Monday, March 29, 2010

Contextual Collaboration. (Part 2 in a Series) What Are Businesses Searching For?

(This is part 2 in the "Contextual Collaboration" series. Read Part 1 here.)

The Question: As business leaders we are constantly being asked to generate more value from the teams we lead. One promising way to do that is to engender a culture of productive collaboration. The challenge is how to make that happen. What are business leaders perceiving to be the key elements of great collaboration? This is the question I want to address today.

The Background: After the recession’s focus on trimming down the costs all business have had to become very lean on resources. All business leaders are being asked to get more done with their reduced workforces.  The traditional approach to getting work done of "ramping up staff" and "sending the over the top" is no longer an option. Today's leaders have to find non-linear solutions that generate high productivity with small teams. This recession is forcing businesses to rediscover the non-linear leverage of productive teaming and collaboration.

To investigate this question I began researching what businesses are looking for in collaboration technologies and solutions.  My jump off point for this investigation was to look at what people were searching for related to "business collaboration". Using Google's ad-words keyword suggestion tool I was able to identify the key themes people are searching. Here is what popped out as the top 25 most searched for keyword phrases related to "business collaboration": 

Business Collaboration


A
B
C
D
1
Keywords
Advertiser Competition
Local Search Volume: December
Global Monthly Search Volume
2
technology
1
13600000
16600000
3
open source
1
1500000
4090000
4
logistics
1
2240000
3350000
5
innovation
1
1220000
2240000
6
supply chain
1
1220000
1500000
7
document management
1
368000
1220000
8
procurement
1
823000
1000000
9
workflow
1
450000
823000
10
team building
1
368000
823000
11
challenges
0.93
823000
823000
12
teamwork
1
301000
673000
13
content management
1
450000
673000
14
conferencing
1
550000
673000
15
collaboration
1
550000
673000
16
best practices
1
550000
550000
17
supply chain management
1
301000
450000
18
project management software
1
368000
450000
19
collaborative
0.93
368000
450000
20
business process
1
301000
450000
21
portals
1
201000
368000
22
knowledge management
1
201000
368000
23
value chain
0.93
60500
201000
24
web conferencing
1
90500
135000
25
groupware
1
90500
135000
26
collaborate
0.86
74000
110000
27
wikis
0.93
40500
74000
28
enterprise content management
1
33100
40500
29
collaboration software
1
33100
33100
30
sharepoint wiki
0.8
12100
27100

The highest ranking areas (Blue) show key areas where people are looking for better collaboration technologies with the keyword "Technology" right at the top. Everyone is looking for the "technology silver bullet".  Right after "technology" are "open source", "SW development", "logistics",  and "innovation".

Next in the rankings we find the tools, methods and practices people believe will help to achieve better collaboration. Bundling closely related searches and ranking by search volume the key pain points are as follows.

1) Work Flow and Business process
2) Document and Content Management,
3) Team work and team building,
4) Conferencing
5) Collaboration
6) Knowledge Management
7) Portals, Wiki’s
8) Groupware

The thing that immediately jumps out of this data for me is it looks like businesses are struggling with managing information and workflow in team contexts and are searching for solutions specific to team environments. I believe much of this is a result of a ramp up in use of highly distributed teams and the deep cuts in staff size.

In the past a lot of information would get processed and problems solved by having face to face interactions in a common office location where communication fidelity was high. Even more important than face-to-face planned meetings it was the random "chance" meetings that are now fully lost and had something to do with a big part of business productivity. These chance meetings often were the most important meetings that allowed work teams and individuals to address issues before they even emerged as problems. Now we have globally distributed teams spanning continents and cultures and all that sorting through info that was done in these face to face encounters has been lost. It's clear businesses are struggling with teaming and process topics in the workplace. They are looking hard for technology to solve these productivity problems for them in the context of the new "globally distributed workplace".

Is the only solution a return to the days of large office buildings full of hundreds or thousands of centrally located workers? I don't think so. I think globally distributed and "virtual" workforces can work. But we need some new types of collaboration solutions for the enterprise worker and also some new "best practices" in using the collaboration technologies we already have. I'm convinced the teaming benefits of regular chance encounters, and the organic productivity those encounters delivered, can be recaptured.

