Collaboration as a Service – How Time Flies

It’s been a while since what we call “Software as a Service” was introduced. Would you believe 60 years? Yes, when time-sharing mainframes became available to academia and corporations – at quite a price for the day – we saw the first glimpse of what we now use, buy from, develop for, and bet our companies on every day.

It is on this foundation, and the introduction of the World Wide Web in 1993, that organizations of all kinds began to get serious about team collaboration. After the “personal productivity” era that had spanned 20 years before, organizations of all kinds began to embrace the concept of working together, just more virtually. Early entrants into the team collaboration space included solutions from IBM®, Intuit® and Microsoft®. This ‘90s-born groundswell of interest in team productivity – workflow, security, task and calendar sharing – created opportunities for software companies to add collaboration features to their network and client-server offerings.

As the market evolved and companies came and went, we experienced a settling of collaboration services into three general classifications:

Pure Collaboration

Following a decade of communications-based collaboration (primarily instant messaging and email) came web-based team “spaces.” Teams work asynchronously or real-time in spaces or applications online, with secure content, document sharing, tasks, shared calendars, and light workflow. (ex: Lotus Quickr, Microsoft SharePoint, IBM Connections, Jive, Google Groups)

Functional Collaboration

Industry or job-specific functions, customizable to a company’s specific needs, yet with “purpose-fit” parameters, core features and user roles (ex: Salesforce.com, IBM Kenexa, Plex)

Flexible Collaboration

An online platform, or workspace, that serves different purposes to different audiences, even in the same application space. Implements and consumes collaboration “services” such as messaging, workflow, security, self-service attributes, and information visualization. Implements APIs for integration and “developers didn’t envision that” customizations (ex: Intuit QuickBase, IBM Domino)

Of course, there are extensions to all of the above that allow them to defy classification or be compared across categories. As well, integration between and amongst the collaboration platforms available in the cloud is quite possible (for instance, surfacing a report from QuickBase in Connections, or using the Connections profile business card across platforms). These efforts range from simple to highly complex, but shouldn’t be dismissed as impossible.

My take is that there will continue to be opportunities for growth in all three segments, but another dynamic will drive development and evolution of them all – the increased emphasis on and acceptance of these solutions in the cloud. Hence, we will see more solutions introduced or repositioned as “Collaboration as a Service.” While some solutions were actually “born there,” others still have to undergo major adjustments and growing pains in order to properly address the imperatives of both cloud computing and use as an extranet. When enterprise solutions undergo these pains to evolve, unfortunately, so do their customers. However there may be a way to ease that suffering for customers, by providing strategy advice in addition to simply hosting solutions.

Win-Win

When searching for an online collaboration service, it is critical not only to assess basic capabilities, but also to understand where in the evolution from “internal to external” focus the solutions fall. Interactions with corporate directories, firewall sensitivities, security protocols, data schemas, network bandwidth, contracting dynamics and APIs all play a part in understanding the readiness of a given solution for a given purpose and audience. In collaboration strategy, this is called governance – and it dovetails with cultural assessment, adoption strategy and integration strategy.

As Collaboration as a Service evolves and “grows up” in the coming years, we can expect organizations to get more comfortable with team collaboration being managed outside the firewall as the major players make their adjustments to meet evolving demands. With economies of scale, providers can earn profits, but with attention to the cultural, adoption, governance, and integration needs of their customers, providers – either directly or through their business partner networks – can earn something even more precious – loyalty and respect.

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Rob Novak

Rob Novak is president and CEO of SNAPPS, a consulting firm focused on collaboration strategy and technology since 1997. The firm specializes in team collaboration enablement and business process improvement using technology from IBM, Apple and Intuit. Rob has co-authored or edited five books on IBM technology, spoken more than 400 times at industry conferences, and written numerous articles and essays on collaboration in his 25 years in the industry. He holds two masters degrees, completed his doctoral course work, and has produced twelve educational conferences under the name Collaboration University. Under the TeamAnywhere brand, Rob and his team offer Software as a Service (SaaS) applications and consulting with Intuit QuickBase as the primary platform, providing business solutions and integration to clients worldwide.

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