» Archive for the 'Social Software' Category

In the briefing room: Socialtext SocialCalc

Thursday, December 3rd, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

Introduced as VisiCalc by Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston, the spreadsheet turned 30 earlier this year and continues to be one of the key lubricants in the knowledge economy.

SocialCalc adds collaborative tools to the process

SocialCalc adds collaborative tools to the process

For knowledge workers who are adept at their use, spreadsheets are a powerful tool for organizing, sorting, and calculating a wide variety of information. However, two elements that are necessary to successful knowledge work are missing, namely context and connectivity. Spreadsheets often exist in isolation and must be manually updated as new information (often from other spreadsheets) becomes available. This gap results in a loss of time, degradation of the quality of the information as it becomes stale, and a loss of context because the path that the information took is severed.

As we have seen with the utility and popularity of social tools such as wikis and blogs, adding context and creating dynamic links between content is extremely beneficial to knowledge work. The social element of those tools allows for users to explore supplemental information surrounding a piece of content, as well as have changes reflected quickly and in a traceable manner.

Socialtext is bringing these dynamics to bear on the ubiquitous spreadsheet with SocialCalc, its distributed spreadsheet offering. Developed by a team led by Dan Bricklin, SocialCalc is integrated into Socialtext’s collaboration platform, so all the features of the platforms, such as profiles, wikis, blogs, and microblogs, are present. Users set up spreadsheets that are dynamically linked to other sheets so that, when information is updated in one, it updates all sheets it is linked to. For example, a sales agent keeping records in a spreadsheet need not e-mail information to a manager; instead, the data will be dynamically updated in the manager’s sheet as the sales agent enters changes. This reduces time, friction, and a number of unnecessary e-mail exchanges.

Spreadsheets created in SocialCalc are publishable to Socialtext workspaces, where complete audit trails of who has done what are recorded. This is invaluable, as changes made to an e-mailed attachment are often lost. Additionally, the access controls from the workspace are applied to the spreadsheet, ensuring that only those with access to that particular workspace can see the sheet, even if sheets from various workspaces are linked together.

The spreadsheet was the original killer app and helped propel us into the information age. Today, social software is the latest in the information age’s arsenal of tools and the concept of adding context to spreadsheets via such tools holds the potential to allow knowledge workers to focus less on the tools and more on the information they contain.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

E-mail: Reports of My Demise are Premature

Thursday, October 15th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

It is both premature and foolhardy to proclaim that e-mail’s reign as “king of communications” is over as a recent Wall Street Journal article trumpets.

E-mail remains the most-used corporate communications tool despite reports to the contrary.

E-mail remains the most-used corporate communications tool despite reports to the contrary.

Not that e-mail is the best communications medium for everything; indeed we know very well it isn’t.

Instead, e-mail has, in the past 15 years in particular, become that path of least resistance for almost everything that transpires within an organization.

Update status? Send an e-mail to a few hundred of one’s closest colleagues.

Finish a report? Send another e-mail to a few hundred of one’s closest colleagues.

The fact is that we use e-mail opportunistically rather than with an understanding as to what the impact of its use might be.

Sending that status report to those few hundred colleagues actually cost the organization ca. 24 hours in lost time when one calculates the few minutes each person spent opening the e-mail he didn’t need to receive in the first place – plus the “recovery time,” which is the time it takes to get back to where one was in the task that was interrupted.

The result of all of our communications (and it isn’t just e-mail) is Information Overload, a problem that costs the U.S. economy ca. $900 billion per annum.  On August 12,  Information Overload Awareness Day was observed around the world with meetings and discussions.  But that’s just one day – each additional day that we don’t address the problem of Information Overload and take steps to lessen its impact costs billions.

Companies can take steps to lower their exposure to Information Overload (an article about what can be done may be found at here) but even raising awareness of the problem and understanding the impact of overusing such tools as e-mail can make a big difference.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

In the Briefing Room: Liaise

Thursday, September 24th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira and Cody Burke

Think carefully about the last action item you sent someone.  It was in an e-mail and it’s been several days and there’s been no acknowledgement.  In fact, you are not sure that the recipient is even aware of its existence.  So you send another e-mail and wait.

Your last action item is now with umpteen others that have not seen the light of day.

