Collaboration

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A social business uses computer-mediated networks of people to create business outcomes. The greatest value comes when these networks take on a life and culture of their own, producing 'social collaboration'. The Bloor spotlight, Social Networking for Business explores this in detail.

Collaborative groups are typically self-defining, with voluntary membership. Members use the network to:

  • Communicate and collaborate with other members and other teams
  • Publish information on the network, perhaps making it available to outside parties
  • Find (and re-publish) information available on the enterprise's network or outside it.

Most of these activities are discretionary - an organization cannot compel its employees to form online communities. These emerge from the willing use of collaboration systems that embody shared knowledge and values. They are communities of trust. Organizations increasingly use public social networks (also known as social media) to communicate with customers, trading partners and other external stakeholders. Much of this collaboration is discretionary, too. Combining internal and external collaboration networks allows the greatest creation and exchange of ideas and knowledge.

That said, one end of the social collaboration spectrum is "Enterprise Collaboration": the technology-enabled ability to exchange and receive information seamlessly across organisational boundaries. This enables organisations to transact business in today's mobile and agile marketplace and is markedly enhanced by the addition of true Social Collaboration, either used internally or with individual customers etc.

An Enterprise Collaboration system (ECS) is likely to combine groupware, networking, messaging and rich content-sharings as needed to support enterprise-wide communications, such as the sharing of documents and knowledge to specific teams and individuals within the enterprise. The objective of an ECS is to provide individual users with tools which enable them to contribute to business outcomes more effectively.

Organizations typically use social networks to:

  • Aid employee learning and to capture knowledge. Field intelligence becomes part of the corporate memory. New employees get up to speed faster and more reliably. All employees have access to corporate knowledge and can add to it.
  • Build employee or partner communities. By allowing people a freer voice, social networking encourages communities of interest to develop, even within dispersed teams. These can lead to innovations in product design, delivery, marketing or support. Improvements in internal processes are another frequent result.
  • Conduct individualised product or market research. Again, direct engagement is the key, with the aim of gaining greater insight into customers' needs, wants and dissatisfactions. Customers can make suggestions for product and service improvements.
  • Gain better access to existing knowledge and expertise. Individuals and groups can find out quickly who knows what or who can do what, typically outside their 'silos'. The network then helps those people collaborate. Project staffing becomes easier and more precise.
  • Gain or intensify closeness to customers ('customer intimacy') by directly engaging with them on-line. One objective is to increase brand awareness. Another is to turn customers into advocates for the company and its products or services.
  • Improve project management. By allowing informal communication about and around formal project management tools, participants can foresee potential problems and find mutually acceptable solutions. Projects get completed faster.
  • Provide a central hub for information and ideas. These can be about regulations and legislation, patents, materials, processes, products, markets, market and revenue opportunities, customers, team activities, progress on projects and anything related. Tailoring the supply to the individuals' needs is crucial.
  • Strengthen product support. Direct communication with customers and users can improve their feelings towards the company and its products or services. Gaining greater and more  accurate insight into their difficulties can feed back into product or service development.

These are just a sample of possible applications. A practical example of an ECS deployment  is the Information Systems Improvement Strategy (ISIS) of the UK's National Policing Improvement Agency (NPIA). 

Some Social Collaboration objectives focus outside the organisation and some inside it. Depending on its choice of software, an organisation can sometimes use the same system in both environments

Social collaboration is important to mature organisations that want to operate effectively as a cohesive whole, built from collaborative teams that share common goals and cultures. It is also important to companies that want to develop 'customer intimacy' (making it an aid to a  form of CRM). So, those who should care include: all companies engaged in electronic commercial activities with customers or with other companies; company departments dealing electronically with other autonomous departments; and government departments dealing electronically with the public, with commercial companies or with other government organisations.

The value proposition is that social collaboration leads to customers being serviced more effectively by employees provided with better information on which to make decisions (and it delivers greater 'buy in' to those decisions from all stakeholders). The overall aims are to improve an organization's responsiveness, capability and performance. IBM, itself a successful social business, says that such a business is engaged, nimble and transparent.

Achieving these qualities is neither quick nor easy. Focussing on achieving a countable return on investment (ROI), especially in the early stages, handicaps any social networking programme.

Enterprise social networking has been in active existence for fewer than five years and the market is therefore still maturing. Customers are still working out what they want and suppliers are still working out what to deliver and how. Mergers and take-overs are the norm.

