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Visions of The Future of Work at Enterprise 2.0

Last week's Enterprise 2.0 was an intellectually stimulating event. Of course, the presentations, exhibits, and hallways were buzzing with words like social networking, blogs, wikis, contextual search, workspaces, unified communications, social messaging, tweets, personal pages, walls/boards (to write on), communities, Web 2.0, cloud computing, and more. Many enterprise customers were on hand to discuss their progress to date with these new tools, generally quite positively.The list of exhibitors was impressive in two dimensions. First, the major suppliers were there as the leading sponsors - Diamond: IBM and Microsoft; Platinum: Alcatel-Lucent: Gold: EMC Corporation, Level 3, Novell, OpenText and SAP. And there were dozens of on-coming innovators, as well. Scan the entire list, with short summaries, here. The booth tour was loaded with interesting and good ideas at every stop. Alex Dunne has posted a handful of video elevator pitches here.

But the most compelling impact, from my viewpoint, was the vision that Enterprise 2.0 (E2) offered of the future of work. As you know, we at UniComm Consulting and see unified communications (UC), as "communications integrated to optimize business processes." Well, collaboration is certainly a specialized form of communication, and E2 built right on the UC theme by showing how the new collaboration tools are being integrated into enterprise business processes.

Our awareness of many of these new tools probably began in our consumer, social and family lives. Facebook, Twitter, Digg, and many, many more are all part of setting our expectations. But the E2 themes reshaped both the nature and practicality of these new tools. Let's look at some of those reshaped visions of work.

* Personalized and Role-Customized work experiences. The customer stories consistently highlighted the flexibility of the new collaboration tools to match the individual's personal preferences while also optimizing job effectiveness. The basic tools provide for secure organization and sharing of profiles, tagged content, bookmarks, etc. and for an appropriate set of UC tools (instant messaging, social messaging, blogs, wikis, presence, click-to-call or conference, etc.). Many of the interface capabilities can also be viewed and used, to some extent, on mobile devices. Beyond these basics, the users have the ability to drag in any number of widgets, ranging from geo-mapping (see the physical location of the available people on a buddy list, or of the authors of a document) to RSS or other information feeds to job specific tools (say a pricing configuration tool or a sales results tracking module).

Thus, the new work environment will not lose any of the functions we know and value in today's packaged interfaces, but will embed those functions in an interface that can match the user's preferred work modes. Not all roles or jobs will need a modified interface--for example some logistics or production roles or an accounts receivable desk may lend themselves more to the classic interfaces and enterprise portals. Yet, even those jobs can contribute and receive value by using the social networking tools.

* Visible value expression and search. It was clear from the customer cases, as well as from the suppliers' presentations and booths, that a lot of value is being exposed by use of the social networking tools. When the web first emerged in the '90s, many of us said, "I'd sure like to have my own personal web page," and some of us even did that. But the new tools make that accessible to everyone, without millions of new domain names (thankfully). Enterprise tools such as IBM Lotus Connections, Telligent, and Tomoye, just to name a few of many (see exhibitor link above), are being used by employees to present, share and tag the things they do well, the things they are interested in, and the content/concepts/ideas the are creating. All this is being done with appropriate controls on permissions and access; also, when appropriate, logging and tracking are possible for compliance and governance.

As the individual sharing (posting on the individual's "page") grows, the value grows exponentially. Search tools become much more well informed by including the individual's profile information in the search logic. For example, a sales rep seeking to address a customer problem could search for "available person, in my division, with advanced-level product certifications, who has knowledge about blue widgets" and the search engine could return a list, ranked, say, by relatedness and proximity. Review of information on the pages might solve the problem (i.e. indirect communication) or lead to a quick IM session, to advance the sale.

* Peripheral vision. A very interesting concept of "peripheral vision" popped up in a Wednesday AM panel. David Marshak of IBM suggested that the social networking tools are all about context, at least in the collaboration process and likely in other jobs that allow for relatively frequent social networking interaction. One of the context elements he mentioned was "peripheral vision" by which he meant that each individual would have an improved sense of the situation in which they are working, acting or making decisions. Others on the panel responded enthusiastically to that idea, and for good reason. Actually, David was not just hyping a continuous string of social messages (Tweets in one case), but rather the combination of subscriptions, event feeds, following of specific knowledgeable sources (including their social messages and profile or page changes), and informed search. About 20 years ago, the Media Lab at MIT suggested we would all have our personalized newspapers in the future; well, it sure seems to me that these new social and collaborative communication tools are making that possible within any enterprise and within any community that has a purpose to form and survive (disbanding when that purpose evaporates).

It was also clear that sufficient software features and security controls exist to allow users to belong to multiple, overlapping communities, depending on their business needs and interests. It is also possible to extend these communities across enterprise boundaries. Thus, customers and suppliers can be much more closely integrated into the business, for both richer and more loyal relationships.

So, in summary, Enterprise 2.0, Boston, June 2009, was very effective in providing me with an enhanced vision of the future of work. Nothing we know and value in work needs to be dismantled; rather the new layer of sharing and communication will magnify the value and contribution of each participant.

One important piece of news out of Enterprise 2.0 was that there will be a West Coast version of the event this November, co-located with VoiceCon San Francisco. More details are coming soon. I would welcome your feedback at [email protected].