Observations from where technology meets business


Collaborative Online Lists

Everyone uses lists. Some of us are more serious about using lists but we all use them. We use them for keeping track of tasks we need to do, shopping for groceries, maintaining contact information, and in hundreds of other ways. We also use lists when we work with others (for example, on a project team or with colleagues in our workgroup). Lists are important for keeping track of the work we are doing together, for sharing information, and so forth. Collaborative online lists are simply lists that are easily accessible and can be maintained by multiple people.

Perhaps the most popular list-editor is Microsoft Excel. Of course, this use of Excel does not exercise any spreadsheet calculation feature. Excel simply makes editing lists easy. A quick browse through Microsoft’s online Excel template catalog reveals a number of list-only templates.

However, the problem with using Excel to manage a list, such as project team’s issue list, is that it is stored in a file and files can be black holes of information (recall that I hate files). Files tend to be treated as personal items and not easily shared. A project’s administrator may keep a list of issues and send it out just before a weekly meeting but that is about as much sharing as we see when lists are kept in files. Need to find out about a particular issue before the next meeting? Well then call the project administrator on the telephone.

Collaborative online lists avoid this problem by being stored online so they are easily accessible and the responsibility for updating them can be shared. The good news is you may already have the most popular online collaborative list solutions running within your intranet. Lists can be found in collaborative workspace products such as EMC/Documentum eRoom (where lists are called databases), Lotus Quickr, or Microsoft SharePoint.

If done correctly, collaborative online lists can support both emergent and hierarchical uses. For example, I know of a large company that was going through a significant downsizing. They were running SharePoint on their intranet and someone created a list to capture information about people leaving the company. It started filling with names and became quite popular. That is, until HR shut it down (I suppose there are other lessons to learn here). Nevertheless, this is a good example of an emergent online list.

Collaborative online lists can also support hierarchical use cases. For example, large development efforts often consist of many teams within a hierarchical reporting structure. Imagine having a workspace for each team and each one maintaining a list of issues in a common format. These lists could then be rolled up and consolidated to provide managers with a broad overview of all issues (yes, culturally, this may be challenging). eRoom provides a similar function with their “Enterprise Database” function.

If list items have unique URLs they are easier to reuse. For example, you could use social bookmarking systems to bookmark and tag an issue (or any type of list item) and associate them with other related web pages or sites on the intranet. This way an issue within a list can become part of a larger enterprise knowledgebase.

Collaborative online lists are a lot like wikis. I view wikis as replacing Word files and collaborative online lists as replacing lists kept in Excel files. In both cases, information is easier to access and uniquely addressable (and, hence, easier to share and recall).

However, there are a few things collaborative workspaces can learn from wikis, the biggest of which is security. Often times the default security of a collaborative workspace limits access to no one, except those specifically invited to the workspace. Wikis tend to be open from the start. However, wikis marketed to enterprises can also be tied down, just like the traditional collaborative workspace. So, this isn’t necessarily a technology problem.

This is a repost of a blog originally posted on the Collaboration and Content Strategies Blog

Thoughts on technophilia

In reading this post from Danah Boyd I can’t help but think about how much of what she says can be applied to the challenges of information technology adoption in large enterprises, particular those tools associated with collaboration and personal productivity. All too often, as technologists (geeks) at heart, we prefer to only deal with these challenges as tool issues. But the really hard part (and the effort that can make the biggest difference) is understanding what people do in their daily work-life and finding ways for technology to help them be more effective.

As we talk about the wonderfulness of technology, please keep in mind the complexities involved. Technology is a wonderful tool but it is not a panacea. It cannot solve all societal ills just by its mere existence. To have relevance and power, it must be leveraged by people to meet needs. This requires all of us to push past what we hope might happen and focus on introducing technology in a context that makes sense.

apophenia: some thoughts on technophilia

Is Bluenog’s Use of Open Source Sustainable?

There have been some recent interesting posts discussing Bluenog, a company which sells the Bluenog ICE (integrated collaborative environment). This is a product consisting of a portal framework, content management system, a report generator, a wiki, and a calendar all working within a secured environment using a granular permission model and is capable of integrating with enterprise single sign-on systems. The system looks to be very Enterprise 2.0-ish and may provide a useful intranet environment that brings together the breadth of information needed by knowledge workers. I had a chance to look at the product at the recent Enterprise 2.0 conference and talk with the company in an extended briefing. The product should get the attention of many IT managers.

