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Enterprise collaboration tools from consumer market

Zeus Kerravala

Despite IT departments' best attempts to limit the use of consumer technologies, rogue employees still find ways to bring consumer tools such as Skype and AIM into their organisations to augment corporate applications. Attempting to ban the use of consumer technologies creates a perpetual game of "whack-a-mole" as IT tries to keep pace. Instead, IT departments should embrace consumer technologies and create communities that allow users to augment the current support model.

Why should we care about consumer applications?

Many years ago, the lifecycle of technology was based on innovative vendors such as Wang, Honeywell, AT&T and IBM introducing new technologies to corporate IT departments. Eventually some of these technologies made their way into people's homes but, for the most part, the average worker had far better technology at the office than at home. Today, the cycle has been reversed. These formerly "innovative" companies have either died off or are considered laggards by many, and the perceived innovators are consumer-oriented companies such as Google, Apple, Skype and Yahoo. Because of this, workers are using consumer tools to augment their corporate tools. Earlier this year, Yankee Group surveyed business professionals and found that just over half the respondents said they were more productive at work because of their personal devices, and workers use on average slightly under four consumer technologies in the workplace.

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Which consumer technologies are most in demand?

The consumer technologies most in demand will be bifurcated along user age lines. Older workers tend to use things like consumer email, mobile text messaging and online travel services. Younger workers and current college students lean toward social networking sites, wikis, blogs and SecondLife to collaborate with other people in their professional network. That doesn't mean that some preferences are better than others; it just means that user preferences vary and organisations need to understand this when deploying collaboration technology. Ubiquitous connectivity and IP everywhere has created an environment where users can communicate and collaborate with one another, using whatever method they want. This should be leveraged as a way to foster better interactions internally and externally.

How can this be managed effectively?

With the breadth of consumer technology and the speed at which it changes, there's simply no way for IT departments to be all-knowing gurus for all things technology. It's simply too much to ask corporate IT departments to do. Instead, IT departments should focus on provisioning, security and usage of consumer technologies, and let the functional support fall to the community itself. For example, at Yankee Group, we have a large number of BlackBerry users. Our IT department ensures that the security is there, the devices are provisioned, and usage policies are in place, but the functional support goes to the two or three power users within the company. This can include anything from changing fonts to downloading themes to setting up email rules. Now, where we struggle is that these same two to three power users continually get bombarded by the same questions from different users. Some sort of wiki-based support tool would make information dissemination more effective. Power users could answer once, and end users could access the specific answers to their questions by referencing a wiki.

This vision of user self-support may seem like a pipe dream, but I do think the majority of users can be supported this way. A large percentage of them probably use some sort of community-based wiki in their personal life, and enterprise use is no different. The key lies in ensuring that the people who post content to the site are rewarded and that users believe that the information posted is correct.

One possibility for giving users an incentive to post information to the site is to reward them with some sort of "point system" that can then be translated into cash, awards or something else that's of value to those who take the time to post accurate answers. There are many corporate reward programs in place that can facilitate this. Other possibilities could include having contests or an extra vacation day for certain thresholds, and so on. For accuracy, I like the concept of reputation-based scoring, where users "rank" the value of the post. The higher the score, the higher on the list that particular user's posting ranks, which, in theory, should move the most valuable content to the top and less valuable content down the list. E-bay uses a similar methodology for scoring buyers and sellers so that its users have confidence in their transactions.

In summary, the consumerisation of the enterprise is well under way, and IT departments can fight the trend, give up and ignore it, or embrace it. Fighting and ignoring will ultimately lead to an unmanageable environment with many unhappy users -- a scenario that I'm sure we would all like to avoid. Embracing it, but having IT play the same all-encompassing role as in the past, does not scale. A cooperative model where the users provide functional support and IT departments manage the security and other technical issues will enable a dramatic reduction of level-one support, allowing IT to scale much better than it has in the past.