Google Buys DocVerse: Maybe This Collaborative Authoring Thing Finally Has Legs?

March 5, 2010 at 4:58 pm | Posted in Content Management, Office, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment

This morning, Google announced it is buying a little company in San Francisco that enables real-time and asynchronous (offline) collaborative authoring of Microsoft Office docs called DocVerse.  The founders of DocVerse are actually ex-Microsoft product folks.

As I wrote back in September 2008, I believe collaborative authoring is one of the top five trends for next generation authoring.  The increase in technological solutions to the challenges of dealing with multiple authors has continued since then, with many approaches to different aspects of the problem.

First, we’ve seen responses from the big guys.

  • Microsoft: Office 2010 provides a slew of simultaneous editing features (i.e., multiple cursors typing in different positions of the same document), some in conjunction with SharePoint 2010.  Simultaneous editing was already in OneNote, but since that product is mostly relegated to simple note-taking status by all but a few aficionados, having it in Word, PowerPoint, and Excel is hitting the big time.
  • Google: Google Docs allows multiple users to edit the same document in their own format, although in January they added the ability to share any file type (not with simultaneous editing).

To figure out who has the best answer requires knowing the problem you’re trying to solve.  The term “co-authoring” is vague and doesn’t specify what aspects of multiple authors are being addressed.  Is it:

  • Check-in, check-out, and versioning:  The most basic functionality required by multiple asynchronous authors is the ability to tag a document as “checked out” and file it back in later.  Document management systems, collaborative workspaces, and source code control systems have provided this functionality for a long time.  Let’s skip right past this category.
  • Review and Commenting: Often there is one document owner who writes most of the content and has primary responsibility for the finished product, but many reviewers whose input needs to be managed.  Microsoft has promised to allow multiple reviewers to comment up a “single version of truth” document, which would solve many hassles involved with emailing documents around and merging changes.  Other vendors such as TextFlow and Backboard have taken stabs at managing the review process.  Managing the process (verifying reviewers have been heard from, that all comments have been addressed, etc.) is still not directly addressed and provides a more difficult procedural and cultural hurdle than technically figuring out how to merge comments.
  • Simultaneous authoring: Students in classes that want to contribute to a single document of notes during a class have used SubEthaEdit, a basic text editor that has been around for quite a while and allows co-authoring with multiple cursors in documents. Zoho allows this too.
  • Componentized authoring and content reuse: Except for shared note taking and intensive review sessions, simultaneous authoring is not very useful.  What is more common is divvying up pieces of a deliverable to multiple authors for final assembly by a chief editor.  This may involve assigning sections of a presentation deck to a series of authors or dividing a Word document into sections or chapters for members of a team to work on.  High end document creators use XML authoring software such as Altova XMLSpy, Arbortext Editor, BroadVision QuickSilver, JustSystems XMetaL, PTC Arbortext and, Stylus Studio. But a large swath of non-professional authors need easier, less-expensive tools.  One example is Vasont which manages content components as collections, particularly for translation projects.  This problem requires fundamentally different tooling than the set provided by Office 2010 or Google/DocVerse.  It’s less whiz-bang than seeing a demo with multiple people typing away with different colored cursors and arrows to their locations in a document, but I think attention on componentized authoring would yield higher productivity for organizations than simultaneous authoring.

As far as I’m concerned, this purchase is not a big deal yet until it yields some fruit in the unknown future.  And I’d rather see an emphasis on helping authors to componentize and reuse content rather than worry about how to handle about them typing over each other’s cursors.

Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.


Why I’m Dreading Information Overload Awareness Day

August 10, 2009 at 9:22 am | Posted in Attention Management, communication, Information Work, Web 2.0 | 5 Comments

The inaugural Information Overload Awareness Day is being held on Wednesday (8/12/09).  And I’m dreading it.  That may seem odd since I cover this topic as an industry analyst and any additional attention on my space is a good thing.  Also, I agree that too many people aren’t aware of how far down the slippery slope they’ve gone in terms of being interruptible at all times and trying to follow ever more information sources and communication channels.