While the Bluenog ICE product itself looks interesting, it is the business model the company uses to develop it that is causing a controversy and, in my opinion, raises some flags. Bluenog advertises itself as an open source company (or, rather, that is what most people walk away thinking when they have seen or read about the company). To be precise, here is what Bluenog says about their use of open source:

Bluenog ICE leverages several open source CMS, open source collaboration, open source portal and open source BI projects. These projects provide the building blocks for Bluenog ICE and allow us to provide tightly integrated solutions at a fraction of the cost of traditional alternatives.

The web page linked above lists a total of 19 open source projects as being used within the Bluenog product so, clearly, Bluenog is a consumer open source software. However, although the distinction may be subtle, the way Bluenog uses open source is different than what most enterprise IT managers may be expecting.

First, let’s be clear, Bluenog sells a proprietary product. Bluenog does not make the resulting source code of their commercial product available via an open source license. Paying customers get a copy of the source code but this offers none of the benefits, such as transparency and choice, that enterprises can gain from leveraging open source. What can you do with a copy of the source code? Open source becomes powerful when it is out in a community, gaining new features, getting security flaws fixed, etc.

Second, the only company that has benefited from Bluenog’s approach to open source is Bluenog itself, not its customers. But the sustainability of that benefit is questionable. Let me explain.

A number of the open source products used, which provide core ICE features, require significant changes to work in the Bluenog framework and these changes are not contributed to any sort of open source community. In essence, major parts of Bluenog are built from forks of open source products that are folded into their proprietary framework. Any enhancements or security patches from the originating open source community would have to be manually integrated into Bluenog because they are now separate products. For example, Bluenog is built with a version of the Hippo CMS that is one major version behind the main project.

So the question enterprises should be asking is this: Is Bluenog’s development model sustainable? Arguably, other companies have used open source this way. For example, IBM’s Lotus Symphony is based off an old version of Open Office. However, Bluenog is different for two reasons. First, Bluenog isn’t IBM. They are a startup and have limited resources. Second, they are creating a whole new integrated product based off of the amalgamation of several open source products, which sounds like a big integration challenge. IBM is re-basing the next release of Lotus Symphony on Open Office 3. Can Bluenog say the same about Hippo CMS? Do they care about future versions of Hippo CMS or are they content with keeping the older code, essentially turning these pieces into their own proprietary code?

If I were an enterprise IT manager considering Bluenog I wouldn’t let their use of open source sway me at all and evaluate them as a proprietary software vendor. I would also start asking questions about how they plan on sustaining the development of the product. Bluenog’s approach to using open source may have helped initially to get the first product out the door faster. However, the enterprise software market is a marathon not a sprint.

This is a repost of a blog originally posted on the Collaboration and Content Strategies Blog

Groove, SharePoint, and OneNote

In Mary Jo Foley's interview with Rajesh Jha, Corporate VP , Microsoft Office Live, we learned that Groove is being positioned "as the way that users will be able to access documents in their workspaces when they are off-line". Jha also is quoted as saying "Groove will be the way you take any Workspace offline."

Unfortunately, this still doesn't clear up Groove's future since, technically, Groove can do this today by synchronizing with a SharePoint document library. Longer-term, it makes sense to tie Groove and SharePoint together. However, I wouldn't expect this to be an easy task since there is significant overlap in function.

In addition, given the timing of the acquisition and the latest releases of SharePoint and Groove I doubt any accommodating architectural changes have taken place yet. To get these working as an online/offline duo we should see some significant changes under the hood, the least of which would be a common storage model.

However, while they have the hood up and are taking apart the engine Microsoft should consider bringing another piece of their portfolio into the mix. Microsoft OneNote is a fabulous personal information manager (a better description might be a personal information harvester). I have been using it to manage all of my "digital stuff" the past few months and have been very pleased. There is still plenty of room for improvement but, in my opinion, it does a darn good job and is arguably the best of its kind on the market.

