

File Server Delusion


Actually, file servers are alike e-mail databases. IT departments prefer file servers because they are safe, secure and managable. For users, however, it is the most primitive but flexible way to share large documents.

E-mail data can be deleted from our system when the owner lefts the company. What about their files in file servers? The new-comer creates a new folder named 'OldDocs' and puts all documents into it. Or, think of a project; lots of versions produced, instant backups or ad-hoc works are created... These documents will not be deleted thanks to the perception of 'infinite-space' on file server.

Moreover, the content cannot be categorized properly. The old paradigm of folder-tree structure prevents us to categorize our content in an efficient way. For example, I have folders that holds my communication for each customers. When I compose a license quotation, I should browse all these folders to find a proper document to duplicate. If anyone recommends me to use shortcuts, I only ask him back: 'did you use?'. It is very hard to manage shortcuts.

Disease of Targeting Industries


Well, our management information system (ERP, CRM, etc.) solve many issues, or not? These implementations mostly originated from a specific source of problems. For some companies the origin may be the reporting functionality or a cost control system. Most of Turkish companies, for example, give analyst what to see in final reports; analyst creates a set of processes and meta-information model and developer codes the necessary modules on top of an 'industry-oriented' application. They create some data-islands, define a set of processes and (kindly or not) convince stakeholders to fill in the software.

When you specify a origin point and implement the project back to the usable interfaces, one could not provide a set of utilities to help users' day-to-day duties. Worse part is that it is not economically efficient to repeat whole analysis for each company repeatitively. So lots of 'assumptions' are kept the same for companies of similar industries. Anyway, users adapt the situation and generates their own methods with what they have: E-mails, Excel, notepad, etc. I have even seen that some project management teams are using Yahoo Groups to communicate between each other and forgot to secure their discussions from search bots. In this case, lots of sensitive information may leak outside company.

Solution?


It seems hard to solve this problem, doesn't it? The difficulty is mainly originated from our current paradigm of software development process. Companies get used to the common process of a number of consultants and IT guys overcoming some defined business problems. But with decades of experiences show that we cannot determine people's (especially knowledge workers') daily systems and routines. In addition, these employees cannot be 'trained' or 'forced' to work like we expect from them.

One purchasing guy in a customer created a complex system with filers, small pieces of papers and cabinets to follow-up all orders and invoices. He was printing every forms incoming. We limited some functions to prevent him to print forms but he was getting screen shots this time :) Finally, we sent an analyst to this guy's desk to solve his system. We analyzed it and implemented some important clues into our software. Thus, the guy was back at his computer again...

Think of a brand manager planning to launch a new product. Lots of works to do, meaning lots of documents to produce, share and read. There will be several different co-workers in this project, such as finance guys, external market researchers, marketing teams, etc. Each document sets will have different versions for different scenerios. Meeting minutes should be shared across lots of team members. The major point is, there are so many different kinds of information that any artistic analysis model like 'top-down', 'bottom-up' or 'side-by side' could help a user to be organized. What if we design a 'New Product Design' database? The only thing we can do is to add a campaign management module to our sales automation platform just to see the success or failure of the new product. Did we miss the point?

Well, Solution?


We suggest a platform as a solution: A platform that can be bended according to user's need. There could be some templates, to increase usability but not to confuse others. Team calendars, for instance can be customized by a user in terms of certain flexibilities. Any number of calendars or document libraries could be added and each could be customized to host different types of documents, forms or any other data structures. Authorization for each parts could be configured according to basic security needs and certain workflow structures could be added according to user's need. Time-bounded or milestone-based activities may be used to host events, activities, basic project steps and timelines. Tag clouds may be used to categorize each content, including internet bookmarks to provide easily searchable repository for all users.

Any user will have some difficulties using this platform. But in time, they will create their own environment in a pragmatic way. We are not limiting their way of working but keeping them in a steady models so any other user may see an understandable pattern of information. Wiki is always wiki or bookmark is always bookmark here.

By the way, this platform changes some communication patterns of users. They get used to use e-mail or chats as only way of getting information, but now it will not be enough. New sources of information will come on the desktop. A user should see their project updates, team updates which they involve, or any other activities around their hierarchies. They will need a changing screen at any minute to get the latest status of their business.

These structures are either being used or being developed right now. We'll get in details of new horizons of Social Software in the next blogs.
Serdar Basegmez   |   April 26 2010 08:00:00 PM   |    Social Software  Corporate Information Systems  Articles    |  
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