How many action items and requests fall through the cracks?  Some tasks, due to the nebulous nature of how they are communicated, may not even appear to the recipient as a task at all.  Some tasks are unimportant, busy work that is not critical and should never make it on to a task list.  However, others may be extremely important, yet these may not be recognized for what they are: steps that need to be undertaken as part of a process.

It is simply not possible for knowledge workers to recall on their own everything that has been done and what has not yet been addressed.

In a sense, e-mail is a pit that we tend to throw requests into, hoping that they will resurface, completed.  The problem is that the content of e-mail is static: once sent, it is locked into the e-mail and not linked to other content or systems in any meaningful way.

However, there are some potential solutions looming on the horizon.

One, the eponymously-named Liaise, is a new inbox add-on (currently only available for Outlook) that scans e-mail messages as they are being composed and creates a task list based on any action items it finds in the e-mail.  The underlying technology, called KeyPoint Intelligence, automatically finds, identifies and captures key points in a message.  Over time, the system learns and adapts to a user’s writing style in order to improve performance.

Liaise differentiates between issues (the report is late), and action items (review the report), and compiles all of these into a separate task list.  The tasks are scanned to determine the nature of the task, who is involved, and when it is due.   When an e-mail is sent, any new tasks are automatically added to the user’s list.  If the recipient does not have Liaise, the e-mail is delivered as usual and when it is replied to, the system scans the message and updates the task list accordingly.  If both users have Liaise, then both see the new tasks in their respective the task lists and any changes or progress made is automatically updated without further e-mail being sent around a team.

Additionally, Liaise allows a knowledge worker who is about to go into a meeting to automatically see information such as all e-mail, tasks, and issues associated with the attendees.  This provides context to the knowledge worker and gives a quick overview of where people stand on projects they have been assigned.  Liaise shows the people in the meeting, the level of interaction that they all have, and relevant open matters.

Liaise is an exciting new tool for e-mail and task management that has great potential to reduce Information Overload by cutting down on the overall amount of e-mail in the inbox.  More significantly, Liaise has the potential to illuminate the dark pit that often is the knowledge worker’s inbox by extracting the important tasks, issues, and action items that otherwise would be lost in a sea of noise.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.
Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

Information Overload – It Isn’t Just Too Much E-mail

Thursday, August 20th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

One might assume that pinpointing the sources of Information Overload is relatively black and white, i.e. it’s just too much e-mail. In reality, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The problem of Information Overload is multifaceted and impacts each and every organization whether top executives and managers are aware of it or not.  In addition to e-mail, Information Overload stems from the proliferation of content, growing use of social networking tools, unnecessary interruptions in the workplace, failed searches, new technologies that compete for the worker’s attention, and improved and ubiquitous connectivity (making workers available anytime regardless of their location).  Information Overload is harmful to employees in a variety of ways as it lowers comprehension and concentration levels and adversely impacts work-life balance.  Since almost no one is immune from the effects of this problem, when one looks at it from an organizational point-of-view, hundreds of thousands of hours are lost at a typical organization, representing as much as 25% of the work day.

So what else besides e-mail overload is at issue here?  Here’s a quick rundown.

- Content
We have created billions of pictures, documents, videos, podcasts, blog posts, and tweets, yet if these remain unmanaged it will be impossible for anyone to make sense out of any of this content because we have no mechanism to separate the important from the mundane.  Going forward, we face a monumental paradox.  On the one hand, we have to ensure that what is important is somehow preserved.  If we don’t preserve it, we are doing a disservice to generations to come; they won’t be able to learn from our mistakes as well as from the great breakthroughs and discoveries that have occurred.  On the other hand, we are creating so much information that may or may not be important, that we routinely keep everything.  If we continue along this path, which we will most certainly do, there is no question that we will require far superior filtering tools to manage that information.

- Social Networking
For better or worse, millions of people use a variety of social networking tools to inform their friends – and the world at large – about their activities, thoughts, and observations, ranging down to the mundane and the absurd.  Not only are people busily engaged in creating such content but each individual’s output may ultimately be received by dozens if not thousands of friends, acquaintances, or curious bystanders.  Just do the math.

- Interruptions
We’ve covered this topic many times (http://www.basexblog.com/?s=unnecessary+interruptions) but our prime target is unnecessary interruptions and the recovery time (the time it takes the worker to get back to where he was) each interruption causes, typically 10-20 times the duration of the interruption itself.  It only takes a few such interruptions for a knowledge worker to lose an hour of his day.