OneNote's roots are planted in the Tablet PC. However, I don't use a tablet with OneNote. It's my understanding that 80% or more of OneNote users also do not use a Tablet PC.

One result of this heritage is OneNote's use of a freeform page in which you can embed just about any form of media including text, audio, video, images, and files in general (in addition to "digital ink" from a tablet pen). I personally make liberal use of OneNote's notebook structure to keep my growing personal database of information. I am able to consume all forms of digital information (and some non-digital via a scanner) as I come across it now that I have a place to keep it (and find it later). I also make use of OneNote's tagging capability for GTD-like task management.

In addition, OneNote has some simple collaborative capabilities. An interesting feature I haven't tried yet is the ability to host real-time shared note-taking sessions. This sounds intriguing since a OneNote notebook can become an online meeting's virtual whiteboard. After the meeting the shared notebook continues on as part of the team's normal collaborative (and personal information management) mode of work.

You can also share notebooks between computers allowing team members, for example, to work within the same notebook from different locations and during different times of the day. There are a couple of options to do this. From my experience the best way is via SMB file shares. Just point all instances of OneNote to the same file on the network. This appears to work quite well as I have shared OneNote notebooks between my personal laptop and one I take home from the office. Changes are quickly reflected between the two computers.

Teams can also share OneNote notebooks using SharePoint. This method, however, appears to be a little rough around the edges and if there are a number of changes the synchronization process is quite noticeable. It almost looks as if the entire notebook is being transferred during synchronization but I can't say for sure.

This is where Groove's P2P technology could come into play. Groove's synchronization methods are very robust and from my perspective appear to be much better than OneNote's synchronization using SharePoint. I have used Groove to share workspaces between multiple computers in various locations and I was quite pleased with the performance. This was the case even though one of the laptops involved was constantly going offline and coming back online in multiple places.

So imagine having a server back-end and web interface from SharePoint, synchronization and offline capability with Groove, and a rich collaborative team workspace and personal information management client from OneNote. Now that would be something.

Microsoft Office Live Workspace

On Sunday Microsoft unveiled plans for Office Live Workspace, touting it as their entry into the free online office suite market. The response, at least from the blogosphere, has been what can best be described as a collective yawn. There was only a brief conversation about it on SlashDot and hardly any presence at all on Digg.

Responses ranged from confusion:

"I wish I could give you a simple explanation of what the company is offering, but, this being Microsoft, what we have is a witch's brew of balkanized services, elaborate brand hierarchies, and jargon out the wazoo."

Nicholas Carr's Rough Type

...to indifference:

"There's nothing even approaching an actual online editor and, frankly, not much to compel anyone to use the new services. In fact, the only thing truly interesting about Office Live Workspace is what it doesn't do: create and edit docs in the browser."

Scott Gilbertson's Wired Blog

...to critical:

"The barbarians are at the gate, a new horde is on the way, but no one seems to be defending the castle. Instead, the Microsoft Office warriors are rebranding, repackaging and relaunching old products and calling them new."

Michael Arrington's TechCrunch

...to insulting:

"Microsoft readies Office Live Workspace, an online storage space for office documents. The catch? You can only edit the spreadsheet, Word doc or slideshow if you have MS Office installed on your computer. Uh, ok."

Lifehacker (the title of the post was "Dumb")

Microsoft Office received more attention for an error in Excel 2007. Adobe received more coverage of its announced acquisition of Virtual Ubiquity, an online word processor. Well that might be because it looks like Adobe may actually release an online office suite.

To me it appears Google is making progress convincing the public that online documents offer advantages over the document-as-file paradigm supported by client-based office suites.

It's also not clear if Workspace will be based on SharePoint or something else. The way it is described it sure sounds like SharePoint but nothing from Microsoft actually says it is SharePoint. I only found a brief mention of Workspace being based on SharePoint from Mary Jo Foley's coverage. But then Mary Jo contradicts herself in the same paragraph by saying documents will be viewable in a browser.

Killer App?