The reason I’m dreading this is that most of the material I’ve seen from the folks putting this on overstates the problem while understating the solution.  So on one hand the problem is inflated to encompass insidious damage to our (worded in first-person guru tense) psyche, attention spans, and well-being, not to mention about $1 trillion per year (I dispute this).  And on the other hand the solutions offered up are menial: don’t use “reply all”, try e-mail-free Fridays (yuk), and a smattering of time management and e-etiquette tips.  That’s all fine for individuals (I offer my own personal attention management tips here, and and 43 folders are full of tips).  But a systemic problem requires a systemic solution.

To their defense, I’m not the target audience for this information.  As it says in the title, the point of the day is “awareness”.  To make people aware it helps to shake people awake with a narrative tying the rise of communication technology to ADD to the broad arc of information work.  I’ve given that presentation myself and, I’ll be honest, it’s rewarding to do!  I got a very good response too, but after seeing many others do the same thing I realized it’s like shooting fish in a barrel.

So I’m already aware.  In fact, I’ve become a connoisseur of info overload articles, books, and presentations.  I feel like a movie critic who has seen every fish-out-of-water, buddy cop movie, making him disgruntled when a new release rehashes the cliche without offering anything new (even though the audience consists of people who are seeing the cliche for the first time and like it). 

The tough part is not putting on a day where you raise awareness of information overload, but figuring out what to do the day after.  That’s the day when the evangelical zeal wears off and you try describing this to your co-workers, many of whom honestly don’t feel that overloaded most of the time.  You can make a few personal behavioral changes and convince some others to do the same, but they have little impact and wear off soon.  And then you catch yourself interrupting people because you actually need to and they “tsk tsk” you saying it was unnecessary to them.  Then you find that of the 28% of your day that is supposedly wasted, really only a few percent of it can truly be recovered without treating every day like a nine hour sprint. Without any real solutions to survive the information deluge you come off like someone complaining about the weather.  “Bring an umbrella” as the morning show weatherman says over and over ad nauseam.

Enjoy Information Overload Awareness Day if you’re new to the subject, but the next day think about real actions that can be taken.  Think about a systemic solution, like Enterprise Attention Management which describes how to pull important information forward and push less important information back.  EAM avoids the moralizing about what you’re doing to yourself and others and doesn’t require adherents to be converts.  It shifts the focus to enterprise-wide efficiency rather than individual struggle.

Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.

Oracle WebCenter and Fusion Middleware 11g

July 9, 2009 at 7:07 am | Posted in BEA, collaboration, Enterprise 2.0, Microsoft SharePoint, Notes/Domino, Oracle, portals, Web 2.0 | 5 Comments

Oracle’s analyst summit in mid-June provided a good look at their plans for Fusion Middleware 11g and WebCenter (released July 1st for download; see summary of features here).  Now that we’re out of non-disclosure mode (and into “please disclose!” mode) I’d like to share my high-level impressions.  They covered a ton of stuff, but my view is biased towards my coverage area of portals with connections to search, productivity, and collaboration. Other Burton Group analysts were also in attendance from our Identity and Privacy Strategies team and our Application Platform Strategies team (see Anne Thomas Manes’ thoughts here).

First, although Oracle owns 4 portal products, all the portal-related time was spent on WebCenter. Sure, other portals were mentioned in bullets as examples of how they can plug in (or consume WebCenter’s social software), but it was clear WebCenter is the leading actor here (and supporting actor in the stories of the SOA, identity, and enterprise application teams). This confirms what I (and Oracle) has been saying: that WebCenter is the primary portal and that the other 3 (Oracle Portal, WebLogic Portal, and WebCenter Interaction née Plumtree) will be supported and have their die-hard fans but will not be best for new portal projects.

