The Enterprise 2.0 Conference in Boston is winding down today. The official/unofficial theme for the conference was without a doubt collaboration, with a healthy dose of social media thrown in for good measure. On the exhibit floor, the majority of presenting companies were offering some form of product that facilitates enterprise collaboration. Companies are taking three basic approaches to offering enterprise collaboration capabilities; these are:
Major vendors – full-function platform suites are being offered by IBM (Lotus), Microsoft, Novell, and now Cisco, which just announced its Quad product line. Novell’s special sauce is simultaneous document editing. Cisco’s offering builds on the company’s installed base of VOIP products. These products typically offer document collaboration, knowledge management, chat, wikis, blogs, social networking, and voice/video capabilities. The products are intended to replace whatever employees are already using to do their daily tasks, most notably email. These products represent a major shift in how information workers will spend their day.
Special vendor offerings - there were a large number of specialty vendors such as Jive, Socialtext, nGenera, Traction, ThoughtFarmer, Mzinga, MangoSpring, Kavi, and PBworks. These vendors also offer full-function platforms, but these are typically the only products that the vendors makes and supports. Each vendor had a story about why they were different, but it seems clear that the market is not big enough to support such a large number of products
Offerings that extend SharePoint – a number of vendors presented offerings that make Microsoft’s SharePoint better, cheaper, faster. As a dominant player in today’s collaboration space, these vendors are betting on SharePoint’s continued success in the marketplace. Some examples are: Mainsoft harmon.ie, Newsgator, and huddle.
The market is clearly early-stage, with confusing and conflicting messages, an unclear set of product features, and a huge amount of hype. What’s real? As I always say, be practical. The basic premise of most of the products is that their offering becomes the employee’s desktop. It contain everything they will need to do for the businesses of tomorrow, such as document sharing, blogging, wikis, chatting, voice/video calls, knowledge management, social networking, you name it. While many vendors were talking features and functions, the one question few addressed was “how are you going to get people to use your product?” Most of the answers were not convincing. They ranged from “the business case is so convincing, people will just want to use it” to “our younger employees will bring this into our organization to “our product is so easy to use, it’s adoption will be viral in the organization.”
At the end of the day, I believe the winners will be decided by those that provide the best and ‘least intrusive’ workflow. The thought that a new application will become our desktop in the near future is not realistic for most companies. Like most technologies, it will take several years of trial and error to learn what works, what doesn’t work, and how people will ‘virtually’ interact with their peers at work. Several vendors mentioned that employees are already Tweeting and using Facebook, therefore adoption of these applications will be a ‘no-brainer.’ But these folks ignore the issue of ‘context.’ What is natural at home with friends and family, is not natural at work with colleagues, supervisors, customers, and suppliers.
Bottom line – this trend is too big to ignore and it is not going away. There is a social trend of younger people being more collaborative in general that transcends technology. Those who ignore collaboration as a business enabler will do so at their peril. But it is not going to change overnight either. So embrace the concept and learn what you can do to get started quickly, without necessarily investing in a huge project. There are certainly informal ways that your employees are already collaborating. See how you can improve this. As you gain experience with what people do today, invest a lot in figuring where you can extend specific capabilities that provide a big multiplier. Taking on the whole suite of capabilities at once is too daunting for most organizations.
And the best piece of advice I can give is, spend the bulk of your time and budget figuring out how to get people to adopt whatever solution you select. The best piece of technology is useless if people don’t engage. Vendors grossly underestimate the aversion people have to change. Prof. Andrew McAfee of Harvard, discusses this in his seminal “The 9x Email Problem ” article. The idea is that some replacement technology must be 10 times better than what it replaces, if there is hope for it to be accepted. Today, most information workers will not see new collaboration suites as 10 times better than what they are already doing.