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Here are seven big themes you should watch for as this month’s stories unfold:

1. Consumerize everything. Just as workers have flexed more muscle in their choices of smart devices and online resources, their expectations have changed even regarding the physical appearance of many workplaces. It makes sense that one U.K. design firm, Morgan Lovell, specializes in creating offices that look like living rooms and cafés, to stimulate more interaction. By the same token, many tech platforms for collaboration draw upon experiences from the consumer world. In its heyday, Linden Lab’s Second Life hosted a dealership for Toyota’s Scion brand, which enabled buyers to customize their prospective new cars while exchanging ideas with one another. Second Life also provided a platform for the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting of world leaders—in effect, a virtual Davos operating concurrently with the real one. Researchers at UC Irvine, with a $3 million National Science Foundation grant, now plan to study how online virtual worlds such as Second Life and multiplayer games such as World of Warcraft can help organizations collaborate and compete more effectively.

Less radical is the appearance at IBM of collaboration software that has put corporate garb on many familiar consumer applications: examples include Dogear (Delicious-like social bookmarking), Blue Twit (a proprietary Twitter knockoff), and SocialBlue (an internal social-networking platform strongly resembling Facebook). Similarly, Cisco’s collaboration software, called Quad, integrates WebEx along with third-party resources like Twitter, iGoogle, and personalized RSS feeds. Its home page, or “personal manager console,” is widget-based. Its design resembles the presentation layer of a popular Paris-based personal news site, NetVibes. But the casual-looking interface should not mislead: Quad also includes an “enterprise policy manager console,” which monitors task accountability, individual productivity, and policy compliance.

2. It’s all about the culture. International Data Corporation, an IT research firm, argues that we’re entering “a new phase of business collaboration” based on the “intersection of Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, and collaboration tools to form the social business.” Although IDC believes that the global market for collaborative applications in general is “largely mature,” it projects that revenues for social platforms specifically will rise from $390 million in 2009 to nearly $2 billion by 2014. The firm says that this growth is being driven by “social business” functions that resemble what we know as the social Web: people connecting, conversing, sharing, and interacting socially online in grappling with common business goals. Essential functions include other familiar features of the social Web: social bookmarking, blogs, microblogs, voting, ranking, RSS, tags, and wikis for what IDC calls “people-centric collaboration and communication” that is “open, synchronous, and unstructured.”

When all of this works, it becomes the “human cloud”—a concept that entered technology circles only a couple of years ago. This is a corporate resource that transcends the corporation, by linking its employees not only to one another but also to customers, partners, suppliers, and third-party resources. “Tools merely offer the potential for collaboration,” argues Evan Rosen, a leading thinker in this field. “Unlocking the value of tools happens only when an organization fits tools into collaborative culture and processes. If the culture is hierarchical and internally competitive, it will take more than tools to shift the culture.” In other words, don’t assume that high-performance collaboration will happen just because you have the tools to make it possible. Collaboration is a social phenomenon, and it has to fit with the culture of an organization.

3. Cherish your experts, not your documents. The most compelling promise of the human cloud is that peer-to-peer networks (or networks of networks) will create value in a business. Patent protection aside, the value of corporate intellectual property diminishes with every passing month, given how quickly rivals can imitate products. Witness how fast HTC matched the touch-screen interface of Apple’s “revolutionary” iPhone using the Android OS. Companies often use a function known as “knowledge management” to retain, classify, and search internal documents, but what happens when the value of those materials goes to zero in record time? The focus changes from the documents to the experts—the people who can create the next innovations.

Consider a recent initiative at Intuit. In the company’s words, it created a platform called Brainstorm as “an innovation management tool to encourage collaboration throughout an organization and help put good ideas to work faster.” It shows the human cloud in action (“get the best talent available regardless of location”). You can’t find talent without “visibility,” so a critical component of Brainstorm is “tagging” experts within the organization. Intuit provided a platform where employees could post challenges, and (taking a page from Google’s playbook) declared 10 percent of its employees’ time “unstructured” to fuel the “supply side.” Further, Intuit recruited a dozen college students into a development program. They, in turn, brought into Intuit any consumer-based collaboration tools they liked, including Facebook, Google Docs, wikis, blogs, and IM. Recognition systems rewarded what mattered most: “people shaping ideas and making connections.” The result? Participation in innovation activities increased fivefold. Time to market decreased by half. And annual new product releases rose from five to 31. Now, Intuit markets Brainstorm to Fortune 1,000 companies, universities, and governments. Intuit itself has seen a tenfold return on its investment from its use of Brainstorm and, according to a GigaOm Pro Special Report, it has witnessed comparable benefits among clients to which it has furnished the tool.

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Tagged: Business, Business Impact, collaboration, communication, Collaboration Tools

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