It was helpful to hear Oracle frame its collaboration/portal/search/productivity/social software ambitions in relation to Microsoft SharePoint.  For all its plusses and minuses, SharePoint provides a common point of reference against which to measure.  They described how they line up with SharePoint as an alternative, can coexist with it, and where they surpass it.  This is what IBM should have done with Quickr+Connections at Lotusphere.

As with SharePoint, WebCenter provides an impressive set of functions in one box. There is often better integration between WebCenter and other Oracle assets (like their applications and development tools) than Microsoft where other groups can sometimes get away with ignoring what the SharePoint and Office group does.

There are numerous SharePoint analogies in WebCenter.  From conversations with the execs there I found that some are intentional and in other cases they say SharePoint copied them (well, copied AquaLogic User Interaction)!

  • Business Dictionary as a role based catalog of information assets. Seems like SharePoint’s Business Data Catalog.  This should be an interesting battle since SharePoint’s BDC is clearly a version 1.0 work-in-progress and Oracle has a lot of expertise to bring here being a database company at heart.
  • Federated search. ‘Nuff said.
  • Office integration. Clients I speak with expect Microsoft will always have the best Office integration, but there are cases where Microsoft’s internal silos or some good ideas can expose openings.  Oracle showed a nice Word sidebar for document management that had people, versions, etc.
  • Slide sorter. This was a neat feature that SharePoint offered, but Oracle’s version seems to leapfrog it. They demoed picking all the slides for a sales deck. Oracle calls this a “folio” or compound document. Oracle acquired a neat little company called “Outside In” that has sophisticated filters for productivity files.  Blending this into Web Center can provide for some good Office integration.

Oracle did a fine job of acknowledging the need to work with SharePoint and others.  But the meat boils down to their WSRP producer running on .NET, selective metadata consumption, and Ensemble (a reverse proxy solution).  Hopefully this gets beefed up with more programmatic integration, discovery tools, and guidance so it requires less reliance on WSRP.

Of all the competitors, WebCenter is the newest architecture from the ground up.  Being the youngest has its advantages.  Since WebCenter is newly architected it feels like it more seamlessly integrates new concepts like tagging, linking, social connections, and REST services than IBM and MSFT where it’s more bolted on. So they’re better at utilizing these features across the suite that Microsoft and a little bit better than IBM.

But will Oracle – the whole company – give WebCenter the resources it needs to win the marketplace(not just the resources required to be a good and useful product)?  In the Q&A session, Oracle President Charles Phillips said there are “No plans to have middleware broken out in reporting. We have lots of product lines, we’re getting more with Sun… ” This hits at the perennial knock on Oracle’s efforts around knowledge infrastructure – lack of push and commitment.  Oracle did talk about how much revenue Fusion pulled in, the growth rate, penetration, etc.  That would indicate the company would have to care.  But still, Microsoft manages to report on four breakouts (Client, Server and Tools, Online Services Business, Microsoft Business Division, Entertainment and Devices Division).  Oracle sticks to two (Applications, Database and Middleware).  Sun will add at least one more (servers and hardware).  If Oracle is dedicated to the enormous space between enterprise apps and the database, breaking out middleware from the database would be a great way to track and prove this commitment.

Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog

What Microsoft Office 14 Needs: A New, Separate SKU

March 15, 2009 at 12:11 pm | Posted in Blogs, Content Management, Microsoft, Microsoft SharePoint, Office, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

Recently I posted some guesses as to what features Microsoft will put into Office 14’s content creation tools (the productivity suite consisting of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, OneNote).  But those were guesses about what Microsoft would do, not what they could do or should do. 

There’s a lot of interest in O14 since professional pundits (and swivel-chair pundits in fuzzy cubicles everywhere) want to speculate about whether the 800 pound gorilla known as Microsoft Office can be brought down by plucky upstarts like Google or Zoho, or free options like OpenOffice or IBM Symphony. But this speculation is misplaced.  I start the NextGen authoring section of my content creation seminar with a prediction:

If Microsoft is ever dethroned in the content creation market, it will not be because they were beat on features or marketing … it will be because of a fundamental shift in the content creation market for which they failed to adapt.

