Posted by: mcgratha | January 2, 2011

The Collaborative Office

Continuing the theme of the Future of ECM … trend #6 …

Rapid uptake of social media

Social Media is not a fad, it represents a fundamental shift in the way that we communicate. This is evident if you consider that as of December 2010, 7 out of the top 20 most visited web sites in the UK were social networking or web 2.0 sites (source www.alexa.com). This same pattern, the rise of social networks, is repeated internationally in countries where broadband is widely available.

The Rise of Social Media

Value as a collaboration tool

As can be seen from the diagram above, there has been a massive uptake of social networking and collaboration in the consumer space. This momentum is now fuelling an increasing trend to apply social networking practices and tools into the enterprise as it is proving to be a really great way to facilitate much smarter, agile and rapid collaboration and knowledge sharing with colleagues horizontally across the organisation, with no hierarchy or geographical barriers and little need to have prior relationships with people already in place.

Social collaboration tools provide a really quick and easy means to:

  • Solicit requests to find information that might otherwise be difficult and/or time consuming to ascertain;
  • Explore topics/concepts/opinions, getting the insight and experiences of many people across the organisation, often avoiding the same problems being solved repeatedly by multiple groups;
  • Find people with common skills and interests across the organisation with whom you might never have had the opportunity to ‘meet’ otherwise (or even know existed);
  • Keep up to date in a non-invasive manner with what is happening in your areas of interest across the organisation, as it is perfectly feasible to be a passive on-looker, contributing whenever you want (and have time).

With the proliferation of high-speed broadband, in recent years, there has been a marked increase in the number of organisations that offer their staff a more flexible working arrangement that enables them to spend some of their time working from home instead of commuting to the office. Whilst this is generally seen as a positive step, it does mean that it can now often be more difficult to catch up with colleagues from both a personal and business perspective, and those accidental conversations when someone sparks an idea when you meet them at the coffee station are more rare. However, social collaboration tools are helping to counter-act this barrier by facilitating a virtual “coffee station”, with the added advantage that there are hundreds of people in that coffee station listening to you and who can spark ideas.

Traditional collaboration tools focus on information worker efficiency. Social collaboration tools go further, focusing on innovation and change, and promoting a culture of knowledge sharing across the organisation. Lew Platt, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard once said “If HP knew what HP knows, we would be three times as profitable“. Social collaboration tools provide a means to tap into knowledge pools and leverage more of the vast amount of knowledge that most organisations have, too often locked away amongst its staff. Such tools are enabling us to move towards a truly collaborative office.

Content, content everywhere, what are we going to do with it?

However, the growing use of social media as an internal team communication and collaboration tool raises an interesting challenge – what do we do with all the new and different types of content that is being generated? We’re producing more content than ever before and, where there is identified business value (for example, to provide evidence of the chain of collaboration that led to a business decision), it will be necessary to manage, secure, distribute and store/archive much of the content that is generated from social tools.

However, much of the content is typically created from a multitude of social tools that are often outside the remit of the corporate ECM. For example, Generation Y (born from late 70s to early 2000) use email as a communication mechanism far less than older generations, preferring social media instead. This younger generation coming into the workplace will demand tools that reflect the way they are used to collaborating on the web – and this is less-and-less by email, and more with social collaboration and networking tools.

As such, many organisations have a problem in that a growing proportion of their content, that used to be managed, secured and made easily accessible within ECM is “disappearing”, held in multiple different applications and silos outside of ECM, using different interfaces and different access controls.

This problem is further exasperated where externally hosted social media tools are used by employees within the organisation (perhaps out of necessity because the organisation hasn’t provided its employees with the tools that they need) to share information and collaborate on ideas. It is not just traditional “documents” that are being held in external social networking sites, it is also the conversations and discussions between colleagues who are collaborating on different topics, which can represent very valuable information held outside of the organisation. There is an inherent danger of having lots of business information, much of it confidential and valuable, being held in external social networking sites; it can easily be hacked or simply accessed by ex-employees that have gone to a competitor. In addition, as an organisation, you also don’t own the content that is posted to these external sites, and so it can be taken away at any time.

The momentum behind social media is too big for ECM vendors to ignore. As such, a key trend that is emerging is that ECM vendors are significantly enhancing their products (potentially leading to further acquisitions) to incorporate web 2.0 and social media tools, embracing all of this new business related information that is being generated from social media and drawing it into ECM and securing it.

Therefore, for organisations that build a social media strategy that leverages their social-enabled ECM solutions, they can expect much of the information to flow back under ECM control again. However, care will need to be taken when implementing policies regarding what social content to manage and archive into the ECM, as if all social “conversations” are stored in perpetuity then this is likely to change user behaviour, perhaps inhibiting the more natural, free-flowing conversations and collaboration contributions between users. It will be necessary to get the balance right.

There will, of course, always be business information held outside of ECM, but we are likely to see this information becoming much more accessible from within ECM in the future. Gartner predicts that by 2016, social technologies will be integrated with most business applications.

Connecting the dots

As more social collaborative content is brought under the remit of ECM or is at least accessible to ECM, we can expect the use of Social Analytics to really start kicking in over the coming years. Social Analytical tools mine and analyse the social content that is being created within an organisation, making intelligent connections between people and content, uncovering the patterns of interactions within a social network and driving value from them. For example, based on dynamically analysing social content and interactions (i.e. not drawing on information that people explicitly say about themselves, in say, their profiles), it could tell you who has got skills or knowledge in a certain topic and who would be a good point of contact if you needed information on a specific topic.

With the ability to find people (with the right skills and knowledge) just as easily as information, it is likely that collaborative teams will be increasingly made up of people with “weak links” between them, but who have been drawn together into a virtual team to do a job. This is analogous to taking the Service Orientated Architecture (SOA) approach for building applications and applying it to people/resources, “Service Orientated Resources”.

Social Analytical tools can visualise a social network, showing the numbers of connections between participants, the strength of connections, and in some cases, the volume of interactions (such as e-mail, and phone). In this context, this can also give insight into how work is actually done across the organisation as compared to the traditional organisational hierarchy around the division of labour.

A good example of where social analytics has already been used is for BioMedExperts (www.biomedexperts.com), which is a free, online social networking community that brings biomedical scientists and researchers together and allows them to collaborate online. Since its launch in April 2008, it has built over 330,000 registered users from over 3,500 institutions in more than 190 countries, becoming the world’s fastest growing scientific social network. It visualises the network of professional relationships between 1.8 million researchers, automatically generated from co-author information from millions of publications published in over 20,000 journals, allowing scientists and researchers across organisations the ability to share data and collaborate in far more innovate ways than has previously been possible. Patterns and relationships amongst researchers are automatically inferred making it possible to not only identify the strengths of an author’s research, but also rapidly understand the social contexts in which that research was developed.

Predictive information delivery

The usage of social analytical tools is expected to become much more widespread. However, when combined with advances in semantic technology (see my blog Semantonomics), we think this could go one step further by incorporating predictive information delivery. For example, let’s say that you are using a social collaboration tool and you are seeking information on a particular topic. Various people respond to your request and a series of social interactions ensue. By dynamically analysing the interactions, the semantics of what you are looking for can be understood and the software tool can:

  1. Seek out the information you need, not only from content available within your organisation but also from external sources across the web, and push the information to you;
  2. Make connections to people and information sources that perhaps you hadn’t previously considered or were aware of, offering different angles and perspectives to your original information request;
  3. Predict what you are likely to need next – if you looking for X now, then you are likely will want Y later, so it seeks and collates information on Y now to have it ready for you.
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