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Business IT Buzz Blog

Jessica Ann Mola

Positioning Social Networking to Drive Results: A Chat about Collaboration with nGenera

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The following is a podcast with Steve Douty, CMO of nGenera, a provider of end-to-end solutions that enable and manage collaboration occurring inside, outside and between enterprises.


We had a great chat about social networking's importance to collaboration, and how collaboration can produce real, hard results (according to Douty, the easiest place to do that is to put it directly into the business process itself).

Listen to or download the 14:40 podcast below:

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Tell me a little about nGenera...

nGenera is the only provider of end-to-end solutions that enable and manage collaboration that occurs inside, outside and between enterprises. And by end-to-end solutions I mean that we have products and services that address the full lifecycle of collaboration in the enterprise from our research programs - where our customers bring great ideas back to the office - to our onsite services - where we work directly with our customers on key initiatives like driving employee engagement or assessing their collaborative capabilities - to our full line of collaboration software.

How important will social networking become in the effort to promote collaboration?

That's an interesting question, Jessica. Let me start by saying that here at nGenera, we use a set of five core principles to guide how we design our software. The first one of these principles is called "pointers to people." In other words, we believe that one of the most important objectives of collaboration is to find new and meaningful ways to connect people with each other in a business context. We know that services like Facebook and LinkedIn do this for millions of individuals and consumers. But our approach to it is to apply that same kind of collaborative environment to make it possible for people to find others in the furthest reaches of the organization, who can help them in the context of the work they need to get done.

So the question is, what role do the social networks play in this? Well first, one of the crucial factors in successful collaboration is adoption. If just a fraction of a company uses a collaborative platform, they won't produce any meaningful results from these limited efforts. But social networks have shown us how participation drives the value of the experience, and have taught us some wonderful lessons in how to build systems that people will seek out and learn quickly, and eventually master - all on their own. When everybody's using the same collaboration platform, you get this incredibly rich set of pointers that help you connect their skills and knowledge together better than ever before.

Second, social networks have trained the next set of users for us. The more your collaboration software feels like social networking, the more it will be used - and will spread - throughout your company.

Finally, I think that the social networks have taught people how to control their level of transparency and how to be comfortable with the whole concept of putting stuff out there. You can broadcast to a wide audience like with Twitter or you can share more intimate stuff with your Facebook friends. The fact is, you learn which venue is right for the kind of communicating you want to do.

So, the better a company's employees are at publicizing the information they know, about sharing their experiences and opinions, and about opening up more in general -collaboration is going to be more helpful and productive for them.

What challenges do you envision as social networking becomes more and more important in the workplace?

Well, first of all, we've all forgotten how nervous people were with email when it really hit the scene. And I think a big part of it was generational. When email first came out, the workforce was mostly made up of Baby Boomers - and we know that baby boomers are the most competitive of the four generations that are working together today. You remember when people said things like "Knowledge is power"? Those are hallmarks of the ultra competitive boomer generation.

But it isn't just about generational issues.

You know that corporate and IT leaders are also on the hook to safeguard their intellectual property and sensitive information about their business. So the social networks could be perceived as a threat to that specific mission - the more people can share, the more likely they will share something inappropriately. What it really calls for is the advance of more what I call "atomic-level" security models - that is, even the smallest piece of content has to carry with it information about who's allowed to view it.

We've spent a lot of time at nGenera thinking about this and taking the security model lower into the content hierarchy to make social networking types of information sharing secure - they need to be just as secure as the clunky top-down systems we all have to live with today, but a lot more flexible.

I think another challenge is separating your work and personal life. Before people had today's highly connecting technologies like email and iPhones and Twitter and Facebook - it was a lot easier to do work at work and to socialize when you got home. I remember when people used to get in trouble when they made personal calls from the office.

But if you talk to a Net Genner and ask them about separating work life and home life - they are probably not even going to understand the question. The fact is, they float between these modes all day long. They might be updating their Facebook status at 10:30 in the morning, and they might be writing an important work email at 11:00 at night. That sort of rapid modality is something that companies need to embrace and make a part of their culture.