In other words, it is not Vendor X that will beat them by being cheaper or more feature rich.  It’s Suite X that will beat them with a different set of technologies that addresses a unique but growing subset of content creators.  There is a fundamental shift in how content is being created.  It has bubbled up from old concepts such as collaborative editing and been picked up by web 2.0 and its Gen Y adherents who think in rapidly produced, hyperlinked, searchable content chunks instead of ponderous, static, e-mailed documents. I introduced the NextGen content creation trends here (with further description here).  This is how I see the content creation environment today:

Next gen trends fig1 bg

Note that I chose to visualize this as a central core being expanded by these new needs rather than a versioning depiction such as 1.0 —> 2.0.  That’s because the core needs will always exist in enterprises, but we need to acknowledge a new set of needs that is not well met by the core authoring tools and that will account for an increasing percentage of content creation as Gen Y’ers enter the workforce and information workers get used to authoring in new ways via blogs and wikis.

We are at an inflection point in the way content is being created.  Microsoft would be unwise to pass up this opportunity to segment the market.  Microsoft may be able to get through one more major version of Office by stretching traditional document-related technology to fit.  But this anchors their attempts to address new content creation needs to a 1990’s document-centric mindset.  By carving out a new target market, they build incremental revenue (most buyers of this suite would still have needs for core Office as well), plant the seeds for a new franchise that would be small but grow more rapidly than Office, and compete better with innovative vendors that are unencumbered by entrenched bureaucracy and sunk costs.  And all while helping to mitigate the bloat and complexity of Office by separating out features that will be unused or confusing for many core Office users. There’s a chance that this would cannibalize Office 14 upgrades, but my instinct is that it would make no or a minor short term loss (since the new target market is small) and pay for itself within the next two versions of Office. It could be rolled out on half-cycles with Office to help avoid cannibalization and steady the famously spiky revenue stream and attention that Office releases garner.

Accordingly, I argue that Microsoft should create a new product (a SKU in industry parlance) for the NextGen content tools rather than continually trying to bolt onto Office Pro.  It could be called Office Extended, although some more thinking would elicit a more clever term.  Here’s how I would start:

  • OneNote would shift over to anchor the new suite.  With new branding and development, it can finally stand up as a new type of content platform that allows for content components, real-time collaborative authoring, and improved linking rather than just being a productivity add-on aimed at students and meeting notes.  OneNote will only be truly understood to represent a different paradigm when it breaks the chain it has to the Office Home and Student suite
  • The Live Writer blogging tool would finally get a real home here
  • Microsoft would have a place to create a real wiki rather than the SharePoint template that stands in as the official “Microsoft wiki” for lack of anything better.  No one – not even SharePoint folks – asserts that SharePoint’s wikis are in the league of any best of breed tools, and I can’t think why Microsoft would not want to compete for a best of breed wiki any less than they want to have a best of breed browser.  And remember the pain that being too slow to recognize a “good enough” 80/20 browser wasn’t enough caused them.
  • Microsoft would take an 80/20 swipe at the XML content creation market with a new Xmetal-like tool, much as they grabbed a new low end of the records management market with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007

And that’s just a start.  Part of the idea is to give this new market segment a new matching suite to grow with.  This idea fits Microsoft’s software+services direction since a few of these products (wikis and blogs) are not purely client-based, so services are needed.  I guarantee the evolution of content creation is not over, so the new SKU provides a place with plenty of room to stretch and grow new creation mechanisms the market demands without having to add a 14th pound of flour to the 10 pound bag of Office.

Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.

Physical Presence + Mobile + Social Networking = Killer Social Networking App?

