I have long been a sceptic of the 'install it and they will figure out how to use it' approach to social collaboration. While you hear the odd success story concerned with introducing Facebook or Twitter-like capability horizontally into a business environment, when you dig beneath the surface, you often find that it's just a pilot or that the level of use is actually quite limited. In line with this, benefits statements in press releases and case studies frequently reflect aspiration more than actual results.
When I speak with people directly, the more usual tale from a so called 'Enterprise 2.0' initiative aimed at 'transforming the way the organisation works' is of disappointing or inconclusive initial results, with further efforts put onto the back burner as other priorities take precedent.
The exception is where efforts have been targeted at specific groups and processes, e.g. when Salesforce.com customers have focused on the activities of sales teams, or IBM clients have set their sights on driving improvements in the customer service function.
The point is that success generally comes from objectivity, i.e. knowing what you are trying to achieve in quite precise terms. With this in mind, it's far easier to set objectives and execute against them when your focus is narrow. You are able to pay adequate attention to how the new social systems and working practices will improve things in the context of specific tasks, functions and processes.
Some of the more mature vendors such as IBM have acknowledged this, and developed services-led engagement models that help customers analyse requirements, create sensible expectations, and deliver against them. However, recent discussions with a software vendor called Mindjet got me thinking about the middle ground between the non-specific 'faith-based' approach that commonly leads to stalled projects, and the highly targeted activity that has created most success in the past.
If you're not familiar with Mindjet, it started out as the author of MindManager, arguably the market leading commercial product in the traditionally niche area of mind mapping. I have used MindManager as a personal productivity enhancer for over a decade, and have to admit to being an advocate of both the tool and the visual mapping technique upon which it is based. These have proved incredibly useful for things like organising information while conducting desk research, designing research studies, interpreting research results and outlining reports. When used in conjunction with a web conferencing solution, MindManager has also been great for capturing and structuring key points from collaborative team and client meetings.
Picking up on this last point, one of the common use-cases for MindManager across its user base has been to deal with the up-front collaborative/discussion phase of projects. This in turn has led to a range of different activity templates, a comprehensive interface with Microsoft Project and Office, and the addition of native collaboration capabilities within the solution set itself. I have to say that I struggled to see the value of the web based collaboration environment over generic web conferencing when the facility was first introduced, but a recent announcement from Mindjet has made me think again.
Mindjet has now pulled together the desktop and web based capability already discussed, with some other functionality it had developed to allow interaction with Microsoft SharePoint through a highly visual interface. It has then thrown in more of what I would describe as 'lightweight multi-user project management functionality', with a sprinkling of social stuff like status updates from team members and the ability to 'follow' activity streams (similar to Salesforce Chatter). The end result is a single collaboration framework that, in a nutshell, simply allows teams to get stuff done more efficiently and effectively than relying on ad hoc social communication.
In order to appreciate the significance of this, think about how many times you go through the process of discussing, planning and executing activities as part of your own job. Whether it's a full blown project, or something more modest such as preparing for a client meeting or dealing with an operational problem, you still go through essentially the same steps, even though you might not consciously think about them. To begin with, you get some people together, either physically or virtually, to discuss requirements, dependencies and constraints, and exchange relevant information and ideas. You then kick around some options, crystallise them out and prioritise tasks to produce some kind of action plan, before finally getting stuck into making things happen with the appropriate level of sharing, collaboration, feedback and visibility along the way.
What we have here is a simple, repeating pattern that basically keeps the world of business turning, and coming back to where we started, it captures the essence of objective collaboration.
Having tracked the progress of Mindjet for quite a few years, I am well aware that the company didn't set out with a grand vision to produce the collaborative activity management solution it has ended up with. Through incremental development, however, based on a degree of trial and error and a lot of customer feedback, its solution acknowledges important business realities. It therefore stands a better chance of delivering tangible benefits than the myriad of products out there founded on romantic social idealism.
I also like the way Mindjet respects existing investments. If you are big SharePoint user, Mindjet can bring all of that underutilised collaboration capability to life by making it much more accessible and extending it across the whole of the activity lifecycle. If you don't have a SharePoint backend (or don't want to use it), Mindjet will provide one as a cloud service.
The proof of the pudding will, of course, be in the eating as Mindjet and others taking a more business-led approach to social collaboration find their place in the market against the backdrop of so much evangelistic hype in this space. I sincerely hope that pragmatism and business sense eventually win through, and am looking forward to seeing more solutions like this that bridge the gap between targeted bespoke deployments and the fluffy concept of Enterprise 2.0.
Dale Vile, Research Director, Freeform Dynamics Ltd.