Sunday, September 10, 2006

Collaboration -- The Next Holy Grail

I used to work for a now defunct software company called Lotus Development Corporation (now wholly subsumed into IBM, and a "brand" in IBM's software portfolio). I was fortunate to be there in the beginning, and later heyday, of Lotus Notes. In the early days of selling that product, we used to have a really difficult time describing what it was and could do for customers. We called it "groupware" or "collaborative software," and, mostly, people's eyes would glaze over. In late 1993, Lotus acquired a small company called SoftSwitch, and it was Mike Zisman, one of the founders, and later Lotus's CEO, who drove home to the Lotus sales force the idea that, whatever else it was, Notes was e-mail infrastructure, and that was how we ought to be selling it. That shift in positioning (coupled with IBM's financial backing following the acquisition, which enabled Lotus to dramatically lower the license cost, and restructure how the product was licensed) grew Notes from under 3 million seats sold in its first five years in market, to over 100 million seats sold by the close of the decade of the 90's.

But another fundamental shift happened during that same period, and that was the shift of collaboration from something that makes your eyes glaze over to an entire category of software, and, more recently, the next holy grail for business. There's plenty to read in places like Fortune and Forbes and Business Week and similar pubs about how collaboration is transforming business, or will, and how the most innovative companies are focusing on collaboration, but what blows my mind is that, seventeen years after Notes first shipped, everybody and their brother describes their product or service as somehow "collaborative," but

  • nobody can really give you a concise definition of collaboration,
  • nobody can really describe what collaboration means in a business context, and
  • nobody can articulate, in real terms, what value collaboration adds to business.

In my current role at Microsoft, I spend a lot of time talking to customers who are looking to solve one or more problems that they've identified as "collaboration" problems, and many are evaluating alternative "collaboration platforms" to their current Notes environments. Some have a better handle than others on the issues and problems, but what has struck me (and others) recently is that most of them (and, frankly, most of us in the software industry) are dancing around the central problem, without realizing it. That problem is that we think, somehow, that better software will cure all our collaboration ills, and that's only half-right, and mostly the wrong way to look at it. (What on earth is he talking about??)

In most instances, in my experience, customers who have tried to implement a collaboration strategy (no matter how well thought-out) and failed, have done so precisely because they have attempted to implement pure collaboration strategies, as opposed to things like improvements to business process to provide better return on investment, faster time to market, or some other business deliverables. This raises a couple of important points:

