After exploring how content management systems fit into the Knowledge Management ecosystem, let's have a look at how to approach enterprise collaboration when thinking about a new Web CMS or Enterprise CMS implementation, or vice versa.

How Do You Define Collaboration?

Now, I don’t claim to be an expert on collaboration per se, but I do have some colleagues who are -- most notably Michael Sampson. He is the author of numerous excellent books on the subject. Michael has previously given constructive criticism on my collaboration model, suggesting it's too technical or system centric. I agree, it might be, but in the context of this article, that fits our purposes well I think.

Todays' definition of collaboration is fundamentally being social.

[Editor's Note: Also see: Enterprise Collaboration: It's About the Culture, Stupid]

AIIM defines collaboration as:

Collaboration is a working practice whereby individuals work together to a common purpose to achieve business benefit.

OK, so it requires a bunch of us to be working together towards common goals, I think most of us probably grasped the basic concept. However, this is different from communication, for example, which is more about the process of transferring information from one person, or point, to another.

Communications can of course be part of collaborative working, and this brings us to a couple more definitions that also apply to collaboration systems:

Synchronous communications

A phone conversation is a type of synchronous communication. Both parties are taking part in the conversation at the same time, or it would not make sense. Instant messaging is also an example of synchronous communication.

Asynchronous communications

Email is a good example of asynchronous communications, a message is sent at some point in time and the recipient responds at a later time as required. Also, think enterprise microblogging, microsharing and workspaces.

So when we are thinking about content management systems and how they fit into your collaboration strategy, perhaps the first thing to think about is whether you need:

  • an integration with synchronous collaboration technologies
  • or, at least, a link to synchronous collaboration technologies, such as desktop video conferencing
  • or the ability to send a document from your repository to a colleague via an instant messaging chat session.

Spinning that on its head, do you need your CMS to be able to store recorded video conferencing sessions for easy access at later date?

Most CMSs have an integration with email in one form or another for taking care of the asynchronous communications scenarios.

‘Technical’ Collaboration Scenarios

Successful collaboration normally requires a focus on non-technical aspects -- people and context, process and objectives (and content!). However, when considering collaboration from a systems perspective, it is also useful to consider the particular focus of the collaborative working scenario:

Content-Centric Collaboration

Working together to create or edit a particular item (or items) of information.  A good example is the Document Library centered approach of Microsoft’s SharePoint Server 2007, where the discussion forum, project blog or even the wiki is used to provide collaboration around the creation of content in MS Office formatted ‘documents’.

However, older Enterprise CMSs -- such as EMC Documentum and OpenText LiveLink -- have had the capability to pin threaded discussions to a particular folder, or even a particular document for years, so even though SharePoint is positioned as both a Web CMS and a collaboration platform, it is not necessarily the best solution to your needs.

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EMC Documentum Webtop as an example of content centric collaboration tools within a CMS

Conversation-Centric Collaboration

The focus is not any particular content item, but instead on free flowing, creative discussions, often between geographically dispersed teams or individuals. For example, those engaged in product development or R&D activities. Also often used in a ‘knowledge management’ focused scenario.

Tools include blogs, wikis, instant messaging, micro-blogging and “activity streams” (aka status updates). So, this area of collaboration is very defiantly part of the E2.0 focus. Examples might include Jive’s Social Business Software, Atlassian’s Confluence and Yammer or Identi.ca. Again, to spin content-centric collaboration on its head, if you want to use these kinds of tools, but your in a highly regulated industry, do you need a CMS which can provide records management and findability /eDiscovery layers over status updates and IM conversations?

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Yammer in SharePoint - can broadcasting your 'status updates' generate spontaneous conversations?

Process-Centric Collaboration

This is about enhancing a particular production process workflow by adding a collaborative element. This may include discussion with teams or individuals up or downstream in the process workflow, or the collaborative brainstorming of issues causing exceptions in the process, etc.

This may include an online workspace where all actors in the process can collaborate together. For example, using a SharePoint 2007 "Team Sites" or a Lotus Quikr space to house announcements and discussions that are pertinent to the process. As an example, I have seen a sophisticated Digital Asset Management production process using EMC Documentum that would automatically create an eRoom workspace in the case of a process exception, with all stakeholders receiving emails with access details, and they would collaborate in this workspace to correct the exception and prevent re-occurrence.

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EMC eRoom as an example of a online workspace which can be automatically generated as an exception to a processes workflow

Collaborative Management

This is the co-ordination of programs, projects or processes via collaborative interaction using team workspaces, team calendars and collaborative project management tools.

Again SharePoint, Lotus Quikr or EMC CenterStage types of products are examples of software that might have some of the features required, but also have content management elements to them.

We can push this use case further into web analytics – do you need to build dashboards for management based on analyzing the content in your CMS, who is accessing it and how frequently? Interestingly, one area where Sampson tells me products often fall short when evaluated against his 7 Pillars of Collaboration, is in the calendaring side of things:

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With web based calendars, like this SharePoint one, instant messaging, activity streams, wikis etc do we need email and traditional 'group ware' clients any more?

Messaging-Centric Collaboration

The lowest common denominator or fall back position for many, this category includes not only the use of email for collaboration (with all the bad practices like large CC lists and heavy attachments), but also instant messaging and texting tools.

Most CMSs have email integration to allow you to send emails with links to documents or web pages. Many can be set as an email target, so that you can email content directly into an area of the CMS.

Some like ThoughtFarmer actually allow you to email page content to the CMS, and it will take the content out of the email and publish it onto a web page for you. Again, on the other side of the coin, does your CMS need to have email archiving type functionality? Or do you at least need your staff to be able to drag and drop emails into the CMS just like any other type of content?

Collaboration Comes in Many Flavors\

As we can see in this very brief article, there are many different types of collaboration with different scenarios for integrating content management technologies and collaboration technologies. Collaboration is not that easy to do.

The context of your own particular requirements will make some of my observations valid, while completely invalidating others. Which is why it is important to understand your business requirements, and what you are trying to accomplish when you think you might need to integrate CMS and collaboration technologies.

One last tip, don't rely on RFI/RFP "tick lists." Write up some potential scenarios and get the vendors to walk you through how they would facilitate them. If you want to have some fun, throw some UML swim lane process diagrams at them and see what happens!