In this series on Contextual Collaboration I started by talking about how "context" is critical for businesses and individuals in managing the information overload problem. In this post I looked at the specific areas in which businesses are suffering from a lack of collaboration productivity. The next step is to start looking at specific approaches to implementing collaboration using context as the key tool for delivering truly productive collaboration with small and/distributed teams?

What's your take on this topic? Do the collaboration technologies you have at your fingertips today actually address the problems you face? Or do they perhaps even make them worse? How do you think we can "think differently" about how we design, deploy, use and support collaboration technologies so we can "resolve" this age old problem? Is "context" the key" Will it turn loosely bound, distributed teams into powerhouses of productivity?

Add your comments and continue this discussion.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Contextual Collaboration? What's That? (Part 1 in a Series)

Executive Summary: Collaboration & communication seem to happen as individual events. For example: I make a call, I get an email. These are individual events. However from the user’s perspective they always happen in a context. Examples for context might be the person I am working with, a project, a workflow, a relationship I have, a customer, a meeting I am preparing. Communication becomes relevant through its context.  And communication creates business value due to its context. Contextual collaboration is aimed at maximizing the business value created by collaboration. Collaboration gets more difficult due to the multitude of different collaboration technologies. Plus the sheer amount of information flowing in or on your disposal makes it more challenging. Contextual filtering becomes the key.

The Details: Collaboration and Collaboration technologies have been a hot topic of focus in enterprise business discussion for more than 5 years now. That focus is now growing even more intense. With the economy driving businesses to go to even more highly distributed workforce models, collaboration technologies and solutions are no longer "nice to have" solutions. They are now becoming critical to business success as companies try and manage their far-flung workforces.

When people think of "collaboration technologies" they may think of a whole range of multimedia, real-time communication solutions. People can do affordable, real-time collaboration every day using one or more of the following collaboration technologies; email, instant messaging, telephones, cellphones, text messaging, voice conferencing, white-boarding, wikis, video conferencing, Skype, Google Docs, Sharepoint, Basecamp, Salesforce.com, Twitter, FaceBook, LinkedIN, Google Buzz, Google Wave, etc, etc. This is only a partial list of all the various choices people have as they embark on surfing the real-time, hyper-dimensional state of the internet that Vonage co-founder and Twitter investor Jeff Pulver calls "The State of Now".

So what's the problem with this picture? Simply stated we now have a "Realtime Collaboration Overload" problem. Jeff Pulver's "State of Now", as exciting as that state is, is largely a "State of TMI"(Too Much Information). We have WAY too many overlapping and uncoordinated technology choices for real-time collaboration. We used to complain about "phone tag" as being non-productive. Now we have to play tag on dozens of collaboration channels simultaneously; (Cellphone-tag, desktop-phone-tag, Google Voice-tag, Skype-tag, Email-tag(X4 email addresses), IM-tag(X4 IM id's), Facebook-tag, GoogleBuzz-Tag, Wave-tag, Linked-Tag, Blog-comment-tag, etc, etc, etc.

How do we stop this insanity? If it continues we may all start contemplating the thought of a shaving our heads, donning flowing orange robes and running off to live in one room shacks on  mountain-tops to get away from the rushing flood of communication and information. 

The answer I think lies in "context". Every communication session request you get and accept or decline and every piece of information information you bathe in each day has some small or large amount of context in which it lives for you personally. 

Clay Shirkey has said "The problem is not information overload, the problem is filter failure." That's where context comes in. A focus on paying attention to and managing context, lets call it "Contextual Collaboration", has the potential to help us all achieve "Filter Success" in our many daily collaborations. So what is it?

Contextual collaboration is managed approach to collaborative technologies that involves embedding all the relevant applications, such as word processors, enterprise instant messaging (EIM), shared calendars, and groupware, into a unified user interface to aggregate, coordinate, and thereby enhance, collaboration. This means that from within any of the applications people could communicate and instantly share any resources at their disposal without having to manage multiple independent thread of collaboration across multiple independent collaboration channels. The goal of contextual collaboration is to make online collaboration between people anywhere in the world as simple and intuitive and focused as it is to work with people in the same room.