  • Collaboration is an attribute of business process, not technology. Collaboration is not distinct from business process. There is a great deal of activity that goes on in any business process that has to do with knowing how people interact and work, enabling that interaction and capturing its results, and making those work products manageable, reusable, indexable, and so on. It’s not often done, because it’s viewed as too expensive to build, and too difficult to enforce “good” behaviour. Multiple technology approaches have been tried, with limited success, and that limited success is due, largely, to a focus on solving “the collaboration problem,” which misses the point. If collaboration is viewed as somehow an overt activity, the chances of people doing it well, or making it relate to business process are slim. Success more typically results from having a long range, narrowly focused, business goal in mind, and a continuous focus on solving the problem. With this approach, the other “collaborative” things will fall in line along the way.
  • Collaborative capabilities need to be pervasive, and pervasively implemented. This has broad implications for IT, as well as for users. There are a number of “core” capabilities which are common (or necessary) across a wide variety of business processes, and the technologies implemented to support those processes. These include:
    · Identity and authentication. This one is fairly self-evident. Organizations have invested significantly in the last five to ten years to reduce (ideally to one) the number of directories used to identify and authenticate users.
    · Rich presence. Keying off a user’s identity, rich information about his presence enables many things across a wide variety of business scenarios. If I am online, but on the telephone, a user having that information will know not to call me, but can decide to instant message me or email me for the information they need, or if I am in a meeting, knowing that may lead them to seek the information they need from another person, if having that information is time-critical. If I am online, but am not active on a computer, my email system may begin routing only high priority email to my registered mobile device. The ability to integrate rich presence information as a service into other applications enables new forms of customer service, and more effective ways to locate the right resources at the right time. For example, one Microsoft partner has built a SharePoint-based application which leverages presence information to assist in troubleshooting problems on oil wells. When a problem is identified, all maintenance records for the faulty part of the system are available online, as well as the identity of the last technician who serviced that part, and his or her presence information.
    · Workflow. The implementation of rich, customizable workflow as a service enables the core capability to be leveraged in a variety of contexts and applications, rather than needing to be rebuilt over and over. Pretty much all of the core business processes which can be automated have been. But the marginal value of software, in this case, is to bring people’s expertise and knowledge together with information available in systems to improve process, fix flaws, and drive that knowledge back into the systems to support continuous improvement of business process.
    · Rights Management. Securing and managing content within a particular container, while necessary, is no longer sufficient. Any user with appropriate rights to the container can take content stored there, copy it to another location, or forward it to an unauthorized user. Implementing digital rights management as a service makes it possible to extend access rights beyond the container in which the content is stored. In this way, access rights are made an attribute of the content itself, so that those rights are carried with the content, and enforced by the system, regardless where the content is taken.
  • People, culture, and technology are all equally important. Undue focus in any one area will almost certainly lead to failure. Technology alone cannot solve business problems. People with brilliant ideas cannot solve business problems without technology that supports the solution. And a culture that does not encourage taking initiative and sharing information will not collaborate effectively, regardless how great its people's ideas, and how innovative the technology deployed to support them. As just one example, Microsoft has a very user-independent model of working. The company has a philosophy of hiring the smartest people we can find, and turning them loose. People are encouraged to do the things they need to do the way they want to do them, with an eye on the final result. They don’t ask permission to do things (and in fact, are encouraged not to). They are simply expected to use the tools, people, and information that are available to them to accomplish their tasks, and they are held accountable for the results. In this environment, lack of oversight is very important, and anything that blocks people’s ability to take initiative is an impediment to business process. However, all this apparent freedom doesn’t for one moment obviate the need to make everything manageable and auditable, and so people are trained annually so that they understand the requirements imposed on them to be responsible in their conduct, and in their usage of resources and information.
    Enabling people to intuitively interact with managed systems as a natural part of the way that they do their jobs has resulted in a rich, well-adopted and well-leveraged collaboration environment.
  • Never underestimate the value and importance of "second order effects." What I mean here is that, if you focus relentlessly on solving a crisply defined business problem, and look at technology as an enabler, not a solution, things will emerge which you did not anticipate, which may add considerable value to the business process. I was always struck, in my years at Lotus, by the extent to which companies would try to do things with Notes which we never intended, and which we didn't necessarily support well with the technology. These were almost always second order effects, which emerged as useful or desirable in the course of solving the core business problem. That is where true innovation comes from. In our own experience at Microsoft, when we implemented Windows SharePoint Services internally, our goal was to reduce the number of network file shares. Those have obvious shortcomings (you can't manage them easily, you can't index the content easily - making it difficult to find the nuggets of valuable information stored there, you can't impose policy and governance easily - making compliance difficult or impossible, and you can't easily share the information that's there with others in context). So, our initial rollout was more about making IT's job easier. We built integration into Office (so I can do things like save a document to a WSS team page), we embedded presence information, and we built lifecycle management capabilities into WSS, all to make IT's job easier. What we've reaped, far beyond the ability to reduce file shares, is a rich, intuitive environment that has pulled people into not just storing content in WSS, but collaborating with one another there, and the ability to search, not just for content, but for expertise. The change in the way that people work at Microsoft in the last three or four years has been profound and palpable, and it is all the more astounding because it was never one of the goals of the technology change.

So, if there's an overriding message here, it's this: go back to basics...understand the challenges your business faces, crisply define the desired state, identify the gaps between where you are and where you want to be, and only then, evaluate available technologies, and decide which ones will most effectively support the desired state and build a plan to get you there. Remember that all business problems are exactly that, business problems, and should be solved with sound business practice. I assert that there isn't an organization on the planet that has a collaboration problem. There are plenty of organizations that have process problems, or could be more agile, or quicker, or more effective, and collaborating better may help those problems, but more effective collaboration is an ancillary benefit of innovative solutions to business problems...

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