Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Envisioning an Environment for Efficient Content-Centric Collaboration

With the increasing need in most businesses to collaborate on content production and the need to access, use and share content in basically all business activities, we are now seeing a shift from communication-centric collaboration towards content-centric collaboration (see definition at the end of the post). Making this shift so that content-centric collaboration becomes efficient will require a much closer integration between content management technologies and collaboration technologies. It will also require integration of collaboration technologies into virtually any kind of application that supports tasks that require some sort of collaboration. In other words, enterprises need to create complete environments where it is easy to collaborate on content production, as well as accessing and sharing content that is needed as input for business activities. Here is how I envision such an environment for efficient content-centric collaboration:

  • All content – regardless of type – is stored and managed in content repositories (personal, group and/or enterprise scope) that can be made accessible to trusted users inside as well as outside of corporate firewalls.
  • On top of the content repositories, basic content services such as library services, metadata management services, security services and search services are provided to any application that interacts with the content in these repositories.
  • An application that is using a content repository can, if necessary, extend these basic content services with richer functionality or other content services that the application requires (or actually, the business process that the application is to support).
  • Hosted Web 2.0 applications and applications deployed within corporate firewalls are seamlessly integrated. As a user, I don’t have to bother if it is hosted or deployed. It is simply one application among others that support me in my activities.
  • The same user identity is used for automatically logging on to all applications that I am authorized to access and use. If the application is hosted or deployed makes no difference.
  • Presence awareness is a natural component of all applications. I can set my current status from any device and it is immediately reflected in all applications.
  • In addition to e-mail, a rich variety of collaboration tools such as instant messaging, audio conferencing, video conferencing and web conferencing (with the possibility to remotely control a participant’s computer or application) are integrated with the applications so that I can choose to use the tool(s) that each collaboration situation requires. Conversations can be stored and associated with the content we are collaborating on.
  • My contacts, calendars, notes and task lists are integrated and accessible from any application. It is possible for me to partially or fully share them with anyone I need to collaborate with, regardless of content or application.
  • Mobile devices such as mobile phones use the Internet as application platform, thereby giving me access to the same web based apps (hosted or deployed does not matter) as I access from my computer. I do not have to install device-dependant applications that require synchronization of content between my mobile device and desktop just because I need to leave the office. Such a thing as redundant contact books or calendars do not exit.

Of course, there is much more to add to this list. But I guess it is enough of a challenge to any organization to set up an environment like this with these requirements.

Definition of Content-centric collaboration

Content-centric collaboration is a process when people collaborate to either use or produce content. The content might be used as input to a certain activity, or it might be the actual product of the activity. Content management and project management are examples of content-centric business processes that are highly dependent on efficient and consistent content-centric collaboration. But the need to collaborate on content production stretches far beyond just content and project management - today, almost any activity in an enterprise involves creation or use of digital content.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

What Users Say They Want Isn’t Always What They Need

In 2004, me and my co-blogger Anders Bännstrand defined and designed the user experience of the first version of hitta.se, now the leading Internet service for finding people, business and locations on maps in Sweden. The service was developed from scratch with a new and unknown brand, set up to compete with the market leader eniro.se.

Many things made the service become a success, one of them being a simple and convenient user experience. And a big part of designing the user experience was involving users to test and evaluate it. But before involving any users, we set up a number of guiding principles to lead the design:

  • It should be fast, consistent, forgiving and give clear feedback.
  • It should present important information, including maps, as quickly as possible after a search was executed.
  • It should have a human touch to the visual design.
  • But above all, it should be simple, simple and simple.

Quite recently, the competitor service eniro.se was redesigned in order to be able to compete better with hitta.se. When launching the new version, Eniro proudly communicated how they had involved users when defining and designing the new user experience. Enhancement requests were gathered from users and user involvement played an important part during the design process. But, what strikes me is that the principle of simplicity seems to have got lost somewhere in the design process. Simplicity is very tightly related to the concept of consistency, which is about holding together and retaining the shape of the service throughout the entire user experience. This is something every designer should know. Nevertheless, eniro.se almost feels liquid, entering a new shape at each page reload.

Regardless of what users say they need from a utility service such as hitta.se or eniro.se, it is reasonable to assume that they first and foremost need a fast, simple and convenient user experience. If you start out with that approach and stick to it throughout the design process, user involvement will help you to develop a great user experience. You should listen to what the users have to say, but when listening you should filter everything they say through the "Simplicity filter". Because what users say they want isn’t always what they need. They often say they want a lot of features, but what they probably want the most is something that is simple and intuitive to use.

