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A Vision For Collaborative Technologies

As this is my first post on Collaboration Loop, I thought it best to introduce myself by giving you an overview of my vision and thinking about collaborative technologies.

Trying to define collaborative technologies is difficult since just about any application that involves two or more people using a computer to transmit or store information could be considered collaborative. However, I define collaborative tools as those technologies that help us work together and are the basis for how we work on a day-to-day basis. Effective collaborative technologies should almost be invisible because they are what we always use to get stuff done. If we are adding extra steps in our daily work to "collaborate" then either we aren't using the tools properly or the tools aren't working for us and we are just accommodating them (maybe to show the boss that we are really "collaborating").

No doubt, this definition includes vertical applications focused on specific tasks but I only try to focus on how these systems affect the way we work together. If all a group does is enter transactions into an ERP system all day then there is little opportunity for collaborating outside of that application. However, most knowledge workers today deal with several tools; some are vertically focused, but many handle common tasks like messaging or file management.

In a truly collaborative environment we do not deliberately collaborate; it's how we always work, it's second nature to us. Everything we produce should be easily available (or easily made available) for others to work with us. There is little emphasis publishing and more emphasis on sharing.

I have debated whether collaboration enhances knowledge management or vice versa. In the end, I think collaboration and knowledge management should mean the same thing, at least in corporate-speak. Two faces on the same animal. But, collaboration is a better name and is closer to what I am really talking about; our work, our thinking, how we get things done. The Cluetrain Manifesto is correct when it says "Command and control are met with hostility by intranetworked knowledge workers" and "Intranets naturally tend to route around boredom." I bet there are few things that sound more boring or controlling than knowledge management.

My focus on collaborative technologies is generally on corporate use of these tools. I believe that company intranets exist for collaboration. Ask any CEO why they have an intranet (or why they have a connection to the Internet) and they may start out by saying it makes their processes execute faster or "we can send build information to a plant quicker". But the savvy CEO will also use words like "connecting with customers" or "working together more effectively". Your best employees already figured this out years ago and are using the intranet in innovative ways, and maybe you don't even realize it. Regardless of how intranets were created, their primary reason is to support collaboration.

From an industry perspective, I believe we are just now starting to understand collaborative technologies. Large vendors like Microsoft, IBM, and even Oracle see collaborative technologies as growth opportunities. While it is true these vendors will see significant growth in this area I still believe we are in the infancy of this industry. There is plenty of opportunity for others to address problems both inside intranets and across the Internet. Most existing collaborative technologies are closed, proprietary offerings. To see truly explosive growth we need more openness from our collaborative technology vendors.

I believe openness breeds innovation, and there are many parts of the collaborative technology market that need a big injection of innovation. While vendors continue pushing integration as their primary value proposition for closed systems, the astute competitor will embrace openness and provide innovation within an ecosystem of collaborative technologies based on open standards. Today we have a plethora of email systems which nearly everyone connected to the Internet is capable of using. We need comparable open and simple choices for other collaborative technologies; whether it is collaborative workspaces or online communities. It will not be until we have simple open standards that foster familiarity and easy interconnectivity that will we see widespread use and explosive innovation.

I hope you find what I write useful. Please do not hesitate to tell when I am wrong (or when I am right). I look forward to the dialog.

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