Steven Westwell’s blog

My outlook on a few things of interest to me, and hopefully you.

Archive for March, 2008

Differences between social and workplace technologies

Posted by Steven Westwell on March 27, 2008

I was glad to see that my previous post provoked an interesting article by David, a good friend of mine who’s blog you can find in my blogroll. David posted an article on fractured online identities.

David made some valid points on the drawbacks of many social networking sites in the public domain, which in turn triggered another essay of an entry by myself on what differentiates public and workplace targetted implementation of social & collaborative technologies.

I will apologies in advance for using both facebook and sharepoint as examples, they are both platforms I am familiar with, and in many cases I will only be using these as illustrations of the points I am making.

One of Dave’s key points that I would like to talk about is the walled and closed off communities that online social networking sites employ and the fragmentation of your online identity by the creation of accounts on each of these. In the workplace this is less of an issue, Active Directory and identity management systems tend to be used to ensure the integrity of an employee’s identity within the workplace systems.  If we then treat each company as a walled community, federation of services allows other trusted company’s to utilise these identities and overcome such problems.

A good example of this is the federation between the company I work for and a partner company, if I log into my corporate instant messaging client (Office Communicator) I can add users from within my own company and that of the partner. When using sharepoint on projects using resources from both companies all of the user information is consistent. 

-If you are using both Office Communicator and SharePoint then you also get embedded presence information and a multitude of communication options, I will cover these in another post soon on Unified Communications which will be the real successor to my previous post.-

There are many ways in which the above one true identity goal has been attempted within the public domain, Microsoft Live IDs (also known as xbox live and MSN Passport), OpenID etc…

However, many social networking sites choose not to use these… why? lets begin with our facebook example:

I would imagine facebook makes a significant amount of revenue from its advertising and application partners, the latter I am uncertain of, but it’s easy enough to spot the facebook applications which actually charge money for features (i.e. the gift application that costs $1 per gift).

So lets focus on the advertising, a typical business model for many websites.

In order for a social networking site to make money from advertising it must have a known userbase of people that will actually see the ads, a simple way to do this is to monitor the number of users you have in your community… and how do you implicitly increase this number? by making anyone who wants to use your site or access the information on your site create a new account, its a lot easier than analysing your web logs.

Great, another login you need to remember, but another statistic for selling adspace: “We have a userbase of X and are growing at Y% each month… wouldnt you like to advertise your products against people with Z in their list of interests?”

So couldn’t social networking sites leverage unified identities? sure, some probably do, even beyond Microsofts own live spaces which integrate in the same way across all Live services (xbox live, live mail, live messenger, live spaces etc…). You only need to create a single list of your interests and when you create a new account on a social networking site and grant permission for the site to pull this information from your identity provider of choice, fantastic.

I can only see a few drawbacks to this ideal, firstly competition between identity vendors, secondly, their adoption by social networking (and other) sites and finally user adoption… the average non techy user who makes up the majority of the internet, who may only log onto a computer in their home once or two times a week… would they know about or care to use such an identity provider, when at the time in question they only want to use one website that all their friends are talking about.  In a couple of months maybe they will want to use a different one instead? if they wanted to use another site would they want to be seen as the same person? or would they want a new alter ego? what if a friend invites you to view something on a site they are signed up to, but you do not trust the site with your contact information… do you want to give it access to your information? and what if your identity provider dissapears off the web?

I personally have two distinct identities, my professional identity and my personal one. A good example of this is that I have two Live Messenger accounts, one for talking with colleagues and one for communicating with friends and family. I can turn the personal one off when at work to ensure I do not get messages during meetings with clients about which pub we will be going to that night.

– I will be covering this further in the next UC post mentioned earlier, control and appropriate methods of communication that is… not which pub we are going to tonight… we’ll be deciding that over sushi later-

Within the workplace, the IT department will typically pick a platform for collaborating.  From a knowledge management perspective it makes sense to unify your information sources, even if you use best of breed platforms at each level, some cohesion between the products is desirable.

To allow multiple platforms with the same functionality and/or dispersed collaboration environments would complicate things greatly… where do you go for that critical information? how many different places do you have to learn to go as a new joiner to the company? which geography and user groups are using what technologies/servers/sites? some world class products still retain this problem if inefficiently implemented.

Thats why companies invest in technologies such as Microsoft Office SharePoint Server to pull together your corporate repositories that are created with more readily a cheaply available software like the Windows SharePoint Services component of Windows Server 2003/2008 or even smb network shares… The single corporate identity makes this possible, permissions and access levels are retained across systems and your single point of entry is smart enough to filter what you see accordingly regardless of source.

In my opinion the roles of technology in the workplace are better defined, Windows SharePoint Services can be used to create and generate information, Microsoft Office SharePoint Server acts as a portal that pulls together your information into a one stop shop, outlook acts as a think client viewer of your portal or content source to keep the important aspects at your fingertips, RSS is always present to grease the wheels of interoperability… how are these defined outside of the workspace?