"Simplicity means the achievement of maximum effect with minimum means." — Koichi Kawana

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Effective E-learning

During my time as a consultant I have seen many e-learning initiatives fail due to a variety of different reasons. I have identified 5 essential prerequisites that need to be in place in order to succeed:

  1. A clear business case
  2. A script that is well laid and thought through
  3. A flawless technical solution that gives the end users a great experience
  4. An internal organization prepared for maintaining and managing the course
  5. A possibility to retrieve customized course statistics for user and group evaluation

These fundamentals became even clearer last year when I was involved in producing an e-learning solution for a large car manufacturer in Sweden. The project, called E-mail effectiveness, was a complete success (for you who know Swedish read the article in di.se) and the reason for this was definitely that all the requirements above were fulfilled:

  • The customer had a well defined business case. Every employee shall spend 1 hour less managing their e-mails.
  • The script was produced iteratively together with a small reference group based on 9 internal directives that had been thoroughly formed by the customer.
  • The technical architecture was based on separating the course content and structure (Flash) from the administrative interface (.NET) completely by only having web service communication at user start and end.
  • The customer identified resources with key roles within the organization responsible for managing the course for groups of approximately 25 end users.
  • The statistics module was built especially for the course allowing key users to follow up on user results allowing them to easily see what kind of classroom sessions they should attend.

There is probably more to it than this (it is worth mentioning that the resources producing the solution were highly experienced and had worked together on similar projects before) but having these 5 criteria’s met, where the customer is responsible for 3, gives you a fairly easy job as a supplier.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Perspectives on the Value of Content

Added value is often connected to the end of a process, i.e. when a product is finished (i.e. “produced”) it is ready to be consumed, as an end consumer product or as input to another process. And as we have seen stated in earlier blogs, the process perspective can help us calculate a net value of content based on the gap between the costs of producing the content connected to the value it brings to its consumer. It is also stated that the value is created when the content is consumed, and who could argue with that? Using the definition of content and information stated in the post Content Essentials, I would in this case like to define “consume” as the process of transforming content into information. This aforementioned approach of calculating content value is a very pragmatic way of stating content value, and works as good as any other method, or even better. But what if the content is never to be consumed? Has it then no value?

In certain situations content is created and managed just in case someone would benefit from it in the future. One example is SOP:s (Standard Operating Procedures) for emergency situations in a powerplant. No one would enjoy having to “consume” the content, but having it around “just in case” brings value to the company, the employees and the people living next to the plant. It can also be an issue of legislation compliance. Content has to be created, categorised and published in order to meet certain rules and regulations, even if no one ever would act on the content. If the content is missing, the company can be prosecuted and having to pay serious fines. Yet another example is archiving of public records within our public authorities.

The archiving issues for public authorities and governments are based on the solid ground of freedom of information acts (most countries in Europe have similar legislations) and the right for every citizen to look at public records. Other public legislations of course states the rules for the governments line of business. This means that from day one, actually from minute one, a public organisation has to acknowledge, define, tag and categorise incoming content in order to secure the existence and the integrity of it. For records created within the organisation it has to be managed in a similar way as soon it has been classified as a public record, i.e. working material is not classified as public records. Now, these records are to be archived in a certain structure, so that everyone that is interested could understand the context of the content. The records are then to be deleted at a certain time according to very granularly defined rules. Then, the interesting part enters, some of the records are to be preserved forever (we once defined “forever” as 4 000 years, but was by archivists informed that 4 000 years certainly not is forever) for future research needs. These needs are however defined today and maybe never will appear in the future. Hence we are producing content in order to make it possible for someone to consume it in the future, without knowing anything about the consumer or the consumer needs.

In all of this we can find at least two areas of that would be interesting to elaborate on in future sessions:

- Content that never will be consumed can bring value to an organisation or someone outside the organisation. Either this occurs as the value of meeting future demand, or as the value of not having to go to jail, pay fines or loose customers for non-compliance.

- Value can occur in different stages of the information lifecycle depending on situation and target groups. For a researcher the value could easier be gained at the end of the information lifecyle, when the content is stable and are easier subject to compilation. As for other groups, perhaps the content produced as working material, in the early stages of the lifecycle could bring more value than the stable, published and archived version of it.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Enterprise 2.0 is About Collaboration

Andrew Carnegie once said that "the only irreplaceable capital an organization possesses is the knowledge and ability of its people. The productivity of that capital depends on how effectively people share their competence with those who can use it."

It is hard to disagree with Andrew Carnegie. An enterprise is basically about people getting together and collaborating to achieve a common goal, making efficient collaboration the key ingredients in virtually any successful enterprise. But information technology still has a lot to prove when it comes to facilitating efficient collaboration. This is where Enterprise 2.0 technologies could potentially make a significant difference and Andrew McAfee’s definition of Enterprise 2.0 captures just this potential:

"Enterprise 2.0 is the use of emergent social software platforms within companies, or between companies and their partners or customers". He clarifies that Enterprise 2.0 is "...all about changes to collaboration, not to development or delivery models."