- Searches
50% of all searches fail and we know about the failure.  What isn’t generally recognized is something that comes out of our research, namely that 50% of the searches you think succeeded failed, but the person doing the search didn’t realize it.  As a result, that person uses information that is perhaps out of date or incorrect or just not the right data.  This has a cascading effect that further propagates the incorrect information.

- New technologies
We crave shiny new technology toys, those devices that beep and flash for our attention, as well as shiny new software.  Each noise they emit takes us away from other work and propels us further down Distraction Road.  It’s a wonder we get any work done at all.  Even tools that have become part of the knowledge workers’ standard toolkit can be misused.  Examples here include e-mail (overuse of the reply-to-all function, gratuitous thank you notes, etc.) and instant messaging (sending an instant message to someone to see if he has received an e-mail).

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

In the Briefing Room: Oracle WebCenter 11g

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009 by Cody Burke

The recent trend towards updating portal platforms with a variety of social features and mashup capabilities is indicative of the growing recognition that this sort of functionality has significant potential business value.  Social software and collaboration tools, which have become increasingly popular in the consumer space, facilitate the kind of tacit and ad hoc interactions that can drive productivity and increase knowledge sharing.  This shift is occurring in lockstep with the move towards the Collaborative Business Environment (CBE).

Today’s companies use a variety of tools and platforms to support knowledge sharing and collaboration. This has proven wholly unsatisfactory because knowledge workers frequently can’t find the information they are looking for and find themselves perpetually reinventing the wheel, resulting in a loss of efficiency and effectiveness.  Help, however, is on the way.  As companies move more and more towards the model of the Collaborative Business Environment, a term Basex uses to describe an all encompassing workspace that will supersede the traditional desktop metaphor in a period three to five years out, the lines between different types of software and tools will begin to blur and eventually disappear.

Solutions that will serve as a Collaborative Business Environment will come from “traditional” IT software vendors as well as new upstarts.  One platform worth looking into comes from Oracle.

Oracle WebCenter Suite 11g is the latest release of the company’s enterprise portal platform. It adds social features that begin to move the product to be more in line with current trends towards social and ad hoc communities and collaboration.  Using Oracle WebCenter Spaces, users can set up formal or ad hoc work spaces and communities for team members and projects; these can be assembled on the fly and function as team portals.  Oracle WebCenter Services enables tagging, linking, rating, recent activity feeds, RSS, and networks of personal connections to be integrated into existing business applications.  Applications themselves can be manipulated and customized into mashups via Oracle Composer, a browser-based tool.  A catalogue of applications and content is also available through Oracle Business Directory, a library of enterprise applications, processes, content, and business intelligence that can be utilized to create custom dashboards.  WebCenter has the potential to serve as the foundation for a Collaborative Business Environment, supporting a single work environment and social tools that can reduce friction in knowledge sharing.

In addition to Oracle WebCenter, Oracle recently introduced Oracle Beehive, which provides a collaboration platform with team workspaces, instant messenger and presence awareness support, blogs, and wiki capabilities.  The combination of Oracle WebCenter and Beehive will provide companies with a solid foundation for a platform that integrates traditional portal functionality with social software and collaboration tools, thus bringing knowledge workers into an integrated environment that supports knowledge sharing and collaboration, and ultimately, helps them find what they are looking for.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.  He can be reached at cburke@basex.com

In the briefing room: Yakabod’s Yakabox

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009 by Cody Burke

When one strips away all the marketing hype, technical terminology, and buzzwords from knowledge sharing and collaboration products, the real measure of a tool is simple: does it help get work done?  The future of the knowledge workers’ workspace is the Collaborative Business Environment (CBE) but, until our vision is addressed and realized by vendors in this space, it is incumbent upon companies to find tools that support the CBE’s basic principles, namely to provide a single work environment for knowledge workers, reduce friction in knowledge sharing, and embed community into the workspace.

It is easy to lose sight of the fundamental question an organization should be asking when deploying a knowledge sharing and collaboration tool, that is: “how will this tool help my company get work done?”  This often happens because products and tools are segmented into arbitrary and confusing market segments (just look at the variation in TLAs in the content management market, you have CM, ECM, WCM, DM, among others).

