Enterprise software vendors now include Web 2.0-influenced product suites with blogging, wiki, and mashup functionality. Some vendors attempt to provide programmatic development tools to incorporate these new features, while others have created end user-centric authoring environments.
In this exploration we address the latter of these two scenarios, in which business user empowerment allows knowledge management solutions to quickly be constructed and the barrier to effective knowledge work to drop within an organization. People are hard pressed to deny the “cool” factor of these new tools, but these suites inherently pose some tough, critical questions about their business value. Between the practical application of these technologies, challenges around governance and security, and issues around education and adoption, it is easy to see where an organization has to think long and hard about implementing these tools and ask important questions:
- Where do these tools fit into the enterprise?
- How can we govern the usage of these tools and manage the data generated by these tools?
- How do we leap the user education hurdle?
- How can these tools generate business value, thereby justifying a potential deployment?
Once you are able to address these points and understand what makes sense for your enterprise, you can identify where these product sets can provide value. You’ll be able to see that harnessing these tools makes it possible to accelerate knowledge work through the capture and presentation of information through user-authored spaces. It will also be possible to calculate an objective return on investment by measuring key performance indicators that satisfy the justification for the toolsets. Ultimately, this allows you to unlock value from enterprise knowledge management for your organization, granting you new levels of knowledge sharing and efficiency.
Fitting Into the Enterprise
A medium- to large-scale enterprise has an electronic mail solution along with a host of vertical applications implemented to address core needs like procurement, financials, and other common line-of-business needs. These tools run the gamut in the way they allow users to produce and manage an organization’s data.
Email is the essence of unstructured data and, conversely, vertical applications manage and host rigidly structured data. In organizations where knowledge work is occurring, these tools fail to provide a platform to act as a workspace to facilitate the dynamic, ad hoc collaboration around business challenges.
Although written from a sales and marketing standpoint, Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail details dormant economic value that goes unaddressed by large systems. Only when a vehicle exists to cost-effectively address niche needs will this value ever be realized. We’re continually presented with projects that have technical solutions falling somewhere between unstructured email and highly structured vertical systems like SAP. Enterprise 2.0 collaboration technologies support the needs in this middle ground that never could have been managed or cost-effectively addressed before.
This middle ground, or “whitespace,” has traditionally implied custom development effort, and generally it took six to eight months to develop a solution for even the smallest of business problems. When business users need a tool to manage this middle ground, it is not feasible to justify custom development, and the business makes use of the only tools at hand to tackle the problem. These have traditionally been email and other tools that are not well suited to knowledge management work.
User-driven product suites shine under these circumstances and provide a framework for teams to quickly create and manage these situations. When business users are able to identify a need that the traditional application space does not address and quickly satisfy those needs with these toolsets, value is realized because they do not need to engage development resources from the IT arm of the organization; instead, they can respond at near real-time speed. This allows IT to focus on more strategic projects around their core business that do require precious resources, and business users can work efficiently within a managed space in the enterprise.
With highly dynamic collaborative tools, mitigating fears of misuse is not a trivial matter. Within most organizations, any electronic information outside of email and casual office documents requires some degree of formal regulation.
Often, a battle ensues between business teams and technology management teams as to how best to use the tools. To make the most of the toolsets and to obtain the greatest business value, a reasonable, but not overzealous, level of governance must be placed around them. When we think of governance within a highly dynamic collaborative environment, some basic principles can be followed to smoothly manage the processes, while still allowing business users to create value.
Like a traditional IT initiative, obtaining executive- or departmental management-level sponsorship is crucial to the success of the initiative. Just because the toolsets enable fast solution development does not reduce the need for sponsorship. In addition to the sponsorship, the purpose of the deployment needs to be clearly defined. It is not enough to deploy a project with the toolset just because of the features available within the toolset. Feature-driven projects are destined to fail. After the solution is in place, it will need to be maintained. This means that a clear owner must be defined for the outputs of the project. This owner will need to obtain any requisite training to support and enhance the solution going forward.
Based on the purpose of the deployment, it is essential to identify what information will be committed to these spaces. Will a space contain information that is sensitive and in need of being secured? Who will have access to modify, edit, or add information to this space? What level of auditing needs to be put into place? Knowing the answers to these questions upfront will allow you to set up the correct access permissions to enforce business policies within the workspace.
Finally, a plan for periodic review of the project’s outputs needs to be defined. This review acts as a checkpoint to make sure that not only technical but also business process rules are being adhered to. The review should also contain procedures and metrics that measure when a space should be discontinued due to nonuse.