I personally find the more narrow definition of Enterprise 2.0 as being a “new generation of digital collaboration tools” more usable than wider definitions that I have encountered. In the context of an enterprise, it obvious that Web 2.0 technologies can create more business value by improving collaboration than they can by providing the possibility to host and execute applications on the web. Peter Rip captured this nicely in his post about collaboration as the Big Driver behind Enterprise 2.0:

This Web 2.0 era isn’t really about tagging or sharing photos or bookmarks any more than Web 1.0 was about buying pet food online or reading news online. It is about the emergent property of Collaboration that happens when a critical mass of people (or things) is interconnected and the technologies that facilitate collaboration…//…Collaboration is the Big Driver within Web 2.0 and nowhere is collaboration more valuable than when time is money – the time to assimilate information from the enterprise edge and the time to organize and respond.“

In essence, Enterprise 2.0 is about creating shared workspaces. Instead of mailing documents to each other, we meet and exchange information on a shared workspace such as a wiki. A wiki or a blog might not be suited for tasks that require more structured collaboration with automated workflows, but they can certainly help us to collaborate more efficiently in situations where we now only can use e-mail or IM as collaboration tools.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

My Advice to Google About Blogger

Speaking about availability as the Akilles heel of Web 2.0 apps, Blogger just recently crashed as I was administrating my blogs. Then it was down for about 30 minutes. All blogs were unavailable aswell. This is the information I and my readers got:

Server Error
The server encountered a temporary error and could not complete your request.
Please try again in 30 seconds

So I did. But after some tries I gave up and did something else. As writing this post in Notepad.

These are my advice to Google and the Blogger development team:

#1 Separate the blogs from the Blogger administration application. They should not run on the same platform. If needed, blogs are so simple that they could just aswell be generated as static HTML pages. I can live with the administrative application being down for some time, but the public blogs should be running with no less than 99,99% availability.

#2 Communicate via a static HTML page what is happening. Do not simply provide a 502 Server Error page that says nothing of value.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Web 2.0 Beyond the Organizational Walls

I don't believe in Web 2.0 as replacements for traditional desktop applications such as word processors and spreadsheet apps. Not in a long while, anyway. No, the natural talent of web 2.0 apps lies in connecting people and facilitating communication - without being bound to an organization and its application infrastructure. Web 2.0 apps really can shine when it comes to facilitating collaboration over organizational borders.

Several of the ASP (now SaaS) solutions that have survived the crash of the dot-com bubble have done just that - connected people and facilitated collaboration. The Swedish projectplace.com is just one such example. It is a quite booring user experience, but extremely useful. I used it in several projects during the late 90's and early 00's and in a few projects during the last years. I am not at all surprised that it survived the tough years after the crash, but what surprises me is how many organizations that still lack these kinds of collaboration tools. And what is more surprising is that they often don't realize their value or what it costs not to have such tools. I have struggled in many projects to get an acceptance within the organization for using tools such as projectplace.com, but suffered defeat several times. "Our security policy forbids us to store business information externally". As a consultant in solution development I usually don’t have a say in changing existing IT policies. So I have had to accept the situation and continue to collaborate via mail instead. How secure is that? It certainly is not efficient for collaboration.

To me, the best thing with the web 2.0 movement is that business people - or even more important IT department people - are gradually beginning to understand the importance of being able to efficiently communicate and collaborate, both internally and with people outside of the corporate walls.

UPDATE July 3 2013: Projectplace.com asked me to remove the link to their web site, I quote:

"Thank you for linking to www.projectplace.com and that you like the company and our service. At the moment we are going through all incoming links and are asking for removal of some. This because we have got a warning from Google that we have to many unnatural links coming to our site (links that don’t follow the policy Google has for a link) and our page rank are now affected. Unfortunately your links can be considered unnatural and therefore I would like you to remove all links to Projectplace coming from:"


So. There's no link to projectplace.com from this post anymore.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Before You Jump On The Web 2.0 Apps Train

Before you jump on the web 2.0 apps train and leave your desktop apps at the station - here are some simple questions to ask yourself:

What kind of downtime is acceptable to you for the applications that you use? Do you rely on an application always being available? What would you do if you are inbetween two meetings and turn on your laptop to see what meeting to attend to next, but the calendar is not accessible or does not load all information?

Are the applications you use integrated with each other in the way you need them to be in order to be productive? Can you easily move your content between different applications, as you can open and manipulate an RTF document with different desktop applications? Or can you use the contact information in your contacts application in all other applications where you need to access them?

Can you find all the applications that you need from one provider, or are you using applications from different providers, each with a different authentication solution? Would it be acceptable if you would to log on to each of your desktop applications with a different new combination of user name and password? What happened to single sign-on?

Is your content in safe hands? Are you confident that it will not suddently disappear without being possible to restore, or that it will not fall into the wrong hands? How do you back it up in a simple way?