A breath of fresh air in this space is Yakabod; the company offers a product, the Yakabox, that promises to be an end-to-end platform that gets work done.  This offering is a hardware appliance incorporating enterprise search, content management, collaboration, and social networking functionality.  A hosted version is also available.  Yakabod’s value proposition is to keep things simple by placing those four applications in one place, aiding in knowledge sharing, collaboration, and the ability to find what one is looking for.

The user interface is very clean and straightforward, and features an activity feed-like stream of items that are relevant to the user, as well as user profiles and favorites that are content-based, such as documents, teams, blogs, or any other item in the system.  What is presented in the activity feed can be fine tuned via a “Matter Meter”, which can be adjusted to show items of varying degrees of importance.  A busy knowledge worker, for example, could set the meter to only show items of high priority.  Yakabod’s enterprise search works in a similar way: the system learns a user’s preferences and adjusts search results accordingly based on relevance to the user.  The results are drawn from structured and unstructured data sources, including online repositories, wikis, social tools, and existing legacy systems.

To make deployment easier, the Yakabox integrates with existing sources such as Microsoft SharePoint and Office, shared drives, and electronic repositories.

Security is a strong point for the Yakabox.  The company has its roots in providing collaboration and knowledge sharing tools to the U.S. Intelligence Community, and the Yakabox meets Department of Defense PL3 security standards.

One promising aspect about Yakabod’s philosophy as a company is the recognition that knowledge sharing and collaboration applications such as enterprise search, content management, collaboration, and social networking are interconnected and interdependent.  Put simply, when these normally disparate elements are combined, the sum is greater than the parts.  The Yakabox may be in some respects closer to the Collaborative Business Environment than many other offerings currently on the market: it provides a single, overarching environment for knowledge workers, reduces friction in knowledge sharing through tight integration, and embeds collaboration tools into all areas of knowledge work via social networking functionality.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the briefing room: FatWire TeamUp

Thursday, August 6th, 2009 by Cody Burke

Expectations for the work environment have changed dramatically over the years as knowledge workers became familiar with tools in the consumer market that are still in their infancy in the workplace.  The change has been driven largely by the rise of participatory online activity; simply put, knowledge work has evolved to become less focused on a one-size fits all presentation of information to a model that requires dynamic, interactive, social, and customizable content.

There are many benefits to adding a social layer to content.  The addition of profiles, status feeds, wikis, and blogs adds context to information, giving the knowledge worker helpful and often critical background information and a deeper understanding of where the information sits and what it relates to.  Additionally, social tools embed community into content, allowing users to make the jump from a piece of content directly to the author without leaving the environment.

The need for this kind of contextual and social experience has been recognized by FatWire, a content management company.  It recently updated FatWire TeamUp, a collaboration and community platform that allows the creation of social networks deployable as internal collaboration spaces for knowledge workers or as customer facing applications to engage site visitors and create communities.  TeamUp includes blogs, wikis, and profiles, as well as the ability to create team workspaces.  Additionally, it integrates fully with FatWire’s other offerings, such as the FatWire Content Server, as well as EMC Documentum, Microsoft SharePoint, and Windows- and Unix-based file systems via the FatWire Content Integration Platform, which uses peer-to-peer architecture to enable access to content stored in repositories.

One of the three tenets of the Collaborative Business Environment is Embedded Community, which implies deploying community and collaboration tools, such as e-mail, instant messaging, presence and awareness into environments where knowledge workers perform their tasks, linking knowledge work and collaboration, and knowledge workers with each other.  The use of such functionality increases the knowledge workers’ ability to effectively do their jobs by making it easier for them to find content and resources for their work.  FatWire TeamUp does this by adding a layer of social networking to its WCM platform and is worthy of consideration by organizations looking to add context to information and connect knowledge workers with each other.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the Briefing Room: Xobni Plus

Thursday, July 16th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

For many knowledge workers, the e-mail inbox is the center of their universe.  It has assumed this exalted position in part because e-mail is the path of least resistance for many activities.  We should not, however, equate this status with it being the best or most efficient path.

Knowledge workers overuse e-mail.  They use it to compose long documents that would be better done in a content management system.  They use it to file information, which really should reside in a records management system.  They send e-mail messages to too many people and hit reply-to-all indiscriminately.

By 2010, knowledge workers will receive daily, on average, upwards of 93 e-mail messages, dozens of instant messages, multiple text messages, messages from social networks, not to mention a few phone calls.

Given its popularity, e-mail overload is the prominent component of Information Overload, although search and content management aren’t that far behind.