Outside of security, at the end of the day, much of the governance with toolsets that pose a low barrier to entry will boil down to business processes. People in organizations need to be responsible for their actions at a business level beyond the technology. This is where a clearly defined plan based on the above elements is crucial if people are to succeed with enterprise 2.0 technologies.
User-driven products that provide expedient gratification with regard to the reduction of daily burdens and processes have exceptionally high levels of adoption. Public examples of such systems underscore this trend, including the social networking site MySpace and blogging tools like Blogger and WordPress; these are definitive examples of tools that self-educated users have quickly adopted and gained value from, without extensive formal education.
The low barrier to usage can be attributed to the toolsets’ small, but often highly used feature sets. For users experienced with complex enterprise applications, this is a refreshing change. At first seemingly confining, the limited feature sets allow for maximum usability. Tools like Basecamp from 37signals also embody this ethos, providing a small, but often used feature set. This drastically reduces the need for education and increases the rate of adoption and speed at which value can be delivered.
That being said, it is beneficial to offer formal training classes to outline the available functionality of the tool and review how it might be applied through an examination of a series of use cases in order for the end users to obtain the greatest benefit. Once an initiative has been able to conform to the governance requirements for a project, a quick boot camp-style training curriculum led by an experienced user or company teacher is an excellent way to jumpstart the project in an effective manner with minimal resources.
Given the current unmanaged whitespace within organizations, these tools provide substantial value from both a business and information technology management standpoint. Business users are able to realize new value by quickly reacting to their current and emerging business challenges, and authoring solutions for them. Blogging and wiki-style mechanisms provide an excellent platform to facilitate knowledge transfer and knowledge management not possible before, allowing for the actualization of all-important tacit knowledge. Information technology management groups can benefit from cost savings by consolidating some existing, moderately used applications and from a never-before-possible degree of auditing within the whitespace.
Complex decision making
Tools that allow the business to paint a canvas of dynamic collaborative functionality allow for an endless possibility of “applications” to be created. Imagine a situation in which a major decision needs to be made among a number of players from across the business. The decision might hinge on information from a CRM, ERP, or custom application. This critical data can then be incorporated into a space where users can contribute to a wiki or share documents and various other artifacts around the data to ultimately make a decision or select a strategy on the matter. This would have historically happened in a disjointed way across email where the process would take longer and the knowledge work potentially would be lost beyond the final decision.
Collection of tacit knowledge
The creation of a low barrier to the collection of tacit knowledge cannot be understated and can have a direct impact on the bottom line of a business. Imagine a vendor consulting group that is helping to increase product sales. Ensuring their field methodologies, such as best practices and critical product issues, are easily captured and shared among resources, can have a direct impact on deployment success. This deployment success translates literally to increased customer satisfaction, which, in turn, increases product sales.
Value through iterative contribution
User-driven authoring really shines when we examine how quickly we are able to realize value throughout a project. User-driven collaborative frameworks accelerate the time in which business value is delivered due to the ability to iteratively author. Unlike building with traditional software, requirements do not need to be completed for the business to begin constructing a solution. This allows business users to continuously focus on small, high-value components, which lets them realize value early and often throughout their process.
Cost savings and control
As IT departments attempt to keep costs down and monitor what transpires within their systems, controlling application sprawl is a top priority. We can look toward these new tools to act as a platform for consolidation of existing, lightly used legacy applications. This reduces cost not only from a server perspective, but also from a code maintenance perspective. Potential “would have been” custom development initiatives can now be handled through the framework. This can also stunt ongoing development maintenance costs as development efforts can now be directed at furthering core elements of the business and not providing the “one off” solutions that the user-driven collaborative suites now fulfill.
To measure the value that the suites deliver, key performance indicators such as email usage, the amount of resource and time to onboard a new employee, and the length of time to resolve a problem or complete a research assignment can all be captured. Additional quantifiable justifications can include servers and the knowledge, staff, and time to maintain many small, infrequently used systems.
Enterprise 2.0 collaboration suites are an investment in an organization’s production capacity. The possibility of being able to harness and navigate whitespace within organizations through business user-authored environments is an exciting, powerful vision. To drive these efforts and expose new business value, both education and governance must form the pillars that the newly created solutions will stand upon. In addition, a business champion must be able to firmly grasp these concepts and understand that value will not be delivered on the basis of the toolset’s features, but on solving key business problems and using the toolsets to manage the solution. With this foundation we are on our way to unlocking the value of enterprise 2.0 collaboration technologies.
* Originally published on BEA System’s Arch2Arch 03/05/2008