Process + Collaboration = The Enterprise Wave

ActionBase 6.1 is just being announced, as is the first large large beta of of Google Wave. For those unfamilar with Google Wave it is Google’s new email paradigm for consumers – a combination of email, instant messaging and documents. We have been doing something similar since version 5.6, but on a Microsoft Office, Outllook (and Sharepoint) base for the enterprise. Since we have been playing with Google Wave I thought now would be a good time to look at Google Wave from an enterprise perspective.

Enterprise collaboration and tools to support it have been mainstream for about a decade now, with portals, intranets and shared workspaces being some of the primary options IT provides to information workers specifically to support collaboration. However, at least to date, none have made a dent in displacing the primary enterprise collaboration tool for information workers: e-mail.

There are many reasons for the primacy of e-mail as a collaboration (ubiquity, familiarity, flexibility, end-user control), but in an enterprise setting, one key reason is that collaboration between information workers is usually in support of a work process. Since e-mail is also the primary tool for process execution for information workers, it makes sense that it is also the main tool for collaboration.

So even though almost every enterprise has special purpose solutions available for collaboration and process management, good old e-mail always ends up being the  primary method for both collaboration and processes in the enterprise.  This is the “dirty little secret” of enterprise collaboration and processes tools. In the enterprise, e-mail is everywhere; everyone uses it and it is the lowest common denominator that every information worker loves to hate, but couldn’t live without. Studies show e-mail is the only application  information workers use on an hourly basis. 

Google Wave is an excting new look at email. Like many other technologies that started in the consumer space, I believe it will create a real push to create enterprise tools that combine collaboration and (unstructured) process management. By building on the  familiar e-mail metaphor of ad-hoc collaboration, asynchronous messaging and responses it enables the creation of a class of  “business email” (e.g. ActionMail in our ActionBase Human Process Managment System). The capability of  keeping track of the complete conversational context between the participants means there is no need to peruse one’s inbox to find all the relevant conversations. The context of the conversation is kept in a single place, and can be replayed when needed. In an enterprise setting, the cognitive overhead associated with the need for participants to reconstruct context when responding to an e-mail is one big factor in e-mail overload. Another benefit is that documents are always current. All the participants are always using the same version of documents – solving another enterprise issue with regular email, where finding the right version of an attached document is another factor in email overload.

Google Wave is a consumer oriented product.  The functionality is great, but to make significant inroads into the enterprise it will need to morph sigificantly. Here is my list of what would be needed:

  1. Full integration with email. The functionality needs to be more tightly integrated with regular email.
  2. Outlook and Office integration. Let’s face it –if you are in an enterprise you use either MS Outlook and Office as your email and documents platforms – or perhaps Lotus (and probably MS Office). If it isn’t built on those platforms, it just won’t fly in the enterprise.
  3. An explicit process orientation. Enterprise collaboration usually takes place in support of a work process, and there needs to be a way to provide the process context for the collaboration (e.g. an ongoing audit, a response to an RFP, a fraud investigation). There also needs to be standard, structured ways for participants to add standard process status information (e.g. complete, declined) to the email.
  4. Links to other systems. This is related to the process orientation. There needs to be a way to link with other enterprise systems (document management systems, CRM systems etc) related to the process. This also requires that there be a way to add structured data to the collaboration (for linkage to those tools).
  5. Governance and security. In an enterprise setting, not everyone is equal. You need a robust governance system that understands who each user is and how much access they have, and ties into the existing access control systems.
  6. Tracking and monitoring. This is both to allow the enterprise to learn from the collaborations and the process, and to enable an audit trail of the work done.
  7. Robust Reporting. Enterprises need reports (and links to the BI system)  Enterprises need the ability to generate personal reports, departmental reports and executive reports from the tracking and monitoring information, which requires structured access to collaboration and process information.

Our ActionBase  6.1 announcement brings us even closer to our goal of being the enterprise  solution for collaboration and (unstructured) process management.  The biggest new feature is the ability for participants in the process to have a real-time, bird’s-eye view of the current state of the process. This new feature, along with our hierarchy model for business processes ensures process-related discussions remain associated with their original context, significantly reducing e-mail overload. ActionMail (our version collaborative e-mail) simplifies process-related search and follow-up by providing end-to-end process visibility, including all related attachments and history, as well as a full audit trail and change history of all changes made throughout the interaction between the participants. Of course, as in all our previous versions – the system provides enterprise level reporting, governance and security. All this within the familiar Microsoft Office, Outlook (and Sharepoint) environment.

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One Response to “Process + Collaboration = The Enterprise Wave”

  1. Library clips :: Have we been doing Enterprise 2.0 in reverse : Socialising processes and Adaptive Case Management :: July :: 2010 Says:

    […] not leave out both Google Wave and Activities on Lotus Connections, which also focus on ad-hoc work, and the idea of Activity […]

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