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Enterprise Content Management:
Varieties of Collaboration

  Column published in DMReview.com
April 1, 2002
  By Dan Sullivan

One of the obvious benefits of enterprise content management is the potential for improved collaboration between employees, partners and customers. There are many forms of collaboration, and finding the right mix of approaches for your organization starts with understanding your needs. Some things to consider include:

Who are you targeting for improved communication? Don't try to cover everyone in your organization or customer base; there is just too much variation in need. Target specific groups, such as design and production engineers, geographically distributed sales managers or customer service representatives and your twenty-five most profitable corporate customers. Production engineers know about problems on the factory floor and could help design more easily manufactured products. Sales managers can exchange proposals and research to minimize duplicated efforts. Providing your top customers with additional information can improve customer retention and avoid the inevitable scope creep that would accompany trying to meet the needs of a wide variety of customers.

How fast do you need to communicate? Asynchronous message boards are ideal in many cases. An insurance claims processor might find that conflicting business rules apply to a claim and post a question for more experienced processors. There is no need for an immediate answer; there are always other claims to work. Investment bankers, on the other hand, want market information in real time and need it pushed to the desktop.

Should all threaded discussions and messages be kept in a repository? Instant messages about where to have lunch are obviously out, but who should decide on business-related messages? Options include the initiator of the discussion, any participant in the discussion, the manager of the group or channel that hosts the discussion and automated categorization rules that rank the relevancy of the content. The pros and cons of each option are too detailed to address here, but keep in mind that people are more likely to use tools over which they have more control.

With a sense of basic requirements, the questions turn to how to support collaboration. At the risk of oversimplification, let's divide collaboration technologies into two groups: passive and active.

Passive collaboration entails monitoring the content read and viewed by users, maintaining profiles of their interests, and tracking documents and other types of content that are used together. Monitoring and profiling is common in enterprise search and categorization tools (as well as with online retailers who use the information to make recommendations and cross sell). Amazon.com tracks books that are sold together; and the research site, CiteSeer.com, provides a list entitled, "Users Who Viewed This Also Viewed ..." with each document. Vendors are expanding the concept of "similar documents" with techniques such as social network analysis. The similarity is no longer based solely on shared words or patterns, but also on how other users have worked with the documents. Passive collaboration has the advantage of requiring little or no additional effort on the part of the user. The disadvantage, of course, is that our online activities are under surveillance.

Active collaboration is more structured and includes threaded discussions, communities of interest and communities of practice. The distinguishing features of this type of collaboration are that users control the level of their participation. Threaded discussions are straightforward to implement, familiar to most users and easy to categorize. Communities of interest use threaded discussions and shared content areas to exchange information about a topic that can cross organizational lines and does not necessarily fit within predefined business processes. Communities of practice are more structured and tend to more closely align with business processes. Collaboration tools for communities of practice need to support the artifacts of the related business process (e.g., forms, reports, business rules, documentation, etc.) as well as the more ad hoc collaboration techniques such as threaded discussions. There is much more to communities of practice which is detailed in Etienne Wenger's seminal book, Communities of Practice (Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Enterprise content management involves more than search and taxonomy tools. Users are a central focus of the endeavor, and how they work needs to guide processes from selecting unstructured data management tools to designing a collaborative environment. Identifying specific groups of users will help determine the most appropriate collaboration methods. Like everything else in IT, there is no single, best method.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Enterprise Intelligence and Content Management.

Dan Sullivan is president of the Ballston Group and author of Proven Portals: Best Practices in Enterprise Portals (Addison Wesley, 2003). Sullivan may be reached at dsullivan@ballstongroup.com.

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