The Collaboration Challenges of SaaS in the Enterprise

Jacob Ukelson

Enterprise collaboration and tools to support it have been mainstream for about a decade now, with portals, intranets and shared workspaces being some of the primary options IT provides to information workers specifically to support collaboration. These SaaS Web 2.0 (or Enterprise 2.0) technologies like wikis, blogs and micro-blogs are the latest solutions to be adopted and provide newer mechanisms to promote and support enterprise collaboration. These SaaS collaboration tools have a number of benefits -- like a community-oriented paradigm and no software to install  -- but despite that, none have made a dent in displacing the primary enterprise collaboration tool for information workers: e-mail.

There are many reasons for the primacy of e-mail as a collaboration (ubiquity, familiarity, flexibility, end-user control), but in an enterprise setting, one key reason is that collaboration between information workers is usually in support of a work process. Since e-mail is also the primary tool for process execution for information workers, it makes sense that it is also the main tool for collaboration.

So even though almost every enterprise has special purpose solutions available for collaboration and process management, good old e-mail always ends up being the primary method for both collaboration and processes in the enterprise. This can be called the "enterprise collaboration and process paradox," and is the "dirty little secret" of both collaboration and process execution in the enterprise. Realistically, there doesn't seem to be any way to displace e-mail as the king of collaboration and processes -- or is there?

Since it would be impractical to get everyone to stop using e-mail for collaboration and processes, maybe the right answer is to enhance e-mail so that it is more appropriate for collaboration and process management. Google Wave could turn out to be an interesting response to this challenge. Google Wave is a new type of collaboration for information workers consisting of e-mail, instant messaging and documents. Put into Web 2.0 terms, it is a mashup of e-mail, wikis and instant messaging. Google is positioning Wave as "what e-mail would look like if it were invented today." So maybe Google Wave is the answer to the paradox?

In the enterprise, e-mail is everywhere; everyone uses it and it is the lowest common denominator that every information worker loves to hate, but couldn't live without. Studies show e-mail is what information workers use on an hourly basis. So on the plus side for Google Wave, it is built on the familiar e-mail metaphor of ad-hoc collaboration, and it leverages asynchronous messaging and responses. By keeping track of the complete conversational context between the participants, there is no need to peruse one's inbox to find all the relevant conversations. The context of the conversation is kept in a single place, and can be replayed when needed.

In an enterprise setting, the cognitive overhead associated with the need for participants to reconstruct context when responding to an e-mail is one big factor in e-mail overload. Another benefit is that documents are current. All the participants in the Wave are always using the same version of documents related to the Wave.

Alas, Google has decided to take a Web and consumer focus with this offering, which means it ignored the process side of the enterprise collaboration equation, and you won't be seeing Wave in an enterprise setting anytime soon.

  • As collaboration tools continue to evolve, enterprises cannot afford to forget that their needs are different from those of individual users. Existing SaaS collaboration solutions are not really integrated with e-mail. They can generate e-mail, but they are a completely separate application. These tools need to be more tightly integrated with regular e-mail, and the existing e-mail user experience.
  • Process orientation is often ignored. Enterprise collaboration usually takes place in support of a work process, and there needs to be a way to provide the process context for the collaboration (e.g., an ongoing audit, a response to an RFP, a fraud investigation). There also need to be standard, structured ways for participants to add standard process status information to the collaboration (e.g., complete, declined). Wikis, blogs, mashups -- they all ignore the notion of business process.
  • Link to other systems. This is related to the process orientation. There needs to be a way to link with other enterprise systems (document management systems, CRM systems, etc.) related to the process. This also requires that there be a way to add structured data to the collaboration (for linkage to those tools).
  • Keep governance and security issues in mind. Let's face it; in an enterprise setting, not everyone is equal. Companies need a governance system that understands who each user is and how much access he or she has. Enterprises need this at a very granular level, and it should be based on existing access control systems.
  • Make sure tracking and monitoring issues are addressed. This is both to allow the enterprise to learn from collaborations and related processes, and to enable an audit trail of the work done.

Google Wave is pointing the way to a new paradigm for collaboration. Though it has a consumer focus, I expect that many of its features will be applied in an enterprise setting. These e-mail-based features, augmented by a set of process-oriented features, will set off the next generation "enterprise wave" of collaboration tools.

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Jul 7, 2011 4:07 AM AprilRUIZ28 AprilRUIZ28  says:
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