March 9, 2009 at 1:25 pm | Posted in Mobile and pervasive computing, presence, social software, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment

Some clever students at the University of Maine created a prototype of a “friend finder” that works as follows according to Gadgets.Softpedia:

The students’ concept, which they call the Friend Finder, is a device attached to a piece of clothing or accessory, such as a purse or handbag. A series of LED lights in the fabric are programmed to light up when someone who also has the device comes within 30 feet, but only if the two people match in pre-programmed personal characteristics, likes and dislikes.

These type of wearable electronics must be somewhat common as this story was also covered in talk2myshirt, a website specifically about wearable electronics.

The Wall St. Journal (3/6/09, p W11, “The Ghost in the Love Machine“) picked this up as a computer dating story, but I see this as a serious idea for business-related social networking.  How many wallflowers do you see standing around the bistro tables during social breaks and buffet dinners at conferences?  Well, picture the following scenarios:

  • You’re at your annual epidemiology conference, of which only a small handful of attendees match your specialty of pediatric epidemiology.  Your Bluetooth device dings a few times to let you know the name badge to look for of someone else within 10 meters of you who pre-regestered with the same specialty and checked that they are available for conversation
  • You’re at the annual internal conference for financial staff at your large conglomerate and your Bluetooth device lets you know someone very close to you at the cocktail party is an expert in EU stock options regulation, which is one of the topics you pre-registered as wanting to connect with someone about.
  • There are a bunch of people that you’d like to connect up with at a conference (some are old team mates, others are vendors you wanted to connect with informally) and your eyes are getting tired walking around the crowded tradeshow floor and scanning for people you know.  Then you remember you pre-registered a list of people who you’d like to be alerted if they are nearby and see your iPhone has already pointed out two of them a short distance nearby.

So what I’ve described is combining concepts from rich presence (adding a physical dimension and availability flagging), mobile technology (some RFID or Bluetooth-type micro-broadcasting technology), and social networking (profiles on what you know and what kind of people you’d like to converse with). 

This is similar to functionality on conference sites to help you connect ahead of time with others and form communities of interest, but adds ups the ante on serendipity – that all-important buzzword for the value of chance meetings that are too often stifled by org charts, distance, and general closed-mindedness. It’s similar to sites that let you find people to connect up with when visiting a city or museum, but more “wearable”.  I’m hoping this already exists somewhere, because I think the immediacy of it could make it a killer app for social networking.

Addendum: My teammate Mike Gotta pointed out a company called nTag that lists this type of functionality among their features:

Get attendees talking with nTAG’s Greetings features. Using profile information provided at the time of registration, nTAG lets attendees know what they have in common so it’s easier to start conversations.

Component-Oriented Authoring: The Journey Begins with the First Step

February 20, 2009 at 11:21 am | Posted in Content Management, Information Work, Office, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

I highly recommend an eWeek series by Eric Severson on component-based authoring (see part 1, part 2, part 3).  Eric notes how the content creation tools that came of age in the 1980’s are becoming an anachronism in today’s world of expectations for searchable, fresh information.  New  content creation technologies such as blogs, wikis, and easily updatable website are often a better fit for these new needs.

Eric makes a great case for why component-oriented authoring is needed.  But he explores the more well-trodden path of technical and product documentation.  While this does encompass the current sweet spot for component-oriented content creation (and vendors and service providers that implement XML-based content and DITA), I find it more interesting to explore how the sweet spot is expanding.  Technical writers know they are professional authors.  But when does this start hitting the average information worker who doesn’t think of herself as a professional writer, but in fact writing underpins a large amount of what she does?

That question leads to another: Who addresses the gap between the current XML content creation tools (which require significant setup of schemas by people experienced in XML or training on DITA) and the current productivity tools (like Word, where “anything goes”)?  Within that gap lie “lightly structured” or “occasionally structured” documents that are partially unstructured but contain reusable and tagged components in places.

