Social bookmarking tools pushing collaboration to the edge

The practice of bookmarking favorite sites and putting them into a shared website is making its way from consumer to commercial use. Ultimately, it will bring a nimble new dimension to collaboration and innovation.

You and probably everyone in your organization are bookmarking favorite websites. Now, there's an application about to bust loose that would let users share that information, expertise and intelligence by putting those bookmarked sites into a shared repository.

Anyone who uses a Web browser knows the value of bookmarks, which allow Web surfers to store and annotate links to useful sites. Bookmarks make the process of "re-finding" information easier, but unfortunately they're usually tied to one machine and one browser. You can't bring them with you.

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Social bookmarking turns the world of bookmarks upside down. Instead of storing bookmarks on desktops, users store them in a shared site. Bookmarks can be accessed anywhere by not just the user, but also anyone else. By looking at bookmarks saved by others, users can discover new sources of information that might be missed by search engines.

Social bookmarking tools may not be easy for everyone in a business to grasp, said Mike Gotta, a principal analyst at Midvale, Utah-based Burton Group Inc. CIOs who introduce the technology may have to market it to users.

"It has to be marketed and presented in a way that a person sees that they can do their own job better with it," Gotta said. "You need to find people who are probably more open to tagging or marking and collecting information."

Unlike some other "new Internet" collaborative applications (often referred to as Web 2.0), such as wikis and blogs, enterprise social bookmarking technology still hasn't reached the enterprise market. Unfortunately, while there are companies rapidly adopting technologies such as Ajax and RSS, experts say many organizations are slow to deploy the more interactive, bottom-up concepts associated with Web 2.0, including social bookmarking tools.

Web-based social bookmarking sites have already taken hold, especially in the consumer space with sites such as del.icio.us (pronounced delicious,) a service that was acquired by Yahoo last year. Other online social bookmarking sites offer more specialized services. Connotea.org is used by medical researchers and clinicians to track references. Academics use CiteULike.org to share, store and organize academic papers.

It has to be marketed and presented in a way that a person sees that they can do their own job better with it.
Mike Gotta
analystBurton Group
Although social bookmarking has enjoyed success on the Web, business adoption of the technology has been slow to take hold, largely due to the fact no vendors have come forward with an enterprise product.

But Gotta said this should change within a year or two and could be valuable to businesses that are trying to encourage innovation through loosely coupled collaboration.

Social bookmarking tools leverage the popular social software phenomenon of tagging. Users can apply tags, or keywords, to the bookmarks they save. In social bookmarking, tagging creates a grass-roots taxonomy for the shared bookmarks. Users can search by tags to find bookmarks relevant to their interests. Taxonomies created through bookmarking are called "folksonomies."

Gotta said social bookmarking leverages the generally self-interested action of bookmarking and makes it valuable to a group. "Sometimes people can be search engines for us, the way they tag and collect and create folksonomies. Bookmarking is all about me. I am trying to find stuff. In doing that [with social bookmarking] there is a collective pattern that starts to emerge."

"I've been revisiting things like talent, community, high-performing teams, pushing decision making more toward the edge," Gotta said. "The problem is we don't have any good sensors out there to try to get groups to work collectively in loosely coupled ways. We have this fog of war. We don't know what's important to people. They can't communicate or share. With enterprise social bookmarking, you start connecting identity to it. Then I can see that Jane Doe is bookmarking the same thing I am. I should talk to her. Say, 'Hey, we're working on the same stuff.'"

Gotta said social bookmarking tools allow companies to apply metadata to information such as competitive intelligence that may have limited long-term value but is extremely valuable in the short term. Such short-term information is often difficult to capture with enterprise content management tools.

"The whole idea of tagging and social bookmarking … it may not be data you have to worry about keeping around for 10 years. Its half-life might be very short. But just because it's short doesn't mean it's not important," Gotta said.

David Millen, manager of the Collaborative User Experience group at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center in Cambridge, Mass., and a longtime researcher in collaboration software, said he thinks social bookmarking "is going to go crazy."

At the Watson Center, Millen's research group has been developing and testing Dogear, an enterprise-class social bookmarking technology. Millen said IBM is planning to bring Dogear to market soon, but the company is still determining which product group will own it.

Millen said Dogear is similar to Web-based services, but it is tailored specifically for business. It includes a user authentication feature, which is important to companies that want their employees to collaborate.

Dogear also allows users in a business to search and bookmark information found on both sides of a company's firewall. Some consumer sites, such as del.icio.us, allow users to bookmark information on corporate intranets; however users outside the firewall can't access them. Dogear's user authentication feature would remove that barrier.

"It allows you to see who is interested in the topics you are interested in," Millen said. "If I thought that 'Jack Russell' had good tags, I could subscribe to his bookmarks, and every time he adds a bookmark I could see that. Within an enterprise this allows you to find people who have information on a given topic and track them."

Dogear encourages users to share information without pushing it. It also connects people in large organizations who would otherwise never meet.

"It helps promote information sharing between individuals in a team," Millen said. "But it's also about being able to find individuals who have common interests. [For example] a query on social software will show all the people [in the company] interested in social software. Half the people I know personally. The other half I don't know.

"Before we had social bookmarking services, when someone down the hall would see an interesting site, they would send it to you over email," Millen said. "You might or might not click on it. Here we can see in Dogear if that's happening. We can determine what the hot sites are."

Millen said social bookmarking tools don't need 100% acceptance from a company's employees. At a certain point, social bookmarking reaches a critical mass and becomes useful to anyone who is using an enterprise search engine. Dogear will be available in an IBM sandbox environment soon where potential early adopters can experiment with the technology, he said.

"The interesting thing about social bookmarking and Dogear is that there are 300,000 people in IBM. If only 20,000 create bookmarks, the other 280,000 will benefit because the wisdom of those 20,000 will be used in the enterprise search engine."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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