Archive for September, 2009

IM Trends 3 – Enterprise Social Computing

I’m an early adopter. I started Christchurch’s first web design company in 1995. I’m onto my 3rd iPhone. But when I first saw Twitter I didn’t get it. I thought it was stupid. Now I couldn’t live without it.

During the 80s and early-mid 90s advances in computer software and networking were largely the domain of the business sector. Business got the best tools first, because they were expensive. Since the late 90s however, it’s the consumer sector that has driven innovation in software tools that connect people.

Why else would it be that it’s easier to find content on the web than documents within the corporate firewall? Why else is it that it’s easier to find and connect with people on Facebook than it is to find the right people to talk to if you’re working inside a large organisation? This is because the development of those tools has happened at Internet scale and speed, far outstripping the ability of commercial enterprise software providers to keep up (both in terms of innovation, and in time to market). New tools get tested by millions of real users, in real time. Everything on the Web is in beta (well, at least until Google recently took Gmail out of beta).

Users’ expectations are now set by Google for search, Twitter for microblogging, and Facebook for social networking. Users in corporates have to wait (often a long time) for their organisations to implement the technologies they can use for free on the Web.

As a term ‘social computing’ could conceptually include everything from email, to document collaboration, to blogging, to wikis, to social network services. For the purposes of this blog post however, I’ll restrict its scope to just talking about social network like services. Blogs and wikis are often referred to as ‘Web 2.0′ technologies, and I’ll leave them there, outside of this discussion. Blogs and wikis are starting to see reasonable adoption in large organisations, even though there is a long way to go. Enterprise use of social networking style tools however is only in its very early stages. I’m picking though that it will be a major trend.

There’s the need here to distinguish between four kinds of uses of social networking tools by organisations:

  1. Outward market research – using tools such as Facebook, Twitter and the business services and analytics springing up around these in order to find out what the general public is saying about your organisation/brand/products
  2. Outward customer engagement – using Facebook, Twitter and other such tools to actively engage in conversations with your customers (by having a Facebook fan page, a Twitter account for your company etc)
  3. Outward employee professional networking - staff using tools like LinkedIn and Plaxo to communicate with their professional networks to ask questions, get help, or recruit new employees
  4. Inward communication/collaboration - using microblogging, social networking and similar tools inside your organisation to facilitate staff communicating with each other (as distinct from with customers)

People like Jenny Williams from Ideagarden have fantastic insights into the first two, including some insightful horror stories in her brilliant talk at the Alfresco Asia Pacific conference. While I’m intrigued by marketing and customer engagement, it’s not my area of expertise, and the third use is fairly well understood, so in this post I focus on the fourth use, inward communication/collaboration.

The tools that have been used in collaboration and sharing of information in the last decade include email, discussion forums, intranets, document management systems, collaborative workspaces, and instant messaging. All of these have their strengths and weaknesses. They are useful, but often fail to achieve what they set out to from a knowledge sharing perspective. This is caused, I argue, by the fact that their boundaries and structures are defined by the managerial, functional, or project structures in organisations, not on the way that humans evolved to communicate. Humans evolved communicating in relationships and networks of mutual trust, using narrative to convey and create meaning. It’s how our brains are wired.

Social computing emulates this, using explicitly defined trust relationships between participants. The ‘friend’ relationship in Facebook, and the follow/follower relationships in Twitter allow us to control who hears and sees what we have to say. It’s non hierarchical and the links are controlled by each individual, not by managers or a top down imposed corporate structure.

The promise of social computing applied to inward communication may well overcome many of the failings of knowledge management initiatives. It will do this by making it easier to find out who knows what, who’s doing what, and who’s working with whom. It shifts knowledge sharing from a ‘collect and codify just in case’ paradigm, to a ‘connect and communicate just in time’ one. Knowledge is captured naturally as a part of work, rather than forcibly through management edict.

I have a client, a NZ University, who’s recently rolled out Yammer. Yammer is a cloud computing based service for in-company social computing. It uses the organisation’s email domain as the filter to keep each company’s social network restricted to that company. It provides Facebook style profiles and Twitter style microblogging. In my client’s case, it took off like wildfire, as staff invited their colleagues. Where the organisation has had to use top down change management to get staff to adopt things like document management, and the intranet, this system promoted itself. Yammer seems intent on further integrating into the enterprise, with their release of an Outlook plugin.

Ning, SocialCast, and SocialText Signals are other examples of cloud solutions that let you set up your own social networks. Cloud based solutions will be interesting to some organisations, others I think we’ll see implement social computing behind their firewall. It wouldn’t surprise me if Sharepoint 2010 includes more of this type of functionality. Vendors like ConnectBeam and products like Lotus Connections, SocialText Signals Social Software Appliance and Vignette Social Media are already providing this.

