Wanted: A Collaboration Architecture for the Enterprise
You would never think we find ourselves in the middle of a downturn if you hear the enthusiasm with which people promote and discuss everything related to collaboration in the enterprise. If you have doubts about it, check out the recap of last week’s Voiceon in Orlando here.There you have it: collaboration is en vogue. Only 2 years ago, the vision was Unified Communications (UC), now it is all about collaboration architecture. And moreover, collaboration is one of those topics that everybody can relate to — at this point in time, we have all enjoyed a variety of technologies and tools that allow us to reach out to people we work with in better, richer ways. We have been visually vowed by TelePresence, we have connected with people we know on social networks, we have contributed to wikis, we have written blogs, we have laughed at the latest youtube video a colleague distributed, we have joined web conferences, we have shared online workspaces — you name it. So the collaboration discussion is often about what worked and what didn’t work for us, and about consuming the next collaboration service.And there is merit in discussing the human communication aspect of collaboration — of course it is a key part of the discussion. But let us not kid ourselves — enterprises are not looking into collaboration because they want employees to have more fun and richer experiences. You can rest assured CEOs, CFOs and CIOs are sitting together in one room thoughtfully scratching their chins, going “Look here, if I align all this stuff optimally with my business processes, I can squeeze massive productivity gains out of my resources (aka employees)”. Because yes, by extending the reach of the enterprise with innovative tools employees can more effectively reach other employees, customers or partners and drive business processes forward from anywhere, and do so much faster. But this is easier said than done. If new collaboration tools are simply rolled out without much thought to the specific purposes they serve, then all we are doing is rolling out new application silos in the enterprise. For those who manage to successfully keep up to the minute on their blogs, their twittering, their email, their voicemail, their workspaces, their social networks, and their traditional enterprise tools — more power to them. But if you are like me, you’ll sometimes feel you are precariously balancing too many tools, and doing what is known as swivel chair process integration: moving from one silo to the next. Sometimes wondering what your password for one of your many identities is. Sometimes wrestling with the different user interfaces the different applications provide you with. Sometimes discovering your corporate IT department has decided to not support the particular version of the browser or browser-add-on you need to see information that is being shared by others in real time. Let’s make it clear: we already have enough application silos in the enterprise, and the last thing we need is for collaboration to introduce additional ones. So as we talk collaboration, we should be very aware that what we really need to build in the enterprise is a cohesive collaboration architecture. Now, we all know that pretty much everything under the sun can be called an architecture. So let us consult IEEE Standard 1471-2000, which states that “architecture is the fundamental organization of a system embodied in its components, their relationships to each other, the environment, and the principle guiding its design and evolution”. And this is how the subject of collaboration ends up on the table of the Enterprise Architect. Enterprise architects are the thinkers in the enterprise that bring strict methodology (for example, look at TOGAF as an example of an EA Framework) in order to bring structure into what initially may seem unstructured, complex, multi-dimensional problems. And that is the perfect tool to bring to the table when implementing a collaboration architecture in the enterprise. I will not make this blog entry even longer by trying to provide a high level intro into Enterprise Architecture. If you have the time to read through 30 pages or so, read our Collaboration Blueprint, which represents an early attempt to look at collaboration applying the principles of Enterprise Architecture. Instead, just let me say that I think we talk too much about collaboration as if it were synonymous with more and more new communication tools. And it is not. Enterprise collaboration is the process of dramatically accelerating business processes by leveraging all enterprise resources (employees, partners, data, applications and many more) wherever they are, whenever they are needed, in whatever way happens to be optimal from a contextual point of view. The business process does not consist of people chatting or twittering or blogging — the business process is about actors gathering, sharing and transforming information. Bring the actors together faster, wherever they are. Give them access and the tools that are optimized to process data. And optimally align this with the business process. Make sure all your collaboration services are build as reusable entities that can be easily orchestrated and mashed up, and can be combined into a consistent user experience.It sounds easy. But we are just now starting to build the technology foundation for this vision of a collaboration architecture for the enterprise as an industry. Truly, when we talk about collaboration architecture it is not unlike talking about nuclear fission. We know the principles, but the road there has not yet been paved. Getting there will be an exciting time of discovery, or trial and error, and ultimately we will revolutionize the way we work every day. It will be a combination of exciting new technology with proven best practices. To wrap up this blog, let me share an inspiring video a collague sent my way this week: Stand by Me – see what happens when people are able to share data in a universal language (the music and song) and each can add their very own expertise to enrich the product, wherever they are, with whatever tools are available to them? It’s a powerful way to illustrate the power of combined global expertise – on the fly innovation.