I recently did some research on component-based authoring for my overview “Content Authoring in the Enterprise 2.0 Age” (non-clients can see a summary of the NextGen Content Creation trends here).  Microsoft folks demonstrated to me how Word can be stretched to cover this space with a bit of programming and some slightly awkward UI.  And JustSystems XMeTaL folks described how their tool could be stretched to cover documents with less structure by creating a custom schema.  But you’d still have a separation of authoring, formatting, and publishing that makes sense in large scale, but is onerous at small scale content production.  It’s not an XMeTaL issue – the same applies to other XML authoring tools generally used in structured content creation environments such as Altova XMLSpy, Arbortext Editor, BroadVision QuickSilver, PTC Arbortext, and Stylus Studio.

Until the bridge in the middle is built, a few content authors will continue to fly from the unstructured to structured worlds, but the mass of authors will struggle to make do with their existing tools while waiting for an easier way to take that first semi-structured step in a longer journey.

Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.

Complimentary Burton Group Public Seminar: The Present and Future of Content Creation

February 11, 2009 at 1:17 pm | Posted in Content Management, Enterprise 2.0, Information Work, Microsoft, Office, Web 2.0 | 1 Comment

For those of you in the Chicago area I wanted to point out a free seminar I’ll be doing in March.  I hope to see you there.

Complimentary Burton Group Public Seminar
Hosted by: Baxter Credit Union

The Present and Future of Content Creation

Wednesday, March 11, 2008 from 9:00 AM until 11:30 AM
Baxter Credit Union
340 North Milwaukee Avenue
Vernon Hills, IL 60061
Click here for map

Seminar Attendees Receive Complimentary Report
Productivity Suite Proliferation: Is It Time to Ditch Microsoft Office?
by Guy Creese

Content Authoring in the Enterprise 2.0 Age
By Craig Roth

Featuring Presentations by Burton Group Analyst: Craig Roth

Craig Roth, Service Director for Collaboration and Content Strategies, will describe how new content authoring, collaboration, aggregating, publishing, and searching technologies are impacting the writing process, and the challenges on the horizon for content authoring in the Enterprise 2.0 age.

Productivity Suite Proliferation: Is it Time to Ditch Microsoft Office?
Microsoft Office has long dominated the productivity suite market. While it still “owns” the market, enterprises looking for a product for creating documents, spreadsheets, and presentations now have many alternatives to pick from. This overview will look at software (e.g., WordPerfect,, and Lotus Symphony) and SaaS alternatives (e.g., Google Apps, Think Free, and Zoho) and discuss whether now is the time to replace Microsoft Office and put something else in its place.

Will the Traditional Productivity Suite Still Matter in 2010
Content authoring technology, such as Microsoft Word and PowerPoint, was originally just a tool that enabled the authoring process. However, with functional enhancements in the basic productivity suite, increased interest in brainstorming and mind-mapping tools, and the emergence of Web 2.0 authoring tools, it is now apparent that technology is changing how we write and what we write, even though information workers may not always be conscious of its effect.

Please RSVP by March 9, 2009 to: Curtis Carter at 801-304-8111 or

An Irrevocable, Perpetual, Non-exclusive, Transferable, Fully paid, Worldwide License to Kiss My A** …

February 9, 2009 at 1:22 pm | Posted in Fun, Legal, Web 2.0 | 75 Comments

I had a feeling of deja vu when reading Stowe Boyd’s posting (quoting Legal Andrew quoting) the Facebook terms:

By posting User Content to any part of the Site, you automatically grant, and you represent and warrant that you have the right to grant, to the Company an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, publicly perform, publicly display, reformat, translate, excerpt (in whole or in part) and distribute such User Content for any purpose on or in connection with the Site or the promotion thereof, to prepare derivative works of, or incorporate into other works, such User Content, and to grant and authorize sublicenses of the foregoing.

This seemed really familiar, so I did a search on this rather unique set of words and was amazed at how many places use the exact same phrase. Here’s just a few:

The statement is so one-sided in its application that I would be curious how many judges and juries have knocked it down over the years.  The shame is that this kind of phrase acts as a landmine – it can sit there quietly for years, but then explode one day if the company decides to reuse some IP that the original poster (who probably didn’t read the long legal disclaimers) didn’t even think could be reused.