Young people now entering the workforce have spent their teen and university years using social networking tools to relate to each other and manage their lives. They will want access to the same kind of tools in the workplace.

So, my prediction, enterprise social computing is going to be big in NZ, in the 2010/11 timeframe.

Acknowledgements of ideas that influenced this post:

  • Jenny Williams for her thinking on the comparison of KM to Social Computing (slide 33 in this presentation)
  • Dave Snowden for his many recent podcasts about social computing

This is the third in a set of posts on NZ information management trends:

  1. OpenSource ECM
  2. CMIS will save us
  3. Enterprise Social Networking
  4. Doing Sharepoint wrong, and right
  5. Structured Data
  6. Toes in the mist

Next up, Sharepoint.

IM Trends 2 – CMIS will save us

One of the big challenges for Enterprise Content Management in the last few years has been the sharing of different content types. ECM covers records, documents, images, emails, forum posts, web content, lists, people profiles, and more recently blog posts, wiki pages, and microblogging. These content types were managed in different stores. Traditionally the only way to get single sourcing of content and sharing/reuse/blending of different content types across different stores was to buy all of the solution components from one vendor. Because of the fast moving nature of the industry even that was problematic as most of the players grew by acquisition, picking up different pieces of the ECM stack from companies they bought. Sometimes they weren’t well integrated in, and compatibility/reuse was only at a very surface level, or was technically difficult to implement.

For organisations that couldn’t afford large integrated ECM stacks (which includes the very large majority of NZ organisations), the promise of single sourcing and content reuse seemed a far off dream.

Enter CMIS – the Content Management Interoperability Services standard. Think of it in the same light as the way major database vendors standardised on SQL in the 1980s. CMIS was formally initiated in October 2008 by OASIS, following work by EMC, IBM, Microsoft, Alfresco and others on the proposed standard. It is now governed by a multi-vendor technical commitee that works to:

“standardize a Web services interface specification that will enable greater interoperability of Enterprise Content Management (ECM) systems. CMIS uses Web services and Web 2.0 interfaces to enable rich information to be shared across Internet protocols in vendor-neutral formats, among document systems, publishers and repositories, within one enterprise and between companies.”

More specifically, CMIS provides standards for a set of Web Services and RESTful APIs to allow different content repositories and systems to:

  • search for and discover what different content types (Object Type definitions in CMIS language) and capabilities exist in a repository
  • create, read, update and delete content objects
  • file and categorise content objects
  • navigate and traverse a hierarchy of folders in a repository
  • create versions of content objects and see their version history
  • query to retrieve content objects by specific criteria

Currently the specification is at version 0.63 and is actively being worked on. It provides a Domain Model, a Schema, and sets of bindings for RESTful AtomPub, and Web Services. These are available here.

So what does this mean in practice? Once implemented it will be a way to break down the silos, and enable reuse of content amongst multiple systems. It should allow ECM applications, portals, and intranets to be built that aggregate content from a range of CMIS compliant repositories, and allow them to be mixed and mashed up in a ‘loosely coupled’ way. You’ll be able to have best of breed repositories/content applications, from different vendors, and join them together seamlessly.

Let’s look at some practical examples.

Scenario 1

Imagine you’re a government agency with a web site built in Drupal, and you’ve implemented Alfresco for records and document management. You’ve got a set of policy documents that you need to publish on the web. The traditional method would have been to work on the documents in the document management system, create a final version, send it to your web manager who’d upload it to the web site’s document repository, delete the old version, and make sure the new version appears in the right places on the site.

With CMIS you’d be able to have a content store for published documents in Alfresco, with appropriate metadata describing them. You’d then have a live query from Drupal to Alfresco using CMIS to retrieve those documents and display them. No going through the web manager, no uploading and deleting documents to and from the web site, just the completion of a controlled publication process, with the documents automatically displaying on the site. This example is already achievable with the CMIS Drupal-Alfresco module, and Alfresco’s draft CMIS implementation in Alfresco Community 3.1 and above.

Scenario 2

Let’s say you’re a University and you’ve implemented Microsoft Sharepoint to manage structured content including course information, news items, and staff profiles. You love Sharepoint’s handling of content workflows for news production and editing, and its ease of integration with Microsoft Office, but you want to publish the news items in multiple places including the public web site, the staff Intranet, and the learning management system. For various reasons these are built in EpiServer, Plone, and Moodle respectively. You’d also like some news items to be published to the new research collaboration system built in Sakai. Through CMIS you could have the news items stored in Sharepoint, and accessible from each of these systems, again with simple queries via REST or SOAP. Let’s say you’re also using Sharepoint for your records management solution. You could then have documents that are put into Moodle and Sakai automatically result in copies of correct versions being stored in Sharepoint for appropriate retention and disposal.

