A Horizontal Horizon
The notion of implementing web-based social communities and services in the enterprise has been percolating since the emergence of Web 2.0 itself. At the inaugural Web 2.0 conference, put on by O’Reilly Media in 2004, the thrust of the discussion was decidedly business-oriented. As Facebook, Flickr, and YouTube grew in popularity and visibility, the focus of Web 2.0 was directed more toward purely social utilities. But from the first, Tim O’Reilly described the phenomenon as business embracing the web as a platform and utilizing its strengths (namely, its global reach). But the enterprise has been gradually coming around over the past couple of years, and there are increasingly more opportunities for companies to break free of their 1.0 predilections.
“If you look at how collaboration was done in the past,” says Tony Ferraro, the founder and president of 360Hubs, “an online desktop was as far as we’d come just two or three years ago. You could share files and post notes in a kind of shredded way. If you had 15 people working on a single document, one person at a time could log in and make changes. While it was better than calling a meeting, that certainly isn’t where we are today.”
Ferraro’s company’s 360Affinity Hubs enterprise platform aims to provide businesses with a full array of collaborative technologies while being as flexible as possible. 360Hubs’ configurable solution is tailored to the individual demands of each installation, so no two environments are alike. This approach seeks to remove as many restrictions as possible so that business communities can collaborate in the ways that are most suitable to them.
Business looked completely different prior to the implementation of online collaboration technology, according to Ferraro, and it wasn’t just because the tools hadn’t yet caught up to the ideas. Ferraro believes that Web 2.0 will completely rearrange the hierarchical structure of companies. “You’re going from a horizontal organization to a vertical one,” he says. “If you’re a CEO in Atlanta, you’re never going to meet one of your dock workers in Louisiana. But that dock worker might have good ideas that would benefit the company globally. Online collaboration tools provide a forum for the everyday worker to be maximized within the organization. It’s changing the entire corporate communication structure.”
John Newton, the CTO and chairman of Alfresco, concurs, and he takes Ferraro’s point a step further. Not only does web-based collaboration change the way companies behave on the inside, he says, it also changes the way businesses interact with the outside world. “Results of these new technologies are that people in the enterprise are actually using the internal enterprise system as well as external systems. They’re using outside blogs to find out what’s going on in the industry and what’s being said about the company. They’re using references on Wikipedia to gain and share insight. They’re looking at connections to people on Facebook as a way of gaining insight into their habits and behaviors. In short, they’re using socialization as a powerful tool. And it blurs the lines between internal and external systems. Content management inside the enterprise won’t go away. But the notion of collaboration, which was more inward looking in the ’90s, is becoming much more outward looking today.”
Adapting to Adaptability
Web Crossing, a provider of online collaboration applications used by internet communities, social networks, and project teams, has long subscribed to the notion that these groups should eat their own dog food—that is, they should use the products that they make. “In order to make our product the best that it can be, we should be using it constantly,” says Michael Krieg, VP of sales and marketing.
Krieg describes a recent weekend when he was hiking in the woods, far away from his email. When he got back, he found that a co-worker had initiated an online discussion in one of the company forums about changes in tech support policy—an issue that Krieg was inclined to weigh in on. In a 2.0 world, such discussions can be initiated on a Saturday morning and no one has to worry that they’ll miss them. “If that discussion had taken place on the phone,” Krieg says, “I would have been completely out of the loop.”
The company’s product WebCrossing Neighbors provides a private-labeled social network, including personal spaces and groups, in addition to blogging, online discussion forums, and other capabilities. It includes all of those features you’d expect to find in a product hoping to capitalize on collaborative technology, and Krieg allows that it may take a while to distill it into its most functional and efficient parts.
“The big thing to say about Neighbors,” Krieg says, “is that while we certainly have a short-term vision, we don’t know the long term any more than anyone else does. This is a turn on a dime kind of industry. We look at this as a process. We can see the path in the near term, but in the long term we really can’t, and we defy anyone else to make an accurate prediction.” In the meantime, Krieg says that Web Crossing is keeping an eye on how people use its tools and is constantly thinking about what the next phase of development will be.