Enterprise collaboration tools have been mainstream for about a decade now, and portals, intranets and shared workspaces are some of the primary options IT provides to information workers specifically to support collaboration. Some, like Lotus Notes, have been around for quite a while, with newer tools based on Web 2.0 (or Enterprise 2.0) technologies such as wikis, blogs and microblogs providing even more options to promote and support enterprise collaboration, especially the collaborative creation of content. These newer tools have a number of benefits – like a community-oriented paradigm and no software to install – but despite that, none have made a dent in displacing the primary enterprise collaboration tool for information workers: email - the cumbersome, overloaded tool we all love to hate.

There are many reasons for the primacy of email (e.g., ubiquity, familiarity, flexibility, end-user control), but in an enterprise setting, one key reason is that collaboration between information workers is usually in support of a work process. Since email is also the primary tool for ad hoc process execution for information workers, it makes sense that it is also the main tool for collaboration.

So even though almost every enterprise has special purpose solutions available for collaboration and process management, good, old email always ends up being the primary method for both for information workers. This can be called the enterprise collaboration and process paradox and is the dirty little secret of both collaboration and process execution in business. Realistically, there doesn’t seem to be any way to displace email as the king of collaboration and processes – or is there?

Since it would be impractical to get information workers to stop using email for collaboration and processes, maybe the right answer is to enhance email so that it is more appropriate those tasks. Google Wave could turn out to be an interesting response to this challenge. Google Wave is a new type of platform consisting of email, instant messaging and documents. Put simplistically, Google is a mashup of email, wikis and instant messaging. Google is positioning Wave as “what email would look like if it were invented today.” Google Wave attempts to solve this paradox, but its answer is currently incomplete.

In the enterprise, email is everywhere; everyone uses it, and it is the lowest common denominator every information worker couldn’t live without. Studies show email is the only tool information workers use on an hourly basis. So on the plus side for Google Wave, it is built on the familiar metaphors of ad hoc collaboration, and it leverages asynchronous messaging and responses (just like email). By keeping track of the complete conversational context between the participants, there is no need to peruse one’s inbox to find all the relevant conversations. The context of the conversation is kept in a single place and can be replayed when needed. This consumer notion of “conversation” actually maps quite well (with a few modifications) to the business notion of ad hoc, unstructured processes between information workers.

But Google has decided to take a Web and consumer focus with this offering, which means it ignored some of the basic requirements of enterprise collaboration equation, particularly regarding security and access control, reporting and connection to standard enterprise email tools. That means you won’t be seeing Wave in an enterprise setting anytime soon. What you will be seeing is other tools, influenced by the Google Wave paradigm (or even leveraging the Google Wave platform). These will combine the usage patterns of collaboration and process (or as Google calls it, the “conversation”) and finally provide a tool that really meets the needs of information workers.

So what can we learn from Google Wave about the next generation of collaboration tools?

  1. Finally, collaboration tools will support the connection between process and collaboration. Most business collaboration takes place in support of a work process, and there needs to be a way to provide the process context for the collaboration (e.g., an ongoing audit, a response to a request for proposal, a fraud investigation). There also needs to be standard, structured ways for participants to add process status information to the collaboration (e.g., complete, declined).
  2. Even though most information workers collaborate through email, today’s solutions are not really integrated with email. They can generate email, but they are a completely separate application.
  3. There needs to be a way to easily link with other systems (content management, CRM, etc.) related to the process context of the collaboration. This also requires a way to add structured data to the collaboration for linkage to those tools.
  4. The combination of the conversation trail between participants in a process (i.e., process context), and the process results (e.g., documents) defines a new type of compound content which needs to be managed. Storing content won’t be enough – content will need to remain related to its context. Content management tools need to evolve to manage this new type of compound content both for regulatory reasons (to enable an audit trail of the work done) and to support organizational learning from how ad hoc processes are actually executed.

Google Wave is pointing the way to a new paradigm for information worker tools. Even though it has a consumer focus now, many of its features will likely be applied in the next generation of enterprise collaboration and process tools. Like Google Wave, these next-generation tools will combine collaboration, process and email features to provide more powerful enterprise collaboration platforms.

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