Two conflicting articles published this week about video conferencing:
  • Robert X. Cringely recently learned about telepresence (HD video conferencing) and predicts home-based units, possibly sold by Apple, could be the next "Killer App". Just bring to market an attachable HD video camera for the growing population of HD flat-panel TVs already sitting in American's living room and you have a home version of telepresence. Not ready to buy one yet? Well, Cringely says "This is 100 percent analogous to the introduction of color TV in the 1950s. People didn't know they wanted color TV until they saw color TV. But once they saw it, the lure of color TV was instant and obvious". Just imagine pointing a camera at the typical football fan watching the Lions take on the Packers Sunday afternoon. Smile!
  • BusinessWeek.Com just published "BT: Small Firms Snub Videoconferencing " in which "BT's general manager of broadband, VoIP and software services, Chris Lindsay" said "Customers are not seeing the increased benefit from having the visual piece over and above the audio" to explain why demand for video conferencing has been low.

What do you think? Do you need "the visual piece" to effectively collaborate? I don't think you do (in most cases).

To me this looks like a classic example of the type of problem technologists get into as noted by Pip Coburn in his book The Change Function:

"More often than not, products are created in a build-it-and-they-will-come mentality that relies solely upon Moore's Law for lowering prices and what can be called Grove's Law of generating 10x changes and improvements" (from Chapter Two of the Change Function; an abridged version is available at Fast Company).

All we need is a higher resolution video camera and display (which are already in many living rooms btw) along with higher bandwidth. Then, Cringely tells us we simply need to find the price point where it becomes "killer".

The problem is this approach forgets an important point. Does the product solve a problem for the potential customer? Coburn refers to a customer's problem as a "crisis" and says "If the level of crisis is higher than the total perceived pain of adopting a new solution, then a change will occur." By the way, "perceived pain "goes well beyond the cost of the product.

IMHO, put a video conferencing unit into the typical American living room and you will certainly create a crisis. But not the one Cringely would like.

Update: Melanie Turek reports Cisco is considering developing a home telepresence system. Apparently talk about this was hinted at during a discussion with reporters at a recent analyst briefing.

Am I managing "my" information or "our" information?

The scenario below is ultimately what we are after when using collaborative technologies. We are trying to collectively manage "information" ("data", "knowledge", pieces of content, files, etc.). Yet, for most of us (including me) we don't even know how to effectively manage our own information. How can we work effectively as a group if we don't have the fundamental skills necessary to work as a group of one?

When do we cross the line of managing "my" information (which is serviced by the technology segment called "personal productivity") to managing "our" information (which qualifies as "collaboration" or "knowledge management")?

To me, it all seems to be on the same continuum. So, how practical is it to enforce a single folder naming or hierarchy convention? In many cases, it may be possible. But for most I suspect the folder metaphor is insufficient and something like tagging may be better since it seems to strike a balance between personal preferences and group needs.

However, I am starting to think the best place to start is to train employees to manage their own information better. All collaboration initiatives are based on these fundamantal information management skills.

A few days ago, some of the senior leaders within our team got together to set out some "standards" for how we capture and manage information in our organization. Specifically, we decided to share information more effectively by storing the files and information we create for various consulting opportunities in a file structure that will make it easier to find and use information. Rather than each person creating and managing their own filing structure and guiding others to information, we're trying an agreed, standardized file structure based on a "taxonomy" we pulled together over a few hours.

Link to Thinking Faster: Organizing Information

What did Cisco Buy?

Last week BusinessWeek's Rob Hof asked "What Did Cisco's $3.2 Billion for WebEx Buy?"

Rob's choices were:


1) A channel for its cool telepresence system, according to Sean Ness.

2) A pig in a poke, opines Mike Arrington and a number of commenters on his post. They figure WebEx is too heavy compared to a number of up-and-coming Web conferencing services, and doesn't work as well on different platforms.

3) The future of collaboration, according to Om Malik, who points out, "Shared workspaces, email and even office type apps are part of WebEx’s extended offerings." And WebEx has 2 million customers already.

4) Sex appeal, says Valleywag. Huh? Only in the Valley, I guess.

I just posted a blog on Collaboration Loop about the deal. My view is closer to Arrington's, but for different reasons.

Update: My Collaboration Loop posts have been moved over to the Enterprise 2.0 Blog. The link above has been changed to point to the new location.

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