When Google announced that it was discontinuing development of Google Wave, the company's attempt to turn e-mail into a real-time collaboration platform, there was a fair amount of smug satisfaction. A giant had stumbled.
Collaboration took a hit too. Tradition-oriented IT organizations had always suspected this social, collaborative, hierarchy-destroying, hippie-feelgood tech was over-hyped from the start. And here was the proof.
But real-time, social collaboration technology turns out to be hearty enough to have survived its period of youthful experimentation. At the upcoming Enterprise 2.0 Conference, which begins on November 8th in Santa Clara, Calif., a number of large organizations will report on their social collaboration initiatives, including Citibank, Wells Fargo, and the U.S. Department of State.
Collaboration used to be about documents. Now, it's social; it's about people. People have become an alternative form of file system. Search still relies on keywords but knowledge workers increasingly have another option: finding the person who can help.
Novell engineering VP Andy Fox observes that while Google Wave had some really interesting aspects, like real-time collaboration and support for federation, Wave always struck him as a little bit odd. "It didn't have the full collaboration depth we expected," he said, citing the absence of support for groups, social functions, or long-term document storage. "It was a separate version of e-mail in which you could edit files together [with other users]."
The real-time collaboration engine of Wave, or a version of it, ended up inside of Google Docs, where it fits well, says Fox. What remains of Wave is an open-source project; Google's impulse to reinvent e-mail has been replaced by a more modest and practical goal among enterprise software vendors: augmenting existing modes of communication to help people work together more efficiently.
Novell is forging ahead with the development of Pulse, a real-time enterprise communication and collaboration platform that relies on Wave's federation protocol. Announced a year ago, Pulse was made available to a limited number of users as a preview starting in March. The company won't say exactly what it plans to announce at the Enterprise 2.0 Conference, but chances are it will have something to do with wider availability.
Fox says that Pulse is a complete collaboration platform, but one that's designed to complement users' favorite applications rather than replace them. "It's very social," he said, noting that you can invite people into groups, from inside or outside your company, and start assembling assets in real-time.
It's a content repository that provides the opportunity to work together in a structured or ad hoc way. "People won't look at it as a place where documents go to die," he said.
Forrester sees a future in such systems. In its recent report, "The Top 15 Technology Trends EA Should Watch: 2011 To 2013," it describes technology that sounds a lot like Pulse. "Collaboration platforms will shift from document-centric to people-centric," the report states. "People-centric collaboration platforms will take advantage of Web 2.0 capabilities such as profiling, tagging, and communities and will shift the emphasis from document collaboration to facilitating the interactions of people in the organization."
James Sims, CIO of Save Mart, a grocery store chain based in Modesto, Calif., describes himself as being passionate about collaboration platforms and says his company has been testing Pulse for the past few weeks.
"Once people start to learn to collaborate a little more, things happen so much faster and you can leverage the collective genius of six people [instead of a single person working on a document until it's complete]," he said in a phone interview. "It takes people while before they realize that they don't have to be done [with a project] before they start sharing information."
At the same time, Sims cautions that some structure and refinement is necessary. "Pulse is very free-flowing and dynamic and real-time," he said. "I'm finding that information pandemonium can occur unless you lay down some ground rules."
The challenge, he says, is having everyone see the information they should see, recalling how he recently asked someone who mentioned something to him verbally to communicate through Pulse so everyone would get the message.
Sims insists there's something to be said both for the traditional document-style paradigm and the people-oriented, collaborative model. Because the social model tends to reinforce the importance of what's actively being discussed, there's a chance that important information that's not widely commented on may be overlooked at some later point in time.
Pulse, he says, is a very interesting and exciting platform. But it's not plug-in-and-transform. "It's going to take us all a while to wrap our heads around how to make it work...to impose a little bit of structure while still being very active and dynamic," he said.
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