One company probably used this phrase first and other lawyers loved it so much they all copied it.  In fact FindLaw publishes it as a sample to be used by others.  Great- spread the joy.  I don’t know who the original lawyer is that came up with that phrasing, but he can’t complain about all the copying since his client probably had an irrevocable, perpetual, non-exclusive, transferable, fully paid, worldwide license to use it.

"Two Executives Trampled, One Gored Due to Craig Roth Article: Film at 11"

February 6, 2009 at 10:08 am | Posted in business case, Enterprise 2.0, Fun, social software, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

Social Computing Magazine has published my article The Elephant in the Social Software Room, which I posted in this blog last week.  The theme of the article is that there is a business issue that is unspoken but impacts decisions about adoption of social software: to what degree do organizational structure and gatekeeper processes serve a positive purpose?  The truth is that many suspect they know the answer, but no one really does.  Assumptions that there is value to the structure drives the amount of risk that executives worry about when technology helps employees circumvent these structures and processes.  Perception that the structure doesn’t always have value is what drives employees to look for mechanisms to get around the artificial walls and bureaucratic processes.

The part I really like is that Social Computing picked up on the analogy and inserted a picture of an elephant in a boardroom to illustrate the concept.  I sincerely hope that no executives were trampled during this photo shoot, however worthwhile the issue at stake is.


The Elephant in the Social Software Room

January 29, 2009 at 2:18 pm | Posted in business case, Enterprise 2.0, social software, Web 2.0 | Leave a comment

As we found in our social networking field study that Mike Gotta ran, organizations often fret about potential negative impacts of breaking down organizational and, to some extent, social barriers.  Some stakeholders wonder whether execs really want borderless discussions among their staffs, whether engineers really want sales people to be able to contact them directly, whether employees will spread poor practices without gatekeepers, etc. 

I’ve come to the conclusion that there is an elephant in the middle of the social software room.  The unspoken question that is in the minds of execs is “Does our institutional structure and its information flows and bureaucracy serve a real purpose? ” Because if the answer is “yes” to any extent, that forces one to examine what the useful purposes are and how technology (and the culture embedded within it) may thwart those purposes. Social software acts as a blunt instrument for short circuiting institutional structure and bureaucracy since it cannot be selectively applied to its parts that are not beneficial while sparing those that are serve a purpose.

One way to think about this in a more concrete way is to determine what proportion of the lines connecting boxes on the org chart are meaningful.  Do they serve a useful purpose to the organization?  If you were starting from scratch, would you redraw the same line?  Certainly there are many lines that only exist because of outdated needs, useless political infighting, or patterns that emerged over time for reasons that don’t apply anymore.  I’m just as certain there are lines that make sense. The probability that any line on an org chart or to a gatekeeper on a process flow diagram is meaningful is certainly not a perfect 100%, but it’s not a Dilbertian 0% either.

Too bad, because if the answer were indeed that 100% of the lines were useful or 0% of them were useful, then the correct decision on whether to adopt social technology that can circumvent the organizational structure or chains of command for information/process flows would be easy.  The problem is that in practically all cases, it lies somewhere inbetween.  That is when a blunt instrument introduces risk since it doesn’t know the meaningful lines from the meaningless ones.

If there are ways in which the current hurdles to fully open social communication positively act as a reward system, influence trust, or affect information quality, how will the social software know and respect those boundaries?

Organizations have not had to question the value of their structure, information flows, and bureaucracy very often in the past because there were few ways to circumvent it.  But social software provides the most effective way to date for employees to get around the barriers and pathways that have been established formally and through practice. It’s time for those concerned about potential negative impacts of social software to step back and examine the real question: what is the real value of the organization and bureaucracy as it stands today?  Getting the answer to that question on the table is essential before jumping into technology.

Note: This is a cross-posting from the Collaboration and Content Strategies blog.

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