Collaboration Rules

Empowered customers—demanding to access or create content tailored to their needs and delivered on their own terms—have turned up the heat on technology and content companies alike, pushing them to bring greater innovation to market.

But there's a catch. Winning the customer can't be reduced to delivering "bigger, better, faster" technology solutions. Customers simply won't accept the traditional trade-off between improved innovation and increased complexity and cost. In fact, organizations want to increase business agility by decreasing complexity. It's a seismic shift in thinking that creates a new landscape in which vendors must compete based on how well they can give control back to customers rather than wresting it from them.

This fresh way of thinking favors modularized, componentized, and standardized tools and technologies. Perhaps the best example is the growth of open-source communities like Eclipse, a nonprofit organization whose members include IBM, Hewlett Packard, SAP, Intel, and Nokia. Eclipse was built on the belief that a single platform eliminates redundant development efforts. The result is improved usability and consistency, an outcome that also boosts deployed resource efficiency. The fact that Eclipse has grown to comprise over 138 members underscores the power and benefits of an open-source approach.

Another champion of open source coming up strong is Alfresco Software, the first company to have the insight to offer an open-source, enterprise-class content management solution. The London-based firm, founded by a team of content management veterans that includes John Newton, the cofounder of Documentum, and John Powell, former COO of Business Objects, taps the trend of open-source software to offer solutions that cost less. When Alfresco first posted its software in November 2005, it hoped for 10,000 downloads. The firm underestimated the popularity of this approach: over 350,000 copies have been downloaded.

Open-source does not mean under-powered. Alfresco's software provides capabilities such as robust XML and multichannel publishing; task-based workflow; parallel development; in-context preview and editing; and whole-site archival, deployment, and rollback. Version 3.1 adds functionality to manage web content like wikis and blogs.

Alfresco also enables new and deeper levels of collaboration at a time when organizations themselves are morphing into what some call "Enterprise 2.0" and breaking down the barriers between the company and the "cocreators" of its content.

This is the mission and the mindset at Alfresco's customer the Christian Science Monitor, an international daily newspaper that is rethinking not only publishing but also the boundaries between the creators and consumers of content.

The Monitor is convinced that the old innovation model is broken and believes open-source code breeds better solutions. In the eyes of the Monitor, Alfresco had another point in its favor, its own culture: an open source to open collaboration. After all, tools like wikis and blogs are not only must-have social networking tools; they sit at the core of Alfresco's modus operandi.

As Curt Edge, the Monitor's CIO, says, "The open-source approach encourages a community approach to content." Moving forward, communities of interest and expertise will form around content to improve and enhance the knowledge shared. "Ideas are generated everywhere and anywhere, and we're all going to have to listen to this conversation."

The Monitor's commitment to making a contribution is mirrored in the content management system it is currently building together with Alfresco developers. The goal, Edge says, is to "converge the editorial and web publishing systems," allowing the creators of content to make independent decisions about where and how the content should be published. "When we implement the final phase and the version of Alfresco, then the difference between the newspaper and the web will completely disappear."

Ultimately, Edge believes this community approach to content will result in quantum changes in content and new forms of interaction between content users. The teamwork of Alfresco and the Monitor speaks volumes about the new rules of collaboration.

To encourage the free flow of ideas, content management systems cannot be rigid. Openness and flexibility are at the core of Enterprise 2.0—and they must also be the essence of the organizations that create its tools and technologies.