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Social networking changing face of collaboration

Experts, users say evolution is taking shape

An infusion of social software is helping fuel an evolution of enterprise collaboration that will eventually give users more flexible and distributed tools for finding, organizing and sharing data, according to a conference of experts exploring the topic.

The evaluation of data explosion and how to harness its value was under examination on the opening day of Defrag 2008, a conference focused on making sense of the volumes of information that individuals, groups and organization are trying to digest.

"We are starting to see a more analytical view of how collaboration and social interaction goes on," said Bruce Henry, who holds the unique title of director of rocket science at Liquid Planner, which offers hosted project management tools.

Speaking on a panel of experts looking at the ways collaboration is changing, Henry says previously people worked in the same building, in similar cubes and on the same set of tools, but today those workers are distributed as are the teams they work on and the data they need.

The dynamic is a natural fit for social software, which helps pull together people and layers of perhaps unrelated data into something that can be defined as knowledge.

"With this different way people work we are getting a picture of how collaboration really works not the myth of how collaboration works."

The idea is that rigid tools deployed to work in mandated ways will give rise to a class of applications that are bound only by the number of ways workers can devise to use them. Those tools include blogs, wikis, tagging, bookmarking, social messaging, profiles, and other social software that facilitates conversation and weaves together people and information.

Some see these tools mixed with traditional corporate applications to create a whole new avenue to information and sharing.

"Going forward what I expect to see is a collaborative canvas across all these disconnected [enterprise] apps that takes advantage of distributed architecture and SOA infrastructure and fuels some great benefits in productivity," said Aaron Fulkerson, CEO of MindTouch, an open source company that offers wiki-based collaboration tools that brings together data from corporate data repositories.

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He says the tools will provide flexibility in that they give non-developers tools to build simple to sophisticated collaborative applications without the help of developers.

Fulkerson says that option is empowering to end-users. He says one MindTouch customer told him he received a pay raise because his bosses now think he is a developer.

But Fulkerson admits this is not a reinvention of collaboration rather its evolution.

"It's never brand new in technology," he says. "It's making it easier, better, and more accessible. That is what we are doing."

End-users are responding to the trend, but admit the roll-up won't be overnight.

"What I see is a brave new world for corporate America but that corporate cultures have to change," says Abigail Lewis-Bowen, who is helping a product and pharmaceutical company tie social networking tools into its existing collaboration platform.

"There is a lot of myth and fear," Lewis-Bowen said. "It is not the technology but how to set it up and use it. There is a lot of education."

She says many companies cemented in their work processes need "a certain amount of therapy to be open and communicative" in the ways provided by social software.

In her own organization, she is hoping it will take only a year or two to "see significant changes in the way people communicate and function."

But she says one big hurdle is already cleared in that her organization realizes these changes in collaboration are happening and that they can be beneficial. And the most important development is that the company is reacting. Lewis-Bowen, in fact, was brought on board to help lead the evolution.

Vendors agree that users need to start slow and build a solid foundation in order to set themselves up for success in marrying social tools and current collaborative platforms.

"People really need to understand how something like a wiki can change collaboration internally before they move on to some of the pie-in-the-sky stuff," says Jay Simons, vice president of marketing for Atlassian, which develops enterprise wiki software.

"It is important to establish a solid foundation on how people work. If you don't, it becomes a missed opportunity because it gets harder to achieve some of the higher order things."