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The Connected Web

Phil Wainewright

2010 Watchlist: Ubiquitous Collaboration

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In the coming year, I believe we're going to see a fundamental change in the architecture of collaboration software. We'll see it move out from individual silos of collaboration functionality into much more of a distributed capability that permeates right across the spectrum of business applications. I don't suppose that means the stampede into SharePoint will slow anytime soon, but it will put more pressure on Microsoft to open up SharePoint to connect into collaboration and chatter that's happening elsewhere.

I was trying to avoid using the word chatter back there, but there is no word that better encapsulates the combination of collaboration, communication and status updates that is emerging, thanks to the rise of Enterprise 2.0 and its adaptation of social computing to help automate the human dimension of business structures and organization. All credit, then, to the product managers at Salesforce.com, who chose the name Chatter for its new collaboration technology. We still have to see how Salesforce.com will execute on this yet-to-be-released innovation — and indeed there is still some work to be done within enterprises to understand how best to harness it productively. But the notion of providing a mechanism for bringing information, collaboration and status updates into the applications where people are doing their primary work activities seems to me the most productive way to deliver collaboration. While there will always be some activities where people need isolation to get a result, the majority of enterprise endeavors happen as teamwork. Therefore the more non-intrusive contact people can get with other members of their team as they move forward in those endeavors, the more successful they're likely to be. That's why I'm putting the phenomenon of ubiquitous collaboration on my 2010 list of trends to watch.

It was this kind of thinking that made me wonder last month, Is Chatter the Killer App for Force.com? [as a matter of disclosure, I should mention that Salesforce.com is an occasional consulting client]. I believe there are three characteristics of Chatter that give it an edge over other more established collaboration technologies — but there's no reason why other vendors can't adopt the same characteristics to compete in the ubiquitous collaboration space. The three characteristics are:

  • Delivered from the cloud. This is important because it's the only way to easily make a technology ubiquitous within a rapid timescale. Some will argue that, if the enabling technology is already in place, you can move equally quickly. But there are only a very few vendors (plus some open source stacks) that already have pervasive technology in place, and even then there's some fairly intensive implementation required to add the new functionality. So the cloud vendors have the advantage.

  • Easily customizable. One of the most important features of these emerging forms of collaboration is that users find them very easy to pick up and make use of. In part that's due to the way they're presented but it's also because it's easy to adapt them to a specific purpose. There's enough common-sense flexibility for a business user to be able to customize them without having to learn a lot of technology, and where they do need to call on expert help, the changes can be made in a collaborative, iterative manner rather than requiring an extended development cycle.

  • An overlay architecture. Probably the most important characteristic is that the technology is designed to sit alongside existing applications and information sources, supplementing and connecting with them rather than attempting to supplant them. This requires open interfaces and a very Web-like ability to connect in loosely coupled mashups rather than tightly coupled integrations. Again, this is a native characteristic in the cloud.

The notion of ubiquitous collaboration of course is closely tied to the move towards more people-oriented architectures, another of my watchlist items for the coming year. Back in November, when I was reflecting on some of the content at the Enterprise 2.0 show in San Francisco, I foreshadowed some of these themes:
"Corporate management and business itself are essentially social activities in that they depend on interactions between people. That's why computing has to evolve to become social — to become people-centric instead of merely machine-centric ... Enterprise 2.0 is technology that seeks to eliminate many of the inefficiencies that get in the way of productive interaction and collaboration, automating social processes in the same way that earlier generations of computing automated data processing."

Ubiquitous collaboration technologies and platforms will become crucial enabling components of that evolution, and this blog will be watching their development closely over the coming year.

Also on the 2010 Watchlist: People-Oriented Architecture and Mining the Off-Peak Cloud.

2 Comments

In terms of ubiquitous collaboration, if we can’t achieve true collaboration in a personal setting, with a project, a meeting etc. where we can see and read each other, how can a piece of software, arguably just copycat software “completely transform the way you collaborate with people in your company?? (taken from their website)

The rest of your points make perfect sense. People-Orientated Architectures, kind of sounds like the office manager who claims he is a "people person." He isn't, and the guy creating the software probably isn't either.

Software automation is a powerful force that can take activities to a new level. It can transform collaboration, enabling more real-time communication and information exchange across distance.

Having said that, it is just a tool. Whether it can help you collaborate better depends on how you use it. If you collaborate poorly, then automating and extending the reach of that fractured process will simply make it even more damaging and depressing.

Phil Wainewright blogs about how businesses are using the Web to get better plugged into today's fast-moving, digital economy.

Phil Wainewright

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