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What Can Companies Achieve With the Next Generation of Collaboration Tools?

A Q&A with Alan Morrison, PricewaterhouseCoopers Center for Technology and Innovation


What is a collaboration paradox? How are enterprise apps out-innovating Facebook and LinkedIn? Is email outdated?

These are some of the topics that Alan Morrison, senior research fellow at PwC’s Center for Technology and Innovation, discussed with Christine Benton, a member of the SAP StreamWork team. Morrison and his colleagues recently published a Technology Forecast that focuses on collaboration and social tools. Excerpts of our discussion follow.

Benton: What is the collaboration paradox and what does it have to do with the way we work?

Morrison: The collaboration paradox is the fact that more information is actually better. People seem to be suffering from information overload but due to machines’ abilities to make sense of all the messiness and to help users navigate the information, what’s coming about is a clearer landscape in which people can find other people and information they need to work with.

Benton: What role does email play in the new collaboration scene?

Morrison: When we did the research on collaboration, we were looking at a class of tools that allow many-to-many collaboration. Email is not that. It was originally designed as a one-to-one communication tool and eventually was used for one-to-one and one-to-many communications. One of the disadvantages is that you can’t share serendipitously with email. Sometimes there are people you don’t know who would benefit from what you’re posting and it would help to have that information accessible to them in the cloud. Email is not optimal for that, as least not as it’s currently designed.

In addition, people have become overwhelmed with email because it’s easy to send messages and they’re just cropping up everywhere with no prioritization. Every apparent task seems like it has the same importance, so you spend a lot of time doing your own prioritization and missing things that are important because so much email is consuming your time. What has to happen is a convergence of these kinds of communications and collaboration tools, also with calendaring and to-do lists so that they’re not separate functions – so there’s more context in which to know where to focus.

Finally, a lot of times in email it’s hard to retrieve something. You don’t remember who sent it, it’s slow to search it and you might not have the right keyword. It’s much easier to find things that you don’t remember the details of when you’re working in a second- or third-generation collaboration environment.

Benton: What factors influence the adoption of new collaboration tools?

Morrison: As with any social tool, like Facebook , LinkedIn or Twitter, the more you use the tool the more you become comfortable with it. If you think back to when you first started microblogging, before every post you’d think, “What am I doing? What are the implications? Will someone see this and not respond positively?” Over time most people become more comfortable with the activity, though some never will. If companies mandate the use of a collaboration tool because it has obvious benefits, then people will use it more and the company will see better results.

Also, whatever companies adopt, they need to do their due diligence and make sure the tools’ capabilities allow them to embed an activity stream in an existing workflow. The tool has to be part of the work that you are already doing. If so, it’s easier for people to start using it; if there’s an activity stream in an existing enterprise application, there’s not much of a leap to start using it. The first generation of social tools were standalone, like microblogging platforms, but these have evolved in the enterprise.

Benton: What types of results can companies achieve with next-generation social collaboration tools?

Morrison: Productivity is one thing that people we’ve interviewed have identified as a benefit. If you receive 200 emails to accomplish one thing, that’s inefficient. Likewise, sometimes the phone is not the most efficient tool. If you’re working with people on the other side of the world and calling at 11 p.m. your time, it’s not an effective use of your time. There are times to use the phone and there are times in which a collaboration environment, which is not time zone-dependent, would be more helpful. You can see how these tools might be designed to enable a more productive workflow. There’s less back-and-forth and more structured around moving a project forward.

Benton: What makes a solution “second” or “third generation”?

Morrison: Second or third-generation solutions embed within existing workflows to provide context. It’s important to preserve the context of a piece of information, so that later on someone will be able to understand it. If you look at a conventional tool like a database, you have very limited context. There are rows and columns and data or content in cells, but the only clues you have are the labels on the rows and columns.

In contrast to social tools that are just built using the older data model, next-generation solutions are context-rich because they incorporate some form of “interest graph.” To learn more, check out this video which explains the Interest Graph.

Facebook and LinkedIn are examples of social graphs; making social connections among people. Interest graphs go a step further to include places and things as well as people. They help you navigate through information to people, places or things of interest, and of relevance to their work. In the world of the interest graph, the more information there is, the more clues the machines have to make connections and recommend information that can enrich the work we do every day.

Interest graphs also provide context for work we’re already doing.  For example, if you have a message from Tomas and you don’t know who that is, you can click on his name on an interest graph and go directly to his profile, see who he is and click on a related message thread that he shared to find out what else he’s been working on. That’s more helpful. The underlying data graph, unlike the older database with rows and columns and only limited metadata, makes people, places and things and the relationships between them more visible. This way, the information becomes more useful. You have a context for the relationships you’re seeing and how so many things are connected.

Benton: Where does SAP StreamWork fit into the new collaboration landscape?

Morrison: We think tools like SAP StreamWork are indicative of where collaboration tools are headed. What’s compelling about these second- and third-generation tools is that they’re embedded in the workflow and they make the interest graph more visible. In addition, tools like these not only look at the application layer, but also the data layer, and they make the relationships more visible to machines. If you engage that data layer, machines can serve up relationships of potential interest to you. I don’t think that consumer social-networking tools are really taking best advantage of this. It’s an area where the enterprise is at the forefront – and that’s pretty unusual.

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