Content is king in social collaboration

Users will stay away from social collaboration platforms that lack relevant content, no matter how many bells and whistles they have.

Peter Westerveld understands the appeal of social collaboration, having had to negotiate with his 16-year-old about Facebook use during school exam weeks. "The interesting question is how to insert social collaboration in the workplace," he said.

CIO at international law firm Minter Ellison, Westerveld is in the middle of a 12-month trial of Quad, Cisco Systems Inc.'s social collaboration platform. Quad is the latest piece of the law firm's so-called One Service strategy -- a unified communications vision of anytime, anywhere computing powered by an arsenal of UC tools including IP telephony, video and Web conferencing, instant messaging, and mobile.

There needs to be a clear purpose for using social collaboration tools -- something that answers the question, 'What's in it for me?'

Robust UC capabilities make sense for the Australia-based firm, which is one of the largest in the Asia-Pacific region: Its 14 offices on three continents employ 1,000 lawyers and have an international clientele. In addition, in a profession where knowledge is the coin of the realm, a social collaboration platform that allows for many-to-many conversations seems useful in principle. Principle is one thing, however; practice is something else.

"What we found out is that content remains king," Westerveld said. "Unless there is appropriate content there that applies real value to individuals in terms of making their lives easier or by providing a better service to their clients, they will leave the [collaboration] tools alone. There needs to be a clear purpose for using them -- something that answers the question, 'What's in it for me?'"

What Westerveld's team did was to come up with specific programs that link to relevant research. For example, in addition to maintaining their technical legal skills and principles, lawyers also must understand their clients' businesses so they can apply those legal principles appropriately. So, while the firm is organized by its various legal practices -- corporate, intellectual property, tax, insolvency and so on -- Quad gives attorneys and staff a place to bone up on specific industries, such as energy resources or health care. Seeding the system with relevant information and links to information resources has brought employees in. "That becomes a good base for people collaborating, because they are already there," he said.

The next task is feeding the Quad platform the information about industry groups that the firm's customer relationship management (CRM) system has captured. "Now we are starting to build some integration between our CRM and Quad," Westerveld said, "so the information is transparent to lawyers with an interest in it."

Integrating business applications with social collaboration and networking tools is where the value will be for companies, said Rob Koplowitz, a principal analyst who covers enterprise collaboration at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc. But integration remains tough for most companies, in part because interoperability is not a big focus for many vendors.

Still, CIOs need to push their vendors on integrating UC capabilities, social collaboration tools and business apps, said Ken Agress, principal research director covering UC at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn. That's when collaboration morphs from a set of tools that boost personal productivity to a new way of working that adds measurable value to a company. A fully integrated communications platform "is where the money is for enterprises," he said.

Face-to-face vs. Facebook cohort

Minter Ellison's Westerveld is pretty sure the new ways of working are here. Since the launch of Quad, he's also seeing a shift from emails to posts, "which I think is quite a profound change in the way people communicate."

To ensure that tools like Quad and the law firm's array of UC capabilities are used, Westerveld's team does a lot of hands-on employee coaching. Some employees are more receptive than others to the new technology tools and ways of working, but in this case, the divide isn't age-related: "I call it Generation Facebook and Generation Face-to-face," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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