People work together. They help each other with information and feedback and old-fashioned elbow grease.

The very nature of the enterprise is collaborative: multiple individuals working together to solve a problem, to deliver a product, to achieve a common objective. If this seems obvious, consider that most enterprise technology does not facilitate collaboration. (Witness how so much of so many processes are Excel-centric!) But if we watch how knowledge workers actually collaborate in a real-world enterprise, we see opportunity to create collaboration tools that better fit them.

A Common Story

Sam and Alex decided to create a new pricing plan for the product they manage. They mapped out a high-level decision process specifying the precise information required to feed this decision and carefully chose information fit for their context. They then foraged available spreadsheets, reports, portals and Web sources, finding information from which they could extract what they had specified. They filtered databases to exclude certain channels and bundle offers that their new pricing plan would exclude. They modified spreadsheet calculations of costs to reflect a deal they had just negotiated with a supplier for this program. They selectively quoted and paraphrased news articles and blogs on recent market phenomena, focusing on those relevant to this new plan. Finally, a plan emerged from their work.

Sam and Alex created a report with the quantitative and qualitative information tailored precisely to each consideration in their decision on the new pricing plan. When they circulated the plan for review by peers and subject-matter experts, those reviewers did not have to wade through irrelevant information. Sam and Alex had already put lots of information into context, and they had described the methods and procedures by which they had contextualized each piece of tailored information.

There were things Sam and Alex missed, so reviewers annotated the report with questions, answers, comments, links and images that added new depth to the plan. And several months later when someone found their project materials on the organization’s knowledge base, they were able to understand immediately the intended decision-making context in which the charts, tables, calculations and discussions had been tailored. This story helps us understand four central truths:

  1. Collaboration transcends communication. Collaboration is a creative act. Alex and Sam did more than talk, chat, videoconference, email and IM. They created new and original information, made a decision and shared what they created so others could reuse it.
  2. Collaboration contextualizes information. Collaboration puts information into context for now - and for later. Alex and Sam put information into context through their tailoring, and everyone on the review team added context onto the information through their discussion.
  3. Collaboration creates meaning. Numbers alone have no meaning. Meaning requires elaboration, in terms like "Where'd this number come from? What do we see in the environment that we believe is contributing to this phenomenon? What's being impacted by this phenomenon?"
  4. Collaboration involves everyone. A collaborative community is a diverse community. The creators did the heavy lifting, but collaborators added valuable input with their comments and questions. And, those simple additions by collaborators made the information more accessible for consumers looking for something similar at a later date.

Prerequisites

Users need more power, flexibility, choice, autonomy, access and usability. Vendors, IT planners and solution providers must find ways to provide users the ability to remix, refocus and redistribute information. We must find ways to allow users to coalesce autonomously into decision teams. We must create experiences that attract and involve everyone across the full continuum of creator-collaborator-consumer. We must blend work streams: structured and unstructured, quantitative and qualitative, exploratory and declarative. Enterprise collaboration platforms must allow participants to work with tools that fit their individual tastes, skills and styles.

This means that users must be able to select from app-store-like registries of easy-to-use tools, which they can apply to data they find appropriate, in ways they find appropriate. Data and services are delaminating so users can mix and match data with applications as needed for each situation. SOA is now a ticket to play, and collaboration is the killer app that catalyzes the move to a services-oriented architecture.

Payoff

The first-order benefit of these changes is that knowledge workers can collaborate more efficiently and effectively. That alone would make the CIO a hero, but there's more. Collaboration platforms will become "meaning servers" by turning users into an army of context metadata generators - associating meaning to information. This is the missing link for enterprise search, but it also exposes the data/context combination as meaning-rich Web services for other users and applications to exploit. The Web 3.0/open-data future depends upon meaning, and meaning is what people say it is. So, the path to Web 3.0 is through a compelling user collaboration experience from which we can tap into the mother lode of meaning.

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