Friday, May 23, 2008

Collaboration Microsoft Style

Collaboration is a common buzzword these days. Everyone is selling it - including vendors Microsoft. In actual fact, this moment in time echoes in a new era of computing - one that moves us from Personal Computing (PC) to Corporate Computing (CC). You are either now sitting at your computer doing corporate work or you're working in isolation from the whole doing what some kind of personal work. People who collaborate initially showed up on portals like Face Book, MySpace, YouTube or, god fobid, eBay. After all, collaboration is all the rage these days. Why? Because, collaboration has been going on for millenia but has suddenly taken on a new turn. It has gone global. Suddenly, corporate giants found themselves behind the amateur weekend enthusiast geek. After the early adopters came the hordes.

The new world will be governed by controlled vocabulary so I better explain exactly what I mean. Social networks or social networking or whatever you want to call it. . . it what differentiates us from the beasts. Humans are social to a degree not apparent in other primates. Why, language probably has alot to do with it.

My first introduction to Collaboration (social networking) Software - aka Content Management Software was with an open source product called Plone. It was recognized within the enterprise as a corporately approved standard and the price was right. Over a relatively short period, over 2000 individuals adopted the product at 100 different sites. Right about this same time, the Microsoft faction within the I&IT organization realized that they were getting displaced by an open source community - or so they feared. Their response was to put previously unsupported Microsoft Sharepoint into the running as an alternative to Plone. . . or so it looked. History has it that Sharepoint had previously been considered as a Collaboration Tool Service but had not risen to the corporate standard challenge. Evidently, it was not scalable.

My introduction to Plone was OK. I really liked the open source concept but found the interface to be awkward or better put - not Windows-based. The paradigm was different and although it created a much better environment for collaboration than anything provided by our corporate Windows-based environment it still lacked certain features.

This time last year, I was on special assignment in a business unit wanting to manage its content better. I broadcast that Plone was freely available and recommended that the division use it to better manage it's (LMDA) content. No sooner was this made public than the local IT folks announced that it was planning to support Sharepoint even if it was not recognized as a corporate standard. As soon as the division got wind of this, my recommendation went up in a puff of smoke. Why would the division use Plone when IT indicated if preferred to support Sharepoint. After all, it was supported by Microsoft - like all the other products IT already supported.

The history of Microsoft in this enterprise of 65,000 employees is amazing.

In the early days, and we must never forget, Microsoft Corporation allowed its products to be copied and freely distributed by anyone. This was unlike the leading PC software products of the day - Lotus 123, dBase and WordPerfect.

Now, at that time I was a bit of a neutral participant. In 1986, I used an integrated software product called SMART. Long before MS Office, I was writing code that integrated my database manager with word processor and Smart Spreadsheet - but that's another story.

The Lotus 123 zealots thought I was a little bazaar for not using their product. The Smart Database Manager was OK because in those days, as is still true today, few end-users know how to use a database of any kind when they can get by with a spreadsheet. It was the WordPerfect Users who laughed the loudest. They could not understand why a relatively small band of individuals bothered to use the SMART Word Processor when it did not have something as basic as REVEAL CODES.

While these people were busy laughing at me and my colleagues, Billy Gates and the boys were releasing uncopy-protected end-user tools called MS Word, EXCEL and ACCESS.

Although it was possible to get your hands on an copy of, say, Lotus 123, unless you knew the KEY CODE, it would not install. In the pre-internet, pre-email days of Lotus123 (the 1st real BIG Killer App.) is was not uncommon to get a 4 1/4" copy of the Lotus installation diskette. It was much less common to get the copy to install.

While Lotus 123, dBase and WordPerfect were making millions selling copy protected software, Microsoft Corporation systematically knocked each of them off their pedestals by releasing software versions that were not copy protected.

So, as a consequence of what will be recognized as the most brilliant marketing strategy of the 20th century, Microsoft toppled the 3 great software giants of the initial "Killer App" era - WordPerfect, dBase and Lotus123. Today, they are essentially dead.

So, what's the point. . ? Twenty-plus years later, Microsoft is again entering the software arena with a new generation of product. From personal productivity, to group collaboration we have moved - this due to a number of factors essentially the establishment of corporate intranet infrastructure and of course, its predecessor, the invention of the INTERNET - the semantic internet and web2.0 - blah blah.

Sharepoint has been hanging around for a number of years now, without much excitement. So, what's going on right now? It's called convergence . . . when the right set of circumstances arrive at the same place in time to achieve synergies that have been waiting to happen.

Oh yah, I just got back from Sharepoint training - a 4 day intro. I'll say that again - " A 4 day intro . " 20 years ago, in 4 days, you could learn everything you needed to know about WordPerfect, Lotus 123 and dBase to change the world. Today, 4 days will get you an overview to what some might think is an end-user tool while others will be convinced it is an application development platform - a place where IT can be told by the business who to AUTOMATE its operation.

Be careful. I will say that again. Be careful. The business, at this point in the 21st century has little appreciation for how it should be automated. When I asked Learning Tree Professor - Gord about the difference between Automation and Workflow, he told me they are the same. When I asked if all workflow can be automated or if all automation is workflow, Gord hesitated.

More about this later.

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