The concept sounds wonderful. But the problem is both broad in scope and deep in complexity. There are thousands of different collaboration scenarios and collaboration technology choices available to us. So how do we get started? 

To explore this I'll be writing an entire series of blogs that start to dig into the roots of the collaboration overload problem and start to propose focused solutions that use "context" as the core filtering mechanism. In the next blog in this series I'll explore more about the specific pain points businesses are trying to alleviate with collaboration technologies.

Are you in a "State of Overload" with all the collaborations and collaborations technologies you have raining down on you daily? How is it affecting you and what remedies, if any, do you use in trying to manage this problem? 
Let me know what your views and experiences are! Leave a comment on the blog or feel freee to send me email at reventlow_AT_avaya.com or my personal email vonreventlow_AT_yahoo.com.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Did Microsoft Just Surrender as a 'Desktop OS' Monopoly?

That's what I'm now wondering after reading this article about Microsoft's latest announcement about it's future. It's 2010 and Microsoft has dominated the desktop OS business as a virtual monopoly for over 20 years. But last week Steve Ballmer was quoted saying something that could be read as Microsoft as much as admitting that the PC desktop OS technology, and the desktop marketplace, are part of the Microsoft past and present but NOT part of it's the future.

In the strongest language yet, Ballmer signaled the Redmond software company's total embrace of cloud computing, the evolution from a company still primarily known for its PC software Windows and Office to a cloud computing company. His comments came in speech to University of Washington students where Ballmer said... "This is the bet for the company," Ballmer said. "For the cloud, we're all in."

Given the growing use of cloud computing services it's not a big surprise that Microsoft has finally decided to make this commitment.  They have now been dabbling in cloud solutions since Ray Ozzie's famous "Internet Services Disruption" internal memo he wrote in late 2005 so they have had plenty of time to make this committment. The big question for them though is, are they already too late to be able to compete effectively on the cloud computing "playing field". In this new market they are a late comer and now an underdog. For the last 20 years with Windows, Office and Exchange they have had the luxury to be the dominant, even de facto, desktop software solutions both for home and business users. But in the cloud computing marketplace that is about to mushroom, they have big challenges to overcome.

The biggest challenge I see for them entering the cloud computing arena is they can't just dump the responsibility of their exisitng desktop and server software products and customers and move all their resources into cloud-focused services and customers. So although Steve Ballmer may say Microsoft is "all in", the fact is most all of Microsoft's resources have to continue to be dedicated to the software solutions of their past and present.  Microsoft will be supportings 100s of millions of licenses for the last 3 windows OS variants (XP, Vista and Win7) and their last 3 or so releases of Exchange and the Office Suite for many years to come. On top of that they have all the products and solutions they offer in gaming, smartphones, collaboration(Sharepoint), telephony(OCS 2010), HW devices("Zune", "Xbox" and soon "Courier") and all the Non-Office desktop "fat" application software products.

With all this responsibility of a vast and deep product portfolio and customer base to watch over can Microsoft really go "All in" on cloud computing? Can they really compete to win against Google and the other cloud solution providers? Or is this "All in" statement more hype than reality.

Are we on the verge of Microsoft starting to fragment and lose it's leadership position in computing. We've seen giant near-monopolies fall before (IBM). Is Microsoft about to go down the same path  to the technology "tar pits" IBM went down back in the early 80s? And if so will they be able to find a way to survive at least as well as IBM?  IBM crashed hard and fast and was lucky to get in a CEO that led a bold restructuring of IBM's entire business model. Can Steve Ballmer and Ray Ozzie teach the Microsoft elephants to dance the way Lou Gerstner did at IBM and remake itself into a cloud computing contender/winner? It's possible, but I have serious doubts.

What do you think?

Sunday, March 7, 2010

In a Down Economy, Businesses Are "Searching" For Something They've Lost. Productivity!