While this example isn’t all achievable yet, you can already use Sharepoint Server 2007 to access external content repositories using CMIS. Here’s how.

Conclusions

CMIS will open up the enterprise content management space to more innovation, remixing, and creative solutions than we’ve ever seen before. Organisations will be able to choose best of breed components, and glue them together with relatively minimal effort. Solutions won’t be restricted by vendor lock-in, but will be responsive to real business/user needs.

This is the second in a set of posts on NZ information management trends:

  1. OpenSource ECM
  2. CMIS will save us
  3. Enterprise Social Computing
  4. Doing Sharepoint wrong, and right
  5. Structured Content
  6. Toes in the mist

Next to come, Enterprise Social Networking

IM Trends in NZ 1 – OpenSource ECM

I’ve just been asked to Chair the Brightstar Information Management conference in Wellington in March next year. As such, I’ve consolidated my mental meanderings on IM trends into something a bit more cohesive. Here’s what I’m seeing coming:

  1. OpenSource ECM
  2. CMIS will save us
  3. Enterprise Social Computing
  4. Doing Sharepoint wrong, and right
  5. Structured Content
  6. Toes in the mist

I’ll write about the first trend in this post, then the others in subsequent posts.

OpenSource Enterprise Content Management

It’s been a big year for the ECM marketplace.  Two of the major pure play ECM vendors Interwoven and Vignette were acquired by other players (Autonomy and OpenText). Other major players Stellent, Documentum and Filenet were acquired by bigger multi-solution vendors over the last three years.

These deals are seen by those such as CMS Watch as being largely good for shareholders, and largely bad for users/buyers of those systems. The ECM market has become something like the ERP market, with a significant proportion of product licence costs simply paying for the expensive sales process. In New Zealand we don’t have too many organisations large enough to spend the $500k-$1M to get a fully integrated set of ECM components from those big vendors, but even so, the NZ 500-2000 person organisation market has been looking for an attractive ECM platform. The desire to be able to deliver document capture, document management, records management, intranet, digital asset management, and collaboration in an integrated way is compelling as organisations try to deal with ever mounting volumes of unstructured information.

In  2005 John Newton, co-founder of Documentum and John Powell, former COO of Business Objects founded Alfresco. They employed a number of former engineers and Employees from Documentum, FileNet, OpenText, Interwoven and Vignette. Their mission was to create an open source ECM platform. They used best of breed open source Java components, including Spring, Hibernate, Lucene and MyFaces. Their business model was to have a GPL community edition, and an Enterprise edition with paid support at about a tenth of the cost of the older proprietary ECM solutions.

I first reviewed Alfresco in late 2007 as a part of a web content management (WCM) project for an NZ University. Although its WCM component was relatively underdeveloped compared to the likes of Drupal, MySource Matrix, EpiServer, Sitecore and many others, the underlying platform was sophisticated. I was sure Alfresco was going to be big. Up until the last year or so however, there’s really only been Lateral Minds in Australia who’ve been implementing Alfresco in New Zealand, with some large government ministries and private companies.

Now Catalyst IT, Solnet, Coretech, and probably a few others I don’t know about have started implementing Alfresco in NZ. I predict Alfresco will be big in NZ, soon. My reasons for this prediction are:

  • Due to the Public Records Act audits starting next year, many organisations are looking for records management solutions that provide benefit above and beyond traditional RM products
  • With version 3.2 Alfresco provides a robust platform for records management, document management, and digital asset management, at a price that is right for the mid-size organisations (on a global measuring scale) that we have so many of in NZ
  • It has an immensely scalable Java content repository which makes for lower hardware costs, again appealing in a cost conscious market like NZ
  • Its lightweight RESTful architecture for customisation means solutions will be able to be deployed quickly and cheaply
  • Alfresco integrates well with the open source WCM product Drupal, which has a large installed base in NZ both in government agencies and the private sector
  • Alfresco Share is an alternative to the collaborative workspace features of Microsoft Sharepoint, and while currently much less feature rich than Sharepoint, has enough to make organisations take a look at it
  • There is emerging support and implementation services from NZ vendors
  • Lateral Minds are trading in NZ, are providing expert services that come from several years of working with Documentum and Alfresco, and are the Certified Training Partner for Australia and New Zealand

So, that’s my prediction, Alfresco is about to take off here. We’ll see whether 2010/11 proves me right. More on the other trends in further posts this week.

Blogstorming, Wikipolishing and simultaneous emergence?

