If I were to ask you what Microsoft's fastest growing product is, which product would you choose? In 2003, The Register reported that SharePoint was the fastest growing product with more than 30 million licenses. Collaborative products are not new, and the Lotus Notes folks will sing in unison "been there, done that." However, 30 million licenses are nothing to sneeze at. The impact to traditional applications is enormous in the sense of how work is organized and value delivered. This month, I want to describe how many organizations are adding collaboration to their applications, registries and repositories.

Traditional Content Management Environment

Traditional repositories, like most applications, are built based on the perceptions of value from the business perspective. Basically, we will tell you what you need, when you need it and how you should get it. The reason for this high degree of control is that organizations, by definition, want to reduce the variability of the business process. Controlling the customer experience ensures that we utilize best practices and increase our efficiency factor. As application developers, we took this mind-set to the next level by not integrating content management, knowledge management and asset lifecycle management because that additional information would reduce our ability to estimate impact. Clearly, information-only applications are much easier to maintain and manage as well.

Repositories took a step over registries by adding the unstructured information to the content accessible to the end user - of course, only after the documents had been cleansed, metadata updated and converted to PDF for end-user consumption. While this is a step forward, the reality is that this effort is not enough as we move into the next wave of technology. Passive information is not enough and active business integration fails to ensure future value add to the organization. The walls of isolation for technology are coming down and the integration is ugly.

Integrating Collaborative Technologies

Collaborative technologies can be defined as any application that allows more than two people to interact. However, that definition doesn't go far enough to describe the integration of technologies that help us get our work done. More importantly, if we expand the repository out to the producer and consumer of asset information, we can open the door for the possibility of a much more collaborative environment. Consider these collaborative scenarios :

Logical Model Management

The logical model itself is created in a very collaborative manner where the data modeler will interview stewards, technologists and business users in order to best define both the logical and physical data structures. However, attending meetings and design sessions is only collaborative when everyone is physically located in the same location and attends at the same time. What if our technology professionals are located in Malaysia? Are you going to get up at 2:00 a.m. to discuss the merits of naming standards, or are you going to ask them to do so? Changing the location but keeping the time the same is a little easier because we now have online meeting software and conference bridges. Can you imagine working on the semantics of the logical model where the business is at a different location and different time? Welcome to the 21st century where time and location simply don't or won't matter. Critical to the paradigm shift is the ability to collaborate on the model and include traditional document management concepts such as check in/out, version control and historical views. Managers want to be able to review, approve and publish the final content into an environment that everyone can access. Traditional control will go the way of the horse and buggy, and open collaboration will rule.

Asset Value Discussions

One of the more interesting observations of the corporate world is the number of conversations that we have on the same subject. Every time a new employee joins the group with even an ounce of data experience, we have to revisit the 25 conversation points on naming standards, domain analysis and resource management. It would be really nice to just point that person to a discussion thread where we have spent the last four years discussing the same topic. As the prior paragraph pointed out, time no longer exists and your ability to get product concepts to market must be days not months. Blogs are emerging as the voice of business and technology. It is revolutionary because companies have usually been more concerned with controlling their message than conversing with customers. Blogging changes that by establishing "a connection through real human beings speaking like real human beings, which is something companies have forgotten how to do," says David Weinberger, the Boston-based co-author of "The Cluetrain Manifesto" (Business Week, 2004). Open communications educate everyone and the reality is that the lack of communications is the central reason for project failure.

Collaborative Data Dictionary

Data dictionaries are built by technologists for technologists, right? Of course not - well, in most cases. Data dictionaries are built by technologists for businesspeople. Better, but still not perfect. Ideally, data dictionaries are built by the business for the business. More specifically, data dictionaries should be able to be built by anyone for anyone and anything. However, we lose control of the environment and then we have 100 data dictionaries running around with no ownership and no consistent methodologies. Truth be told, that only happens when each environment is closed to the other communities. Hence, open Wiki-based data dictionaries are emerging and the funny thing is that they aren't spawning 100 other one-offs. A common language is evolving for both the business and the technology professionals. Bonnie O'Neil and Lowell Fryman describe this environment as a user-authored dictionary.

Data Architecture Standards

Every organization needs to publish their data architecture standards, but where? How will people find these standards? In what context will this information be presented? How will this information be located within the organization? These are all good questions that can only be asked if you actually publish the standards to begin with. Many "Ivory Tower" architecture groups fail to share these standards so that decisions can be made beforehand and adjustments can be made when the impact is fairly low. Because not every group has a Web designer or understand HTML well enough, collaborative environments allow the publishing of standards by anyone with the correct security profile. In addition, the data architecture may want to have a collaborative environment where work in process, revisions and document management can take place while, at the same time, they can have a intranet site where the current versions can be stored. Again, collaborative technologies can handle this and many other scenarios.

This column contains just a few examples f where collaboration can be integrated into the structured world of data. Adding unstructured documentation was just the first step of many to come within the technology world. At the most basic core, collaboration systems support the work of teams by facilitating the sharing and flow of information. Thus, collaboration not only solves, but also integrates multiple business environments such as telecommuting and global work forces. Set in the 24th century, Fahrenheit 451 tells the story of the protagonist, Guy Montag. Like Montag, many of us begin by refusing to see the implications of our actions and avoid collaboration within our technology environment.

"Driven by his increasing uneasiness, Montag steals a book from a collection he is sent to burn. At the scene of the burning, Montag is shaken when the owner of the books, an older woman, refuses to leave her home. Instead, the woman sets fire to her kerosene soaked house and remains there as it, and she, are destroyed by flames. The woman's dedication to her books makes Montag realize that perhaps the happiness he lacks can be found in books."

Through out the book, Montag fights his internal demons and eventually understands the power of the written word. Collaboration continues to be exiled by the organizational establishment, hell-bent on control and management. The future belongs to the individual, and the age of individualism is upon us. We already know this as a consumer due to the attention focused on the following: customer relationship management (CRM), customer is king, personalization, customization, etc. The question is, do you see yourself as an individual from a producer of value perspective? In other words, the value-proposition you bring to your organization or clients better include collaborative skills, or you too will become that commodity being outsourced.

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