Since late 2008 we've all been suffering, and by "all" I mean everyone who participates in the global economy, through hard economic times in one way or another.  That is true for us as individuals and also true for the businesses people own themselves or work for as an employee/contractor. 

In these tough times, being in the business of selling communication and collaboration solutions to business customers has been, and still is, a big challenge. Businesses have been very reluctant to buy new equipment given their economic worries. In times like this both consumers and businesses stop spending and "batten down the hatches" in the hope of "riding out the storm below decks" hoping they don't get "blown into the rocks". 

It's been over 18 months now with hatches battened down tight and at last it seems the equity markets are relatively stable. So people are wondering if we are at last on the road to recovery. But despite the market stability there are still big problems. Layoffs have slowed but still continue. Unemployment is at 20 year highs. Business revenues continue to be soft and shaky. The workers who still have jobs are being asked to do more with less resources and less staff. One result of this "do more with less" state of business operations is recent data shows that productivity "per worker" is up.

But this increase in worker productivity is not turning into improved efficiency and success for businesses on an aggregate basis. The "per person" productivity numbers may be up but that is not translating into improved business productivity and equivalent increases in top line growth or bottom line results. This would seem counterintuitive wouldn't it? Employees are definitely working more hours and delivering more work per person. All the wasteful excess of travel, training, employee morale programs, pensions, benefits, heat, air conditioning and any other potentially "perk-like" compensation for employees is gone. Added to that savings it's safe to bet that all the the workers that these businesses perceived as "low producing" or "lower producing" have been let go during the layoffs. Shouldn't the result of all this "streamlining" and "rightsizing" be a lot of significantly more efficient and productive businesses? Why is that not happening? What's going on here?

Human psychology is what is going on here. Despite the recent focus by CEO's on trimming waste, excess and fat, an undeniable reality of business success is the human element. Turns out that the old platitude we heard a lot from corporate leadership and HR in the booming 90s that "people are our greatest asset" is again being proved true. Another human truism is when we work together in collaborative teams in the context of high morale we become more powerful and productive than when we work as individuals in low morale environments. Yes, we are proving to ourselves once again through this downturn that to have successful and thriving and profitable businesses, people actually matter. 

The reason I think this realization is happening again is something I saw when I started doing some investigating this week into what people were searching for related to "business collaboration". In using Google's ad-words keyword suggestion tool I saw some very intriguing keyword phrases suggested for me when I entered "business collaboration" as a set of seed keywords. Here is what popped out as the top 25 most searched for keyword phrases related to "business collaboration". This list and the search rankings tell a very interesting story.

The thing that immediately jumps out of this data for me is it looks like businesses are struggling with managing information and workflow in team contexts and are searching for solutions specific to team environments. I believe much of this is a result of a ramp up in use of highly distributed teams and the deep cuts in staff size. 

In the past a lot of information would get processed and problems solved by having face to face interactions in a common office location where communication fidelity was high. Another natural outcome of having teams physically working in a common location is "team cohesiveness" can be higher as people run into each other regularly/randomly in the physical environment of an office. These chance physical encounters very often result in very productive ad hoc meetings where workers make significant progress in solving a problem or agreeing to work together to produce a result.  "Chance" meetings would allow people to more regularly collaborate and address issues before they even emerge as problems. Now we have globally distributed teams spanning continents and cultures and all that sorting through info that was done in these face to face encounters has been lost.

The first 4 entries that are searched for most tell a story of people hoping to find innovative and free "open source" collaboration technology solutions to their "distributed and smaller workforces" productivity problems. The next 6 or 8 entries tell the story of where the problems are showing up, "supply chain, document management, procurement, workflow, team building, teamwork, content management".  It's clear businesses are struggling with teaming and process topics in the workplace. They are looking hard for technology to solve these productivity problems for them in the context of the new "globally distributed workplace".

