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What is old is new again with social collaboration tools

Social collaboration tools aren't new, but new technology can make 'groupware' work this time if CIOs keep their eye on a few key steps.

Imagine an enterprise computer system that can seamlessly integrate workers across departments and geographies, enable them to share documents and track projects, and give them insight into the availability and whereabouts of knowledge experts in their organization. Sounds great! Isn't that what social collaboration tools like Cisco's WebEx Social do?

Scot PetersenScot Petersen,
Editorial Director

Yes, but do you remember so-called groupware and "knowledge management" products from Novell and the late Lotus Development Corp? Social collaboration was the dream then, but not exactly the reality. What type of value will this generation's products be able to deliver?

Technology is on the side of IT users these days. Platforms like Facebook, Drupal and Yammer have created a de facto common interface for social collaboration, for one thing. In addition, says IBM CIO Jeanette Horan -- who started her career at Lotus before IBM acquired the company for $3 billion in 1995 -- technology has caught up with ideas, "Ten, 12 years ago, we were trying to do [things] but in many cases the technology wasn't really mature and the performance wasn't there in the underlying systems to be able to deliver," she said in an interview earlier this year. "Compute power has become sufficient to enable new things. Lotus has had some interesting ideas, but the whole infrastructure and ecosystem around it wasn't ready for it."

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But really, now that the technology is there, does that mean social collaboration will deliver on its promise? The answer is no, but it could, if companies keep a few keep points in mind:

Value: We are starting to see a lot of stories out there about social collaboration tools done right. See SearchCIO Feature Writer Karen Goulart's piece on GE's successful venture, Colab. GE had been working on social collaboration tools for 10 years, according to General Electric Co. Corporate CIO Ron Utterbeck, but finally they were able to get beyond just sharing documents. "The one area we were missing was really that social media aspect," Utterbeck said. "How do you get a lot of people not only sharing documents, but then sharing those ideas and sharing those concepts?"

Process: Not only has the GE solution delivered on social collaboration tools, Utterbeck said, it was developed collaboratively, between IT and the company's users. This was not a case of build it and they will come, but build a little, see what works, get feedback and build some more. "We'll introduce a new bit of functionality, and then what we see is our usage goes up rather dramatically and continues to stay up," he said.

Strategy: CIOs need to keep asking themselves the question, "What is the problem we are trying to solve?" Installing social collaboration tools has to deliver value beyond the revenue that goes into the pockets of software vendors. Issues -- such as productivity -- have to be measured. Then goals have to be set against those issues in order to be able to go beyond a simple return on investment. Social collaboration tools have the ability to deliver increased value to your customers -- and promote employee engagement.

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