Given its singular status as an information repository, a number of companies have provided tools to manage the savage inbox.  One such company is Xobni, which has offered its eponymously-named e-mail management tool for over a year.

I had an opportunity to meet with Matt Brezina, Xobni’s co-founder, and his team a few weeks ago and learn more about what Xobni can do in this regard.  Matt not only speaks of “information overload” but of “relationship overload” and positions Xobni as a tool that can help with both.

Xobni adds a sidebar to Microsoft Outlook that comes with an easy-to-use and intuitive user interface.  It improves on Outlook’s own search facility both in speed and in its ability to build advanced queries on the fly and search across conversation threads.

One of my favorite features in Xobni is its ability to pull information together from a variety of sources including Facebook, LinkedIn, adding in people’s photos and the names of their assistants, if applicable.  This creates context around information that might otherwise appear to be somewhat random.   As more and more information flows via social networks, some of it important, most of it inconsequential, we will start to see the relationship overload, of which Matt speaks, become more of a challenge.

This week Xobni launched Xobni Plus, a paid version of the service (the original version remains free).  New features include the advanced search query builder; the ability to search calendar items, networks, and conversations (with additional support for filtering within the conversation); support for phrases and Boolean queries; AutoSuggest, which is a feature that provides automatic suggestions if one cannot remember someone’s exact name or e-mail address; and an enhanced profiling feature that displays past and upcoming appointments when viewing an e-mail.

While Xobni won’t make e-mail or relationship overload go away, it does lessen their impact and makes it easier for knowledge workers to unlock critical information that may be hidden away in e-mail.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst and CEO at Basex.

Google Apps Twitter Hack Raises Red Flags on Password Security

Thursday, July 16th, 2009 by David Goldes

One might presume that technology companies do a better job with such mundane tasks as password security than the great unwashed masses.  However, time and time again, this turns out not to be correct.  Yesterday, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, posting in the company’s blog, revealed that a hacker had broken into an employee’s personal e-mail account and then gained access to that employee’s Google Apps account, which contained “notes, spreadsheets, ideas, financial details” – well, you get the picture.

Although Stone tries to emphasize that this has nothing to do with any vulnerabilities in Google Apps per se, the very fact that anyone can log into a Google Apps account from any browser if you have the correct user name and password does increase a company’s exposure.  Companies that keep their confidential information behind a corporate firewall in systems such as Lotus Notes or Microsoft SharePoint, are indeed less vulnerable simply because their systems could not be hacked with just a simple user name and password.

Multiple studies have revealed that close to half of computer users tend to use the same password over and over again – typically with the same, easy to remember, user name.  Indeed, TechCrunch, a blog that received Twitter’s confidential documents from the hacker, reported that Twitter uses the password “password” for its servers (presumably, it’s been changed by now).  The same article revealed that Twitter had also used a co-founder’s first name, Jack, as a user name for servers.

Moral of the story: use complex passwords with numbers and symbols interspersed.  Do not use words found in a dictionary.  Even better: use passphrases, i.e. concatenated words such as “thisismypassphrase123″.  Use a different user name/password combination for each account.  If one account is hacked, this will ensure that your other accounts remain safe.  Finally, do not leave passwords visibly written down.  Believe it or not,  I still see Post-It notes with passwords attached to monitors when visiting other companies.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

CompuServe Requiem

Friday, July 3rd, 2009 by David Goldes

The original CompuServe service, first offered in 1979, was shut down this past week by its current owner, AOL.  The service, which provided its users with addresses such as 73402,3633 and was the first major online service, had seen the number of users dwindle in recent years.  At its height, the service boasted about having over half a million users simultaneously on line.  Many innovations we now take for granted, from online travel (Eaasy Sabre), online shopping, online stock quotations, and global weather forecasts, just to name a few, were standard fare on CompuServe in the 1980s.

CompuServe users will be able to use their existing CompuServe Classic (as the service was renamed) addresses at no charge via a new e-mail system, but the software that the service was built on, along with all the features supported by that software, from forums for virtually every topic and profession known to man to members’ Ourworld Web pages, has been shut down. Indeed, the current version of the service’s client software, CompuServe for Windows NT 4.0.2, dates back to 1999.

CompuServe members can convert their existing addresses to the new e-mail system at the CompuServe Mail Center.

David M. Goldes is president and senior analyst at Basex.


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