Is the only solution a return to the days of large office buildings full of hundreds or thousands of centrally located workers? I don't think so. I think globally distributed and "virtual" workforces can work. But we need some new types of collaboration solutions for the enterprise worker and also some new "best practices" in using the collaboration technologies we already have. I'm convinced the teaming benefits of regular chance encounters, and the organic productivity those encounters delivered, can be recaptured.

But how do we do that given the economic and cultural challenges we face with the globally distributed workforce?  I have some ideas I will blog about in a follow-on post with a working title "Planning for Unplanned Collaboration". 

What's your take on this topic? Is your business suffering a loss of productivity due to loss of teamwork dynamics? Do the technologies you have at your fingertips today actually address the problems? Or do they perhaps even make them worse? How do you think we can "think differently" about how we use collaboration technologies to solve this problem?

Looking forward to your thoughts.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Cloud Computing Security: "Cloud Nine" or "Lost in The Clouds"

   Image Credit: Technology Review
This week the Cloud Security Alliance (CSA) released their report "Top Threats to Cloud Computing"The CSA states the reasons for this new report being...

".. to provide needed context to assist organizations in making educated risk management decisions regarding their cloud adoption strategies. In essence, this threat research document should be seen as a companion to Security Guidance for Critical Areas in Cloud Computing.

The top threats as identified by CSA in the report are...

1. Abuse and Nefarious Use of Cloud Computing
2. Insecure Application Programming Interfaces
3. Malicious Insiders 
4. Shared Technology Vulnerabilities
5. Data Loss/Leakage
6. Account, Service & Traffic Hijacking
7. Unknown Risk Profile

For each threat the CSA lays out for the reader a detailed Description of the threat, Examples of the threat, Remediation strategies to avoid the threat and links to Reference material on the web to learn more about the threat. I highly recommend that CIOs, CFOs and IT staffers read this document if they are using, or considering using, hosted Software As A Service (SAAS) solutions.

There is no doubt at all that these threats, despite all the attractive technical and business benefits of cloud computing, should give pause to those businesses considering moving to SAAS solutions.  In this world there is no "Silver Bullet", no "Free Lunch" and the Second Law of Thermodynamics says things tend to get worse if you don't pay attention. The same is true here. "Cloud Computing" is not a problem-free panacea for businesses looking to reduce internal IT cost while still delivering the reliable, scalable, affordable, manageable computing services a business requires.

Having said that, one thing that immediately jumps out for me as I read through these well described and illustrated threat summaries was how every single one of them is already a security issue, either to a higher, lower or similar degree, for premises-based "in-house" solutions. So no matter your choice you are going to face similar problems.

In a prior blog post, where I discussed the concept of a "Private Cloud" approach to computing, I summarized one attractive benefit of "in-house", "premise-cloud" solutions as providing the CIO or CFO with the proverbial "throat to choke" when things go wrong either from a reliability, scalability or security standpoint.  What this means basically is that with an internally-owned and operated infrastructure for computing there is always going to be some one or more persons inside the organization that can be held accountable.  Job security is always one very effective way to guarantee that internal IT staff are personally engaged in insuring that corporate software solutions and the data stored on them are kept available to authorized users and secure from malicious use.

However, it is also true that a well-considered and well-written contract with an external cloud computing vendor, that includes specific legal remedies for lost, stolen or mishandled data and applications, can be a powerful means to make sure your vendors deliver on their promises. In fact, it might be argued that contractual incentives with an external vendor to deliver the security and confidence your business needs for it's mission critical applications can be much more powerful in making sure you "get what you are paying for" with cloud computing solutions.

But once again, to do this right, there is no free lunch. If you are migrating to broad-based use of SAAS solutions in your enterprise you better do your homework and read reports like the one from the CSA. If you put the time in to research these threats, specific to how they show up in the cloud versus premises deployments, you'll know how to intelligently and creatively demand the security you need when you write contracts with SAAS vendors. That's your "Cloud Nine" scenario where you get to be a SAAS hero. But beware the trap of trusting the cloud vendors too much.  If you fail to make sure your vendors are motivated by legal contract to insure you are getting secure solutions, your critical and important corporate data and applications, and your job, may well end up "Lost in the Clouds."
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