How mobile can you be with your web 2.0 apps? Is your content accessible when you are on the move, from mobile devices? How do you syncronize your cell phone calendar with your web 2.0 calendar application in a simple way?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

ECM State Of The Market

The Enterprise Content Management (ECM) market is a hot thing, considering e.g. the market growth levels and heated debates in the blog spheres.

Below are some brief notes on the general state of the market covering both the customer and the provider perspective.

Customer perspective:

  • Most enterprises have multiple content management products from functional domains such as document management, web content management, records management etc
  • Most enterprises want to consolidate into content services and components from fewer vendors
  • Most enterprises lack an ECM strategy that directs shared investments and initiatives
  • Most enterprises do not have an ECM governance in place that manage requirements form different business units and user groups
  • Most enterprises do not have an architectural vision or framework that guides ECM design and deployment
  • Most enterprises do not employ a shared service or competence centre that efficiently utilize shared ECM resources

Provider perspective:

  • Most provider suites continue to grow, delivering both more advanced services and additional services such as support for collaborative Enterprise 2.0 and Enterprise Information Management
  • Most traditional ECM providers are under pressure from Basic Content Management providers such as Microsoft and Enterprise Resource Management providers such as SAP.
  • Most of the mergers and acquisitions among providers create burdensome integration projects and insecurity among customers
  • Most providers try to offer pre-packaged solutions for common industry problems and processes. Often compliance driven.

Consolidation of applications seems to be one of the main drivers on both the customer and the provider side. Consolidation initiatives tend to initially focus on hardware and software. When is the market ready for consolidation of content and processes?

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Availability of Web 2.0 Apps

"Google Inc. is having problems keeping its uptime pledge to some paying customers of its Google Apps suite of hosted services, throwing into question the company's ability to offer guaranteed levels of application reliability...//...Little over a month after introducing Google Apps' Premier version, which includes a 99.99 percent uptime commitment, Google is failing to meet that service level agreement (SLA) for an undetermined number of customers." (PC World)

99.99 percent = 365 days x 24 hours x 0.01% = 0.876 hrs/year downtime = 52 minutes and 34 seconds.

"On Tuesday, Google Apps' Gmail service suffered significant availability problems that began in the morning (U.S. Eastern Time) and were declared officially solved for all users early Wednesday afternoon"

Quite a bit more than 52 minutes and 34 seconds of downtime. One might ask what promising 99.99% availability and failing so miserably does to the view on the web as an application platform. The availability might very well be the akilles heel for web 2.0 apps. For certain tasks there might be a tolerance for downtime. But, even simple productivity tools such as word processors are often critical tools in an enterprise.

By the way, Google Calendar is a nice app. But totally unreliable.

What It Means To Be Engaged In The “Burst” Economy

I found this post by Anne Zelenka so excellent that I have to help spreading it so more people (especially managers) might read it.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Content Essentials

To be able to manage content successfully, it is essential to understand the nature of content. And, not the least, what content is.

1. Everything is Content
Everything that is intended to communicate something is content (text, numbers, pictures, sound, video). Content is what is contained within a web page, document, graphic file or a record in a database. Content is not to be confused with the media that carries it, the paper that the text is printed on, or the web page that presents it. Content is the encoded message, the contents of a book, document or mp3 file. The book or file is simply a container. The same content can be re-purposed and/or reused and put in different containers.

2. Information Exists Only in Your Head
Content can inform and create experiences for the content consumer. Information is something that exists only in the consumer’s mind, a result of cognitive processes. This insight makes it natural to think about who the consumer is or might be when producing content.

3. Data is Content With Little Context
Data is nothing else than content that has been structured so hard that it has very little context. Highly structured content needs to aggregated and packaged to content products, content that is assembled and enriched with context in a way that it can be easily consumed by its intended consumers.

4. Context is King
Context is what surrounds the content, helping the content consumer to understand what the content is about, who created it, what its intended use is, and so on. Content that is used to describe other content is commonly called metadata. The metadata enriches the content with descriptions that put the content in a context and makes it easier to understand and use for the content consumer. Context is king, an absolute necessity for communication to be successful.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Waiting for Search Wikia

"Search is part of the fundamental infrastructure of the Internet. And, it is currently broken.
Why is it broken? It is broken for the same reason that proprietary software is always broken: lack of freedom, lack of community, lack of accountability, lack of transparency. Here, we will change all that." (Search Wikia)


I was once a fan of Google. Because it returned better search results faster than any other search engine on the web. Because it was an upcomer, something that could shake the giants. Now Google has become one of the giants. And have search engines got much better since? Are we getting better (more relevant) search results? Not much, from what I can see. Search engines still search on words, not meaning. This is where humans excel machines. This is why Search Wikia is such an interesting project. If not only for what it might do to Google and the unrealistic expectations on Google we all have.