I’ve been listening of late to Dave Snowden’s podcasts (mostly keynotes from various KM conferences around the world). In the last year he’s added a strong focus on social computing, as, in inimitable Dave style, he’s in the last three years leaped head first, experientially, into the world of blogging, editing the Wikipedia pages on KM, Welsh Rugby and other topics, and into Facebook and Twitter.

In his recent podcasts Dave poses the argument that social computing is bring the 3rd wave of change in management science, the first two being Taylorism (scientific management based on functions), and Business Process Re-engineering (horizontal integration/optimisation of processes across and between functional silos). He explains this in the context of his work on narrative, using the cognitive rather than social sciences, and in relation to the many methods he has developed for sense making in complexity.

He also suggests the use of a new double loop iteration method using blogs and wikis to develop policies, strategies, and other plans in organisations.

I was fascinated therefore, to hear Australian Senator Kate Lundy explaining her use of exactly the same method in her PublicSphere events for consultation with citizenry on public policy issues.

Had Kate been listening to Dave? After her talk last week, I asked her whether she was familiar with Dave’s work, as he has been in Australia frequently, but she hadn’t. I asked Pia Waugh, Kate’s advisor on such things, and she too had not heard of Dave’s work. Pia had simply taken and adapted such methods from the open source community.

So, unless Dave had seen and copied Pia & Kate’s methods, which seems unlikely as Dave was podcasting about this before Kate launched her first PublicSpheres, I think we’re seeing the separate emergence of nearly identical approaches, perhaps based on fairly similar starting conditions.

First, I’ll look at the methods, then explore the starting conditions, then I’ll ask Dave, Kate and Pia to challenge any of my assumptions and hypotheses.

Dave, in a number of podcasts, describes the traditional method for collaborative document authorship. People meet, discuss an issue, someone takes notes then goes away and writes up a draft in Microsoft Word. They then email it to others and request feedback, using tracked changes. The initial author then struggles with the mire of integrating the suggested changes into a document, the group meetings in person again, and around we go.

He then proposes a different approach. First, get a group of say twenty staff with an interest in the issue to blog about it once a day, for two weeks. If people are unfamiliar with blogging, get an IT person to sit down with them at 4pm each day and help them write their blog, teaching them new blogging concepts and features as they go. Once this process is complete, employ a technical writer to synthesise all the raw material from the blogs into a cohesive draft document and put it on a wiki. Using a technical writer enhances the quality of the first draft, and more importantly removes the issue of ownership of the draft by a staff member. Where strong ownership of a draft by a single person exists, they will be resistant to having it changed, and others will be reluctant to contribute. Once the wiki is up, give the people two weeks to edit the wiki until a final version is agreed upon. For training in wiki editing Dave suggests getting staff to spend a couple of months editing pages on the Wikipedia as that has highly developed coaching and mentoring systems, along with robust methods for disciplinary action against those to transgress the rules and established cultural norms.

Kate Lundy’s PublicSpheres work in a very similar way. So far they’ve done three, on High Speed Bandwidth, Government 2.0 and Australian ICT & Creative Industries Development. They have a beginning, a middle, and an end. People are first asked to post comments, links to papers, case studies and ideas to the relevant PublicSphere blog post comments, and to blog themselves using the tag ‘publicsphere’ and Twitter with #publicsphere. All of this is then summarised and presented at an in person workshop, where there are face to face discussions, presentations, live streaming of the event to those who can’t be physically present, and ongoing blogging and twittering. The content is then synthesised onto a wiki, and the public are given two weeks to edit it. It is then closed off, and turned into a nicely presented PDF, and submitted to relevant Government Ministers as a briefing paper. The most recent PublicSphere had 1100 tweets, 100 in person participants and 400 remote participants on the workshop day.

So, if these two, very similar approaches emerged separately, what were the starting conditions that enabled this? I suggest the following:

  • An experiential rather than theoretical understanding of the utility of, and differences between, blogs and wikis
  • An understanding of the importance of multiple iterations in a sense making process (Dave from complex systems theory and the non-interventionist facilitation practices he’s developed, and Pia from the open source community’s ‘release early and often’ practice)
  • A belief that the authentic opinions of individual participants can be abstracted up into a cohesive whole, without the biased intervention of ‘expert’ consultants or policy analysts
  • A lack of fear that people might say the ‘wrong’ thing
  • A belief, not in the ‘wisdom of crowds’ (individuals making decisions in isolation from each other, with the correct answer being the median), but in the collective intelligence of a complex system (one in which the system lightly constrains the participants, and the participants’ actions affect each other and the system itself).

Am I right? We’ll see what they say.

Timid men prefer the calm of despotism to the boisterous sea of liberty.
Thomas Jefferson