The major trends are:

  • Analysis of traffic is becoming increasingly important. Quantitative and textual analysis of network conversations can yield valuable information for product developers, marketers, support operations, and planners.
  • "App marketplaces" becoming routine. Customers increasingly want to be able easily to incorporate features and tools from third parties or from their own developers.
  • Mobile working becoming expected. Customers increasingly want users to be able to connect to social networks via mobile telephones and tablets, including their own. The implications for system reliability and data confidentiality have yet to be fully understood.
  • Social networks becoming better at integrating with line-of business systems. The aim is to link productively with systems of record and systems of action, such as ERP, BPM, CRM and supply chain. The danger is that the people who design and manage those systems will want social networks to behave like line-of-business systems.
  • Suppliers adding more features to their products. This can sometimes be at the expense of lightness of touch ("just enough" technology and process), and ease of adoption. 'Creeping featuritis' afflicts all software market sectors.
  • Suppliers adopting networked delivery as well as, or rather than, on-premise licensing. SaaS (software as a service) is common in this market but not universal.
  • Collaborative design. When an organisation is designing a product such as an aircraft or ship, the likelihood today is that it will work with a serious of Tier 1 suppliers to produce the complete design specification. These Tier 1 suppliers will take responsibility for certain major components of the design. The organisations working together need to be able to share information (using voice, video and messaging capabilities as well as text documents) relating to the project without giving access to other information they hold; and, posssibly, with audit capabilities.
  • Green supply chain. Organisations may increasingly need to collaborate over, say, logistics in order to reduce their overall carbon footprints. 
  • Light touch "free" and open source innovation: In an article in CIO magazine, Kristin Burnham identified 15 free Enterprise Collaboration products that supported social media (Twitter-like) capabilities.

IBM is a major supplier to the social systems market and is notable for publicly taking its own medicine (see above). It offers hosted and SaaS systems. IBM has recently announced the acquisition of Kenexa, a "social business" cloud computing recruitment company using online social networking and collaboration tools to help businesses manage recruitment and skills availability. This exemplifies  the trend for enterprise technology companies to get into social business software by acquisition: this year, Google has acquired Wildfire, a social media management platform and SalesForce has bought Buddy Media, a social media marketing platform; while Oracle has acquired Taleo, a social talent and recruitment management application; and SAP acquired SuccessFactors, a "business execution" platform.

Microsoft is ostensibly another major supplier but its main offering, SharePoint, has few native social features. There is therefore a strong market in other systems, such as from Huddle and Newsgator, that integrate with it to remedy that lack. Microsoft's recent purchase of Yammer, which was the leading SaaS offering, introduces another and different architecture to its product range. How it and SharePoint will converge, if they do, has yet to become clear. SharePoint itself is available hosted and SaaS. A possibly interesting development, not yet at all business-focussed, is Microsoft So.cl (pronounced "social"), a research project from Microsoft's FUSE Labs "focused on exploring the possibilities of social search for the purpose of learning".

Jive is the largest specialist supplier of social networking systems, which run on the customer's servers. The company is still not in profit despite increasing its income substantially, so its continued independent existence is in doubt.

Besides these 3, other medium-to-large software makers with significant social offerings include Broadvision (with ClearVale), Cisco (with WebEx Social, formerly Quad), HP (HPEC) , OpenText (Social Communities), Salesforce.com (Chatter), SAP (Streamwork), TIBCO (Tibbr) and VMware (SocialCast). Just 3 more examples:

  • Cisco supports for electonic conferencing with WebEx and has added Jabber, which provides collaboration from any workspace (it can be accessed from IM, voice and video, voice messages, desktop sharing, and conferencing) with new unified communications applications.
  • HP Enterprise Collaboration (HPEC) helps employees get more done by combining structured processes and unstructured discussions into organized, context-specific conversations (through HPEC, standard email or IM) around issues such as incidents or defects.
  • SAP delivers a number of different enterprise collaboration solutions: StreamWork supports for collaborative decision-making; Netweaver Portal Enterprise Workspaces provides information sharing; Netweaver Gateway provides the connectivity framework.

Smaller companies offering social networking include Atlassian, Blue Kiwi, IGLOO, Liferay, Lithium Technologies, Moxie, Mzinga, Saba, Socialtext, Telligent, ThoughtFarmer and Traction TeamPage.



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