Do you see any new or surprising collaborative uses of Social Networks emerging?

One of the interesting things that I've seen over the past year is the real division of labor between various social media tools. As people become more comfortable with social media and understand the appropriate uses of various different channels and technologies, we're seeing people adopt different tools for different purposes. So, Facebook might be better for sharing baby pictures with your family and friends, or as one of my co-workers put it, "I don't connect with anyone on Facebook that I wouldn't let into my house."

Twitter is less about relationships and more about finding information beyond your immediate friends and colleagues. You can instantly connect with anybody from the brightest minds to ordinary people with great ideas. You can choose to get updates from companies, links to deals, or jokes, or news.

Another one, LinkedIn, is basically the 21st century "connected" resume.

So there are different social networks for different uses. And these types of interactions are being translated into how they improve work inside the enterprise.

Also, I think that Social Networks have suddenly demonstrated an ability to greatly impact public perception. Companies have to struggle to keep up with the overwhelming flow of content - and figure out what's idle chit-chat and what they need to respond to immediately, before it gets out of hand.

Also, I love the Twitter-based customer service offerings like Twelpforce from Best Buy and what Comcast and FedEx and Ford are doing with Twitter.

There's so much happening out there - it's kind of to the point where everything's a surprise and at the same time, nothing is a surprise. What's important is how companies are realizing the nuances of this mode of communication and building it into their basic infrastructure.

We've talked a lot about collaboration. How advanced are today's organizations in the use of software to promote workplace collaboration?

I think we're right at the beginning of an incredible growth phase.

But it's still early. Today, most companies use primitive tools like email or SharePoint.

Lately, when I've been meeting with IT executives, I've been talking about how collaboration technologies have separated into three tiers: the lower tier is what I call collaboration infrastructure, the middle is general collaboration, and the top tier is what I call embedded collaboration.

In a nutshell, collaboration infrastructure is a new category that we've recently identified and have quickly come to market with - something we call a Collaboration Server. What companies really need is a central point of aggregation and monitoring and control of all the islands of collaboration that have popped up across the enterprise. This also includes a new set of policies around collaboration and sharing - and obviously a way to monitor compliance with them.

The middle tier is the collaboration platforms - the stuff we all know and love - blogs, wikis, groups, project spaces, and so on.

And the top tier - the embedded collaboration - is what I think will really change the game. I think the real action in collaboration is going to happen when it gets baked into all the familiar business processes like development, marketing, sales, support and so on.

So today, most companies are working in the middle tier collaboration platforms. I see a lot of experimentation and way too many point solutions bouncing around out there. I believe that for collaboration to really hit mainstream, the whole collaboration stack including all three of these tiers has to happen in companies to get beyond little pockets of varying success to real enterprise-wide collaboration.

Way out there over the horizon, I can imagine a future where digital sensors and reality mining and voice analytics and technologies like facial recognition will allow physical interactions and collaborations to be captured digitally and added to the mix.

Right now, the big opportunity is in two areas: figuring out how to really drive adoption and engagement using the collaboration platforms, and the second is to show how collaboration can produce real, hard results - to me, the easiest place to do that is to put it directly into the business process itself.

1 Comment

As always, Steve is spot on. Collaboration in modern times faces the challenges he describes and they are certainly more on the soft side of things. Despite the fact that most subject areas touch on that side, it is equally important to facilitate collaboration by providing the operational infrastructure in the form of collaboration tools and techniques, but also in a sophisticated, modern way of designing the enterprise architecture around this. I think http://www.beyondea.com will provide us with some answers from that perspective ... stay tuned.

Keep up with what's hot in the world of business and IT integration.

Jayaprakash Kannoth

Jayaprakash Kannoth is Software Engineer at TechTarget. His areas of interest include business process management, enterprise architecture, business intelligence , cloud/infrastructure computing and technology in business.
The opinions expressed herein are my own and do not represent my employer’s views in any way.


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