Facebook attempts to cover most of these, an individual creates content, the home page provides you with a portal view of all of your friends and your email client / facebook inbox acts as your receptical for messages.  These are all determined by the facebook website and there is no seperation of functionality, there are only a few slight hints at interoperability with RSS feeds for notifications and status updates.

At least in the corporate environment this architecture is determined and planned, technologies evaluated and functionality chosen to suit the needs of the business, a known user group… hardly the be everything to everyone approach online communities are attempting in order to grow the userbase and drive ad revenue.

In my previous post I glossed over the public networks where possible, and used it purely as an example of evolution of the users mindset and acceptance of change, It is a very different game to the corporate environment.

I think a common theme in both Davids post and my own is user adoption is critical to the success of any implementation, be that driven by fad or training. Implementation of a technology will not ensure success within the workplace, users must be willing to accept change, be trained appropriately and it helps if they have a reason to use it… how does it directly make their life easier when they embrace it?

Hopefully I can provide some examples of the latter in future blog posts.

Regards,

Steven

upcoming posts:

Unified Communications: Choosing the right method of communication

Collaboration: Excel V SharePoint (i) with custom views, concurrent editing & notifications

Collaboration: Excel V SharePoint (ii) with workflow, RSS and Outlook integration

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Isnt it odd…

Posted by Steven Westwell on March 26, 2008

…how some people check facebook more than email these days.

It’s a good thing from my professional point of view, but this is quickly becoming a blog post rather than the short facebook message I was about to send a friend.

More and more I find myself communicating with friends via facebook / social networking platform of choice or by reading RSS feeds from their blogs, or by a combination of both: http://www.facebook.com/help.php?page=23.

From a collaboration point of view, the indirect dissemination of information is fantastic, typically emails are only sent to those the sender thinks wants to see it, however with well constructed social networking platforms the readers can also choose to be told about such things happening in their relevant circles of interest. The obvious benefit of this is that the content is also readily available on a website rather than having to ask someone to forward an email.

Socially this change has been happening for some time, I rarely check my personal emails as most of the time I am contacted through IM or some social networking site that I check via RSS.

How soon is this to being reality for businesses? Microsoft being one of the biggest players in the workspace / productivity arena are making some distinct paths into this approach, SharePoint as a platform is extremely flexible, provides RSS feeds and readers by default and places much more control in the hands of users rather than that of the webmasters, allowing much more relevant content to be disseminated as described above.  Outlook 2007 now has an RSS reader built in, and various other interesting ways to view sharepoint content. 

Note: I am trying really hard at this point not to list out all the extremely cool functionality of both these product sets.

I know there are other players out there, but again, I do not want to go into too much depth and this point and wish to use MS as an example that almost everyone out there has heard of, and most have used MS Office in some shape or form.

So as we now enter the era of Windows Vista (with the release of SP1) and Office 2007 (well, why not if you are upgrading the OS?) will we see more and more take up of alternative communication methods? Probably, but this will not mean the end of email.

Growth of IM in the business is almost a certainty, as happened in the homes of many some time ago. 

Adoption of social platform like intranets, most probably, as we can see happening in peoples homes right now with blogs like these and the massive amounts of social networking users on facebook, myspace, live spaces, bebo, etc…

Email will more than likely than not stay on the table, and the previously mentioned alternatives should certainly not be viewed as replacements, they are complimentary products that provide more options that may often be better suited to the type of communication required for a given purpose than that of a typical email.

One of my biggest bugbears is the emailing of large documents and especially spreadsheets around a project team to “collaborate”, when web based workspaces are available that allow concurrent editing and dynamic viewing.

Again to use the Microsoft example, Excel spreadsheets -> SharePoint Lists.

There are some key benefits to converting excel spreadsheets to a sharepoint list when collecting information from several people, the lists can still be exported to excel for more advanced reporting options, but within sharepoint the concurrent editing, multiple views, event triggers and workflow type behaviour (and even RSS feeds of changes!) add a huge amount of functionality, especially when these types of documents are related to ongoing business processes.

I could even be monitoring all of this from outlook 2007 right alongside my email.

Once (and if) a final set of data has been created, I might IM the large file to a manager, or Email the file to a customer if I need a formal record and proof that it has been sent / received, and also allows for interoperability should they not be using IM or collaborative workspaces.

The signs are all positive that this will happen, and soon we will find those who have grown up with such technologies will easily and readily adopt them in a professional capacity, and greatly enhance their productivity.

Personally, I find this an exciting prospect and I begin to wonder what is next? what new toy will the next generation grow up with that will some day end up in the workplace? what technologies will make some everyday tasks practically dissapear and allow us to spend even more time delving into the important value add activities that hopefully offer some level of personal gratification, reduced learning curves due to wealth and structure of knowledge available.  According to Time Management courses I attended in the past, this could potentially offer reduced stress, better enjoyment of work and ongoing job satisfaction.

I’m sold 🙂

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