Magic Quadrants, Social Software, and Interconnectedness

n his October report for the Gartner group, Magic Quadrant for Team Collaboration and Social Software, 2007,  Nikos Drakos does a compelling look at the online collaboration, er, social software space.

Drakos’ opening line “The collaboration support market is being revitalized, with buyers and sellers looking to add social interaction in the context of broad collaboration support.” is indeed what we’re seeing here at Q2.  The new awareness of social aspects to enterprise knowledge sharing tools usually manifests in sales calls in the form of a comment like “yeah, this is pretty much what we need, but do you have ‘facebook-type’ functionality?”

Drako’s analysis reflects this state of affairs.  He observes “Buyers in the collaboration support market are looking for persistent virtual environments where participants can create, organize and share information, as well as interact with each other.”  His “low” baseline for inclusion are features we’ve had for years in our platform:

  • membership management
  • access controls
  • user profiles
  • shared workspaces
  • document sharing
  • discussion forums

He adds to it his list of “High Expectations of Additional Optional Functionality” and  indicates that the ability to do these things will gradually be added to baseline expectations.

  • calendar integration
  • task allocation
  • task tracking
  • workflow
  • basic project management
  • wikis
  • blogs,
  • social tags
  • social bookmarks,
  • social network analysis
  • social network visualization
  • content feeds
  • people search (expertise location),
  • team decision support (voting, sorting, ranking, scenario planning and categorizing)
  • content rating
  • reputation management
  • alerting

I’d call the first few items on that wish-list the “project management toolkit”.  Sites like Basecamp have been in that space for a while. The thing is, project management tends to have some very organizationally specific cultural requirements, and it may be a while before the online tools develop the sophistication of the offline ones sufficiently for established project management cultures to become comfortable using them. At Q2,  for example, we use a combination of Microsoft Project, some software tools of our own design, and discussion forums for project management. When we’re doing joint projects with other orgs, we have a tendency to force the issue of using online discussion space for a tool, and we’ve noticed that people we’ve dragged along on that path eventually are converted!

Wikis, of course, are a mechanism to facilitate group document generation, and are, I believe, one of those things that are shortly going to disappear from the conversation just as word-processing software has, because their essential utility will make them ubiquitous.  Some day soon, anyone who has to work with documents will know what eventually wins out as the standard wiki the way we all now know Word.  So yeah, if you are in the online collaboration space, and you don’t have a wiki, you are probably missing some essential functionality.

The jury is still out on the extent to which blogs will become a must-have in the enterprise social software sphere.  We have pretty robust blogging capability in our software, enabling our customers to configure blogs for internal or public consumption. But we aren’t seeing it utilized much at all.  People seem to experiment with blogging for a while and then decide that other tasks on their list are more critical for the advancement of their careers and their organizations. Or, if they are already engaged in blogging from a public site, they just leave their blog in the platform they already understand and where their public knows where to find them.  It may be that being able to link out to blogs will be more important in the enterprise arena than being able to generate them—it will be interesting to see.

Which brings us to the newly-christened “social” stuff.  An important question underlying this functionality for the enterprise is “how much is lost if we limit our universe to our own organization?”  Tagging, rating, and reviewing internal proprietary content is pretty obviously a job for software internal to the enterprise.  Finding people internal to the enterprise who have experience with a given client. project, or skill-set is also well-suited to a platform within the firewall.  But what about those public spaces?  How much is it worth to an organization to have its people “out there” on del.icio.us, on Linked-in and Facebook, sharing their expertise and opinion of publicly available resources?  When employees are searching for new information, to what extent should they depend on internal tools, and when is it important to venture out?  To the extent that they venture out and find things of value, how should those things be brought “in” so that others in the organization can benefit?  In short, when is a filtered network optimal, and when is an unfiltered network the place to go?

We’re thinking about these questions, and trying to strike a balance, creating a tool which fosters the creation and nurture of the internal social network, while making it easy to bring in the best resources from outside.  It’s sort of in our blood – we were around when discussion forums evolved from BBS and Usenet to the Web.  (I still get a chill when I think about how cool it was the first time I could post a relevant URL to a discussion forum!)  I believe that the acceleration of global interconnectedness will mean that even for the largest organizations, it will be in discussing information streaming in from outside, comparing it to internal intelligence, and constructing meaning with other knowledgeable people that strategic advantage is attained.