Read the thoughts of an NHS CIO on collaboration

A steadily growing opportunity

Over the last few years, there has been a growing buzz in the area of collaboration software, with vendors of all shapes and sizes jostling for position in a bid to stake their claim in the increasingly hyped collaboration software market. At the same time, with the emergence of new social software technologies such as social networking, blogs and wikis, collaboration – which, let’s face it, is far from being a new concept – has become a necessary addition to marketing materials for many types of software, from BPM to business intelligence.

The reason for this is the growing recognition of the value of collaborative working practices within organisations. We are starting to see a slow but steady move away from the hierarchical organisational structures of previous generations, with increasing emphasis on the need to collaborate, particularly with those outside the organisation, such as customers, partners and suppliers.

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The small sample group of respondents to last month’s collaboration survey on CIO UK indicated that we are still at the lower end of the collaboration adoption curve - the majority of participants reported pockets of collaborative activity within their organisations, rather than a broad acceptance or adoption. These findings are supported by a market study that MWD carried out last year in conjunction with Freeform Dynamics, which showed that, while only 38 per cent considered their organisational culture to be highly collaborative today, 60 per cent of all respondents predicted growth in their use of collaborative working practices.

A major issue with collaboration adoption is that it can be very hard to justify a large scale investment up front. The benefits are often intangible, and business cases can be hard to define. This is one of the reasons why successful collaboration often begins in a single department or project – where collaboration can add measurable value, and all parties can see how they – and the collective – benefit from collaborating. Our research suggests that business areas which have direct interaction with external parties, such as sales and marketing and customer service, are major focus areas for increasing collaboration, perhaps due to their value in terms of creating business differentiation.

Culture first, technology second

Over the last few years there has been a wealth of investment and innovation within the software vendor community in the development of new technologies to support collaboration – for example web conferencing, instant messaging, team workspaces – but these too have seen limited adoption at an enterprise-wide level.

Our market research suggests that organisations are often using existing technologies to collaborate, such as audio or video conferencing, file stores and of course email, rather than the state-of-the-art technologies which may be more suited to the task. However, organisations with a more collaborative culture showed greater levels of adoption of these state-of-the-art tools.

We believe this shows that organisations are only ready to adopt the latest technologies once they have developed a culture of collaboration and a recognition of the need for collaborative working practices – and this tends to be done using technologies already in place in the organisation.

Socialising the enterprise

The general confusion within the market around the value of social software within the enterprise was echoed in the results of last month’s survey, with a strong feeling of the potential of social software among the survey participants, combined with some worries, both in terms of the time wasting potential of such tools, and of security and compliance risks. It remains very early days for this area of collaboration software – our broader research indicates that there is a significant level of unofficial usage of social software tools within organisations, but much lower levels of authorised usage, particularly on a wide scale. Over time, we believe that social software tools will become less distinct as a category in their own right, becoming increasingly embedded as a feature in other collaboration software (and indeed many other types of software), and this will help to clarify their value and purpose within organisations.

A shining light in the gloom

When it comes to the adoption of collaborative working practices and collaboration software, it is clear that we are at the foot of the mountain looking up. However, with all the uncertainty that this economic climate brings, will collaboration software still be an important area for investment in 2009? Our research indicates that collaboration, along with process automation, remains a high priority for organisations. We believe that spending on collaboration solutions will continue on an individual project or departmental basis; enterprise-wide collaboration projects, including unified communications, are likely to take a back seat except where they are already underway.

A major finding from our broader market research was the focus on collaboration as a way to improve workforce efficiency – this will be even more important in a tough climate. Quantifiable benefits such as reducing travel and reducing numbers of meetings will help to justify the introduction of technologies such as web conferencing, and once these technologies become established within organisations, so other, less tangible benefits such as driving innovation begin to emerge.

The final opportunity is the availability of software-as-a-service (SaaS) –based versions of many different types of collaboration software, including email, document sharing, project- or team-based communities, blogs, wikis, instant messaging and web conferencing, from vendors of all sizes from start-ups to the software giants of IBM and Microsoft. The low start-up costs and flexible pricing model of SaaS-based applications means that organisations will be able to continue their investigation of these technologies without any major up-front investment or business case.

The collaboration software market is far from maturity and mass market success, but our research indicates that there is a strong appetite for the benefits it can offer. Indeed, far from hindering the market’s growth, the poor economic conditions offer a real opportunity for organisations and software vendors alike, and may serve to provide the foundation that the market needs to become mainstream.

If you'd like to read MWD's guidance for setting a strategy for adopting collaboration technology, please read Ideals and reality: understanding the context for your enterprise collaboration strategy.

CIOs share their thoughts

John Aird is information management and technology director for the University Hospitals of Leicester. He agreed with the MWD research, stating: I guess a summary of our position would mirror a statement from the article “A major issue with collaboration adoption is that it can be very hard to justify a large scale investment up front. The benefits are often intangible, and business cases can be hard to define”.

Aird said forum technology is already being used by parts of the hospital, and he is assessing Microsoft collaboration systems, which he hopes will introduce increased process efficiency and improve organisational collaboration.

Related Debate articles in association with MWD:

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