Extreme Collaboration and the Cloud

Although cloud computing gets all the attention, extreme collaboration, an emerging business model, will ultimately deliver value well beyond current market expectations by enabling faster and better business transformation.

By Matt Durham, Senior Vice President of Business Development, Software AG

Cloud computing is probably the most talked-about issue in enterprise IT since Y2K and the Internet Bubble. With Y2K, there was an explosion of spending and investment as enterprises did what they thought they needed to do to avoid potentially massive computing failures. Although there were surely benefits for the enterprises that made these (often very substantial) investments, the primary benefit was arguably in the balance sheets of the technology companies that sold Y2K-related products and services. The Internet Bubble, on the other hand, brought with it core changes in how business is conducted -- changes such as an explosion in data and the associated analyses of that growth, (nearly) ubiquitous connectivity, and a monumental increase in trust across boundaries within and across enterprises.

Perhaps an even more important outcome of the Internet Bubble is that adoption of technologies and trends within enterprises is now substantially influenced by consumer adoption of technologies and trends. This happened in large part because the Internet Bubble introduced huge advances to consumer technologies that substantially accelerated the adoption of those technologies at a pace not previously known. Enterprise IT organizations are now inundated with requirements from the individuals in their organizations to adopt these advances as well. Smartphones and social networking are the most obvious proof points of this inescapable and ever-growing trend.

Coming out of the lull of the economic hard times, a deep dive into cloud computing looked like a great idea for enterprise IT organizations. After all, cloud computing promised cost savings largely achieved through substantially richer economies of scale. These benefits do clearly exist, are important, and are constantly sought by enterprises.

Of course, the cloud’s efficiencies are real. However, efficiencies alone cannot serve as a guiding principle for cloud computing.

Extreme is All Around Us

Building on the core concepts of cloud computing (such as the use of Internet technologies and the ability to scale up or down as required -- called elastic scale), extreme collaboration goes farther by enabling individuals to join or leave interactions at will, the ability to use virtually any type of communication paradigm or technology, and the ability to achieve real-time interaction with continuous, streaming updates. Gartner analysts Daryl Plummer and Janelle Hill pioneered this concept in research first written May 26, 2009. In Extreme Collaboration Will Be BPM’s Greatest Legacy, Not Process Improvement, Plummer and Hill focused on how extreme collaboration could be applied to the discipline of business process management.

The use case for extreme collaboration will become pervasive in the enterprise as organizations become more skilled at leveraging the benefits derived from its use. Even though today’s examples of extreme collaboration use cases are primarily found in the consumer arena, B2B organizations that are aggressive early adopters of leading-edge technologies are already experimenting with similar tools that have a richer enterprise focus.

Probably the most famous examples of the core tenants of extreme collaboration are Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia. Facebook showcases many of the core concepts of extreme collaboration, including globally-connected participants who can access the service from anywhere on any device, live changes that are stream-based, and the ability to post and access content in virtually any format. With Facebook, users (participants, really) can interact with people on a scale unknown previously, and talk about extreme: Facebook has over 500 million participants. That’s roughly one out of every 14 people in the entire world!

Twitter offers many of the same characteristics and does so via the now very famous 140-character limit. Each tweet is an event that can be acted on by other participants. Hash tags allow participants to track or follow topics of interest, enabling all to know what topics are popular. Twitter can also be accessed from multiple devices and platforms; 95 million tweets are written each day.

With Wikipedia, collaboration to create content is a key focus. The idea was jarring to many when Wikipedia started to become popular. Allowing virtually anyone to create content on virtually any topic was initially met with scorn, and some initial governance weaknesses further fanned those flames. Wikipedia persisted and is now a widely used information source on the Internet. It has nearly 23 million pages of content and has, to many, become the encyclopedia of the Internet age.

Facebook, Twitter, and Wikipedia are now all but ubiquitous within enterprises. In fact, all three (but perhaps Twitter most significantly) have become important tools for technology marketers. It is clear that as enterprises embrace extreme collaboration, they have an opportunity to substantially differentiate themselves from their competition and create considerably more value for their customers. To do this, we must understand an emerging business model.

A New Business Model

Enterprise software should be about more than simply driving down costs. Ultimately, it should enable new business models and drive new value. There’s plenty known about the history of the technology industry and how major shifts in computing paradigms created new winners and losers. The reality is that those shifts were perfectly matched to overarching business models prevalent at that time. For instance, the move from mainframe to client/server systems is classically cited as one of the most important changes in the history of enterprise IT. However, what’s typically missed in these discussions is that the client/server paradigm exactly fit predominant business models, including a line-of-business orientation.

The ERP vendors moved to client/server not because it made sense from a technology perspective, but because it was what the buyers needed to support their business models, which were largely focused on a divisional approach to organizing the enterprise. ERP software was the perfect fit for the organizational silos in these enterprises. The current shift away from organizational silos is undeniable and is a response to inefficiencies and inflexibility that have long constrained enterprises’ ability to adapt as quickly as their customers demand.

The shift to extreme collaboration as a key business model is already happening. Take, for example, consumer packaged goods companies that crowd-source innovation. This business process -- idea management or “ideation” -- can substantially benefit from tapping into huge opinion sets and ideas previously unavailable to help companies achieve a better chance of success when new products are introduced or existing products are revamped.

Another example is very large professional services firms that make the skills of their consultants more transparent than in the past because these consultants can effectively work anywhere at any time. These consultants can themselves enhance the likelihood of being placed in projects by sharing particular expertise they have on any number of social networking sites designed for professional use. Taking this example a step further, imagine a virtual group of consultants that self selects based on shared interests and expertise with the goal of discovering best practices around placing consultants in projects. These consultants could, leveraging the concepts of extreme collaboration and, indeed, tools that support those concepts, collectively create a new process framework for consultant placement that could then be used by any of their employers.

Perhaps an even more common case in point is the knowledge worker who works on a variety of tasks -- some tasks take a long time, some are short, some tasks are performed individually, others use teams -- but is always interrupted (and not necessarily in a bad way) by new streams of information coming in via e-mail, chat, text message, and updates to social sites. This worker is likely to have colleagues in multiple locations around the world. Dealing with the challenges associated with working in different time zones and physical locations is now commonplace for many knowledge workers.

These and similar examples seem likely to validate emerging business model shifts and determine new requirements for how work is accomplished. The importance of these examples will only grow as digital natives enter the workforce. Extreme collaboration is much more than a catchy term. Extreme collaboration is an emerging business model, and the most successful companies will be at the forefront of its support. To do so, organizations must work with customers, partners, employees, and any other contributors to further define and refine the key characteristics and benefits of extreme collaboration. Paying close attention to developments in the consumer arena will be important, but identifying and nourishing opportunities in enterprises will ultimately provide the proof that extreme collaboration is de rigueur.

Matt Durham is senior vice president of business development at Software AG. Prior to his position at Software AG, Matt held management roles at SAP, Sybase, New Era of Networks, and J.D. Edwards. He is a 15-year veteran of the enterprise software industry. You can contact the author at matt.durham@softwareag.com.