Thursday, 1 May 2008

Social Productivity: A strategic choice or Web 2.0 revolution?

A few weeks or so ago, Sam Lawrence via Twitter pointed me to a post he made at the end of last year about how office suite software (i.e. word processing, presentations, spreadsheets etc) hasn't changed in over 20 years but that:

"Traditional office software features are being absorbed into browsers and OSes. The next level of digital office work is shifting from a disjointed file exchange work model to one that's much more connected, contextual and collaborative. In the old model, users create documents in isolation and exchange them with other isolated users--all insulated from and out of sync with the bigger picture of relevant interpersonal activity. In the new collaboration model, connected people understand when, what and why to engage and they do it in a unified environment. They use file-sharing only as a supplement, when and if it's necessary. We refer to this collaboration model as Social Productivity, which frames our daily work activity in the "we" vs. "me" context and then delivers new functionality to help with these connections. This more accurately mimics our work-with-others activity vs. the produce-alone-and-distribute part of our daily equation. Now we can get context at a glance, work doesn't disappear once we hit "send," and we stay connected to the efforts most important to us."

It reminded me that many years ago I heard Dale Chatwin talk about the Australian Bureau of Statistics, a government organisations, as a Lotus Notes case study. A quick search actually turned up a case study (PDF) about this particularly story, which dates back to the 1990s. It makes interesting reading in light of Sam's ideas, since this organisation did exactly what he describes as "Social Productivity" - they developed databases:

"that permit all members of a group to work inside the same database simultaneously, so that a document that is being collaboratively created does not need to be emailed around to the members of the group with each person having a separate stored copy but is kept in a central location... The central repository and shared workspace of the workgroup databases is not only a freeing tool for collaborative co-creation of knowledge it is also a vehicle for transparency and knowledge sharing, as other persons not in the workgroup can still access the workgroup's database and see the information there and the work in its current state of progress... Almost all of the information and knowledge in the ABS is held on and processed through Lotus Notes® Workgroup Databases, and almost all persons have access to almost all databases, making the entire organisation's information and knowledgebase transparent, freely accessible and available to all members at all times."

Even closer to Sam's vision, the organisation's "elimination of desktop word processors" means that for majority of users at the time the office suite was embedded as part of the Lotus Notes "browser" (i.e. the Lotus Notes client). This doesn't mean everyone was happy with the decision - reading the case study, it looks a combination of issues affected their experience:

  • Functionality in the Lotus Notes text editor versus a stand alone word processor;
  • Dealing with upgrades that changed the Lotus Notes interface;
  • The need to collaborate and share information externally; and
  • The lack of choice.

Incidentally users still had access to a separate spreadsheet application, however one user commented:

"Lotus 123 is terrible with anything to do with Excel"

A reminder that not all office suite software is the same.

Now its been a while since I last saw Dale and I'm not sure where this organisation is these days with Lotus Notes, but I recommend you read the case study and draw your own conclusions to decided if you think their strategy was a success or not. Certainly some were positive about the approach. But what is clear is that they were unique in adopting this strategy and I don't know of any other organisation that has attempted the same thing.

I wonder if they were attempting to do this now, what would be more important - the strategic decision to implement a social productivity approach or the quality of the user experience in our Web 2.0 environment. What do you think?


  1. I remember that case study! A few of my friends worked for the ABS, and as I recall, they weren't exactly enraptured with Notes.

    The Adoption Problem seems to be at the core of all change. The easiest systems to adopt are the ones that don't require major deviation from the current ways of working.

    Perhaps the main difference between then and now (with regards to Sam's point) is that people are now more familiar with the web in general - so using these social productivity tools doesn't require major deviation from "the way we do things around here"

  2. In my experience, providing the tools is not enough. People need to be able to understand and use them.

    The challenges for the old Lotus tools and the current crop of collaborative tools are similar. People who have learned their behaviors through using single-user and file-exchange-oriented tools are reluctant to give them up for the benefits they can't appreciate of collaborative tools.

    An important difference between then and now, though, is that more social and collaborative tools have evolved and are being used outside the enterprise, and people inside the enterprise are beginning to see the advantage of bringing them in. Plus, today's technology is a whole lot more attractive and easy to use.

    Dennis D. McDonald
    Alexandria, Virginia USA

  3. Sam Lawrence11:09 am

    It's not an either/or. Its that users - especially younger ones - are used to Web 2.0 UIs and experiences, and so they both use them in the enterprise when they can, and increasingly demand them in place of outmoded enterprise software. That drives change from the bottom up, while line of business people/marketing people (not IT people) are driving the strategic decision to go social from the top down.

    As an aside, a source close to the ABS project told me that it "was and is one of the most unique and interesting Lotus Notes implementations ever."

  4. Thanks for the interesting comments everyone. I agree that the consumer experience of Web 2.0 is a key factor in adoption, however I think there are still some barriers to overcome that we can see in the ABS experience - nothing that can't be overcome, but probably of question of if, when and how. What I find interesting is that if an organisation decided it wanted to do this now, then really there isn't anything stopping them from a technology perspective but Web 2.0 should make it easier. So evolutionary or revolutionary?

  5. I think Dennis and Gordon make a good point. Social technologies are everywhere from storing your family pics, to watching a funny video to finding out the real news behind the headlines. More than just Gen-Y, there is a culture shift taking place. An epidemic of sorts I think. I realised it tonight at my son's Year-7 orientation meeting where the stodgy old principle ended the evening with the most enthusiastic rant about the school Moodle. Amazing! I nearly had tears in my eyes :-)

    Notes was a huge step forward technologically, however my vote is on quiet revolution. Rich, easy to use, always available tools do more than give a new technology platform. They seem to alter the fabric of an organisations culture in ways that systems of the past only just touched on.

    Oh, and a mate of mine just left a Canadian company to return to Australia and family. He had put quite a bit of personal knowledge into the Notes database there and lamented about while the system works collaboratively, it really is still just a big fat file with all the old drawbacks of same.

    Stuart French
    Melbourne, Victoria


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