The future of enterprise collaboration

I have just finished talking to a group of university students who were invited to IBM Hursley today. I had about 15 minutes to discuss Enterprise Collaboration, and I used the time to take a quick tour through IBM’s size, diversity and organisation, and talked about how the way I operate has changed since I got engaged in blogging internally four years ago, and how I “broke through” the firewall.

Towards the beginning of the talk, I asked three questions to get some group discussion going, and asked the students to shout out some answers. Here’s a summary of the responses.

1. What kinds of tools do you think enterprises use to communicate internally today?
“Skype”, “online meetings”, “MSN” (email and phone came right at the end of the list)

2. What kinds of tools would you like to use in a work environment?
“Facebook”, “Skype”

3. Is it a good idea, or appropriate, to communicate and share through firewalls?
“It’s important, for networking”, “companies could have their own version of Facebook internally”

I didn’t seed any of these responses! Very interesting… I think I’d expected the answers to question 1 to be email, wiki, blog etc., but those are all old school (and possibly, irrelevant) as far as this group was concerned. I guess the outcome of this entirely unscientific survey will be old news to some people, but I found it fascinating.

Update 17th June:
Thanks for all the interest in this post! I should just reiterate that this is not new news – as @andysc said to me after the talk yesterday, the idea that “email is how I communicate with my parents” is as commonplace as the idea that some of us may have had that “snail mail is how we communicated with our grandparents”. The point here is about the expectation of speed of spread of technology within corporations. I found it a very interesting perspective, although I guess I’d half-expected some of the answers. I just hadn’t expected the “old tech” to be buried so far down in the consciousness. But then, when I left university, web browsers were just emerging and I had a desktop email client at home, but yet I suddenly found myself at work using a green-screen terminal emulator to access what was, to my mind at the time, a hideously hard-to-use mail system called MEMO which required the use of line-editing commands.

One other point, given my own interest in these two technology spaces – Andy C asks below about microblogging, and I certainly mentioned our use of these tools internally and externally, but it didn’t seem to be on the students’ radar; secondly, I spoke about attending meetings in virtual worlds and the relative effectiveness compared to a teleconference, but again that didn’t come up as an idea in the responses to the questions at the start. So it seems (again, based on a highly unscientific study of a limited pool of London MSc Management students) that the technologies that are “expected” in the enterprise are those that have reached widespread consumer adoption outside it.

16 thoughts on “The future of enterprise collaboration”

  1. What do they mean when they say skype? Voice? Maybe they see phone as important, just that voip is the delivery vehicle?

  2. They mean, Skype. “Voice over IP” and “IP phones” were listed separately, also ahead of an actual telephone. So, interesting how the branding has entered the consciousness.

  3. although I do consider myself of the Facebook generation, it gets more and more unavoidable for companies to seriously facilitate in this new way of collaborating.

    great post!

    1. Not by the students, no. I certainly mentioned microblogging and Twitter later in my presentation (I was careful not to mention specific technologies before asking the questions, to avoid seeding ideas), and the previous speaker had talked about Twitter in particular, and other blogs in general, very extensively – interestingly, neither came out in the answers to my questions.

  4. Interesting. I wonder if their perception was that µblogging is too trivial and banal to have a place in the ‘Enterprise’ ?

    1. Mmm. Now you’re making me wish I’d dug deeper, but it was just one of those quick “talking point” questions and I had a limited timeslot. We did establish in the earlier presentation that very few of them had tried Twitter. I got the impression that maybe they hadn’t thought about it enough to form that level of judgement, it wasn’t as much a part of their online world as e.g. Skype, MSN Messenger and Facebook have become. Just a thought, you could be equally right.

      If any of the students who came to my talk today happen across this post (having remembered my blog URL!) maybe you could share your thoughts! 🙂

  5. In a recent conference I made in Paris some of them told me that they only use email with people they don’t care about!!! With people they like they prefer to use SMS, MSN, Skype, Twitter, Facebook… Doing so they have an instant feedback in communication with email they send and don’t pay more attention on what will come next. If you consider that email is the most important communication tool you understand that orgs are going to have a huge problem to face soon.

  6. For background info:
    the students were aged 20-something (estimate 22-24 years old) postgraduate MSc Management students… – from a London business school.

    I believe that Andy’s chat served to open up their eyes to the wealth of resources that can facilitate collaboration & innovation within the enterprise (and across organisations/companies too). Whilst Social Networks are normally covered in the academic curriculum – I suspect that insufficient emphasis is made on introducing this as a living experience, to support collaborative learning and to instil a social fabric in the upcoming graduate recruits… – although nothing quite beats first-hand professional endorsement from the likes of Andy!

    re: Andy’s response at 22.22 – and you leave such things to chance…? 😉

    1. Thanks for the prod, Al. I wouldn’t be very connected with social software and wouldn\’t be a very good host of the Dogear Nation podcast if I’d not heard of Wave or seen the video – but thanks for the link. It is, of course, awesomely cool stuff to look at and to think about the possibilities it offers.

      So here\’s my thinking. Here I had a group of students who expected Skype, IM and online meetings to be commonplace in the enterprise by now, when we all know that phone and email are probably still the predominant methods of communication. Online meetings are reasonably common, but I’d say that IM is still emerging, and whilst much voice traffic is routed over IP networks, it’s not in the context of the rich audio/video/file and screensharing/IM integration provided by Skype. Social software, blogs, wikis etc are still largely on the leading edge and not in widespread internal use, in my perception.

      So – when Wave drops, will every company drop what they are doing and rush to adopt it? Doubtful. I believe it is likely to take a number of years for that kind of innovation to be adopted.

  7. Interesting post. I’ve done similar questions about what tools students use, but your questions brought out another aspect: expectation. I think students still believe that most enterprises are ahead of their schools in use of technology. All students may not be big time users of the social technologies (and especially not Twitter – Facebook seems to have more traction) but they certainly expect to be able to use them. They will face a rude awakening when they realize that 1) most of their new colleagues don’t use the tools and instead live in their inboxes and 2) they won’t be able to either because the sites and protocols are blocked in firewalls and proxies.

    Sitting in boring meetings to share information, and playing phone tag to find answers hidden away in peoples’ heads still counts as work, but using social tools to collaborate, and find and share skills does not.

  8. As an avid IM user over may years I was surprised to see you refer to blogging and wiki’s as too old. I remember VP Buddy over 10 years ago as my first introduction to IM at work. I’ve been hooked ever since and it is my primary communication tool (and has been forever). I don’t think IM is any newer than blogs or wikis. Perhaps the issue is that blogs and wiki’s are often a broadcast medium, and does not allow for a good and dynamic interaction. Perhaps this is why twitter is so popular, it nicely balances the immediacy of IM with the blogging concept in a way that isn’t too intrusive.

  9. The students are mostly using social software to communicate with eachother rather than to collaborate. As students they’re judged by what they produce as individuals rather than as a group, so drawing a straight line out of educational software usage patterns to future enterprise software use seems wrong to me.

    What is apparent is that an expectation of unbounded communication exists within the facebook generation, which will work towards those sorts of changes within enterprises that can take up to a generation to come about. It’s a constant revolution that requires a churn of influential people as well as of ideas.

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