The Future of Collaborative Networks

by Ostatic Staff - Jun. 05, 2009

Aaron Fulkerson is co-founder and CEO of MindTouch, which has grown from a small open source project into a very popular collaboration platform that enables users to connect and customize enterprise systems, social tools and web services. With millions of users, MindTouch is deployed by many large companies, including Microsoft, Fujitsu, Siemens, Intel, The Washington Post, and others. We asked Aaron for a short series of guest posts here on OStatic, on the topic of where collaborative networks are headed. You'll find his first post here.

The Future of Collaborative Networks

By Aaron Fulkerson, Co-Founder and CEO, MindTouch

Enterprise software has been on a roller coaster of innovation in recent years. This has primarily been driven by innovations in user experience that started in the consumer web space and then seeped into the enterprise. This new class of enterprise software, dubbed social business software, intends to create enterprise social networks and deliver new social tools for creating conversations and providing one to one interactions.

Vendors of this social software have repurposed social media tools from the consumer web by wrapping them in an enterprise message. Suddenly social networks, social bookmarking, forums, blogs, video sharing and microblogging are the new path to productivity. Alas, it has become all too clear that individually these applications have not delivered for the enterprise in a meaningful way. As a result the industry has seen a bevy of enterprise social software suite vendors returning to the 1990s with product development that is driven by feature checklists.

"Social profiles: check. Friending: check. Blogs: check. Tagging: check...." This approach to software development does not work. The resulting application suites are monolithic, inflexible, not extensible, expensive to scale and are invariably difficult, if not impossible, to integrate with other enterprise technologies. This class of software forces business users to adopt the myopic social visions imagined by the developers, which are nearly identical to their corresponding consumer web implementations. In short, social software is not solving business problems. In fact, these applications only serve to treat symptoms of the problems businesses face. They exacerbate the real problems within businesses by creating distractions and, worse, proliferate more disconnected data and application silos.

Rather than focusing on socialization, one to one interactions and individual enrichment, businesses must be concerned with creating an information fabric within their organizations. This information fabric is a federation of content from the multiplicity of data and application silos utilized on a daily basis; such as, ERP, CRM, file servers, email, databases, web-services infrastructures, etc. When you make this information fabric easy to edit between groups of individuals in a dynamic, secure, governed and real-time manner, it creates a Collaborative Network.

This is very different from social networks or social software, which is focused entirely on enabling conversations. Collaborative Networks are focused on groups accessing and organizing data into actionable formats that enable decision making, collaboration and reuse. Collaborative Networks will increasingly be critically important to business and organizations by helping to establish a culture of innovation and by delivering operational excellence. Compare the consumer-oriented social networking benefits on the left below, with the group/business oriented ones on the right:

Social Networks' Characteristics Collaborative Networks' Characteristics
One to one Group to group
Social interaction centered Objective and content centered
Achieving personal objectives Achieving group objectives
Individual enrichment Operational excellence
Results immeasurable Results measurable

Businesses deploying Collaborative Networks will be at a distinct advantage in their markets. That said, social software products do serve a purpose. They have clearly been wildly popular with the media and analysts. Indeed, most of us value social media tools in our personal and professional lives for aiding us in connecting with friends and colleagues as well as more easily disseminating information. Social media technologies have been revolutionary in the consumer web space and are useful in creating engaging online communities. However, isolated pockets of socialization within business bring little value to the organization as a whole. Businesses have far different problems to solve than those addressed by social software. Compare the social software missives on the left below with the group/collaborative-oriented ones on the right:

Social Networks Solve Collaborative Networks Solve
Who wants to meet at the club? Who can give me access to financials, market reports and customer profiling?
What's your favorite Mexican restaurant? What are the expectations of this project?
Why did they unfollow me? Why did we see a drop in Q3 revenue?
Dude, where is the company picnic? I thought we already did this work, where are those documents?
How was "Casablanca"? How do we cut costs and increase revenue?

Now the big question is, how do you implement a Collaborative Network? What are strategies and best practices? What technologies and design patterns are best suited? What are real world enterprise success stories? And how do you measure success? I am going to address these questions in a series of posts with technical insights and case studies. Suffice to say, Collaborative Networks in the enterprise will undoubtedly be as indispensable as e-mail and telephones are to us today.