The Fourth Generation of Collaboration Services

Looking at the history of electronic collaboration services we have seen the emergence of several collaboration services the last two decades. And yet we still see a lot of people using email as their primary collaboration tool. With the emergence of instant messaging and social software, inside and outside the firewall we can collaborate a lot smarter. Only why are people still hesitant? Why do end user still send attachment in the email? Maybe it is the habit of working with email, or maybe it is too much work (too many clicks) for doing it differently. This article will provide a short history of collaboration services and describe the characteristic of the next generation.


Talking about the fourth generation of collaboration tooling it implies that there are three previous generations. Each generation added new functionality on top of the existing collaboration environments. So here a short overview:

The first generation started with the email and calendar software. The peak of email collaboration was during the decade from 1990 to 2000. At the beginning of this decade cc:Mail was the biggest corporate email platform. In 1991 cc:Mail was bought by Lotus Development to enhance Lotus Notes, a groupware platform, with better mail functionality. During the decade there was a fierce battle for the corporate email market share between Lotus Notes (groupware) and Microsoft Exchange mail (only).

The second generation (2000-2005) added instant messaging (IM), webconferencing and shared workspaces to the email environment. Lotus Development started in 1998 with Sametime as corporate instant messaging product. This was a couple of years before a broader acceptation of IM within the enterprise. Now we see that with the explosion of instant messaging on internet and in social networking sites that people are getting used to the concept of using IM. It is no longer seen as a nice to have. One step further: within IBM communicating via instant messaging is more important then email. This is not only the way IBMers now work, but it is also in the official SLA: the IBM IM infrastructure has a higher priority then the email infrastructure.

The third generation collaboration tooling emerged five years ago and is still growing. It started with the start of web 2.0, which allowed users to participate on the web by creating, sharing and consuming content via Blogs, Wikis, Profiles, social networking sites and web applications. IBM had internally all kinds of internal sites running and in 2007 it launched the corporate social software suite: IBM Connections. For those of you who pay attention: we are still in the age of social business and here we are talking about the next (fourth) generation of collaboration tooling.

Fourth Generation Characteristics

So what is the fourth generation all about? Looking at the previous generations, they brought new functionality on top of the existing collaboration services. The fourth generation does not add new forms of collaboration, but it is about integration. As we talk about unified communications (UC / UCC), which provides a consistent unified user interface and user experience across multiple devices, in applications, processes and media types to collaborate in real time, I like to talk about Unified Collaboration. The fourth generation of collaboration services is about enabling the user to use the most effective collaboration service via a universal dashboard. It will allow the end-user to use more efficient ways of collaboration then email. Collaboration should be one click away, and when using unified collaboration dashboard, this option becomes reality. It delivers the promise of less email and more efficient collaboration.

Besides the unified collaboration interface, using a unified collaboration console, other characteristics of the fourth generation of collaboration services are described below:

As the world is getting more interconnected, and not only from a social perspective, but also from a technology perspective, this is an important aspect. Openness allows inter enterprise collaboration. This avoids emailing back and forth as means of collaboration beyond the firewall. Openness also allows the integration of consumer and other services, e.g. include twitter messages into the dashboard. This integration will blur the line between personal activities and business activities. Another advantage of using open standards is that it will allow the integration of processes and services to seamlessly integrate into the universal collaboration dashboard.

Mobile experience is becoming a part of the design. No longer is mobile access an afterthought, but now mobile usage is becoming mainstream. This means that the fourth generation of collaboration services needs to be available any time, anywhere and on any device (Mac, Windows, Tablet, Smartphone, etc.

One of the characteristics of the next generation is a mixed delivery of on premises and cloud-based delivery. We see that the cloud is becoming more important to deliver collaboration services and the usage of services will be transparent for the end-user. They just want to use a service to collaborate, e.g. post a message to Twitter is not different then posting a status message on the IBM Connections board.

As we are moving away of the email culture, real-time collaboration will take a prominent way of collaboration, even better it will become the default modality. E-mail will not die, but the culture of dumping everything, attachments, requests, etc. will change in the future. The big advantage is that while using instant messaging it is the best way to get things done, as the recipient delivers your answer immediately.

The capability of Social Analytics is key in the fourth generation of collaboration services. Finding and getting the right information and learning about people you ought to know is key in the era of information overload. As someone said: “it is not the information overload, but it is the filtering deficiency”. Social analytics is not only great to help users not to drown in information, but it can also help in improving the efficiency in delivering information, by giving insight into with whom and when they are collaborating.

Fourth Generation Benefits

So we now have an understanding of where we are from a collaboration history perspective. We know the characteristics of the fourth generation of collaboration services. But what business issues can it solve? Here are some of the issues that it addresses:

Information overload: The growth of data is exponential. Not only are we producing documents, but with the use of social software, we are also producing blogs wikis etc. with content. For mortals like us it is impossible to stay up to date (with this growth rate) without any smart filtering. There are only 24 hours in a day.

Navigation and usability: Within enterprises there are a lot of systems people are working with. Not only do people work in their email, but they use another tool to share documents, work in a CRM system, etc. And most of the time these products are of different vendors and have each their own interface. It makes is hard to navigate and to learn all the different user interfaces. This fragmented collaboration toolset does not facilitate an ease of use. In terms of user adoption: the new collaboration tooling should be ten times easier – as said before: “One click away”. Another aspect is that having the multiple collaboration services, it means that the end-user still has to decide what to use when. It might give some confusion if people use different technologies. The advantage of having one UI for not only desktop, but also for mobile devices, that covers, like a social middleware the collaboration services in the backend, the ease of use and user adoption will grow.

Work without (firewall) boundaries: In the current world, more and more people are using their network to get information. This collaboration is no longer bound to the internal network, but it has evolved to collaboration outside the firewall, e.g. people are using LinkedIn Groups to ask for opinions and discuss , use Twitter to communicate, use cloud services to have web meetings and share files with external people.

IBM Project Vulcan

So what has this to do with IBM Collaboration software? As I read the paper of Gartner: The Emergence of Fourth-Generation Collaboration Services, I noticed that it described exactly the design principles of IBM Project Vulcan.

IBM Project Vulcan was announced in 2010 and is a design vision and is about:

Innovation – using analytics to understand individuals and empower people to work in new ways with the goal to get productivity breakthroughs driven by integration, social analytics and attention management features, e.g. activity streams.

  • Convergence– Unifying the experience to best meet individual collaboration needs across access and delivery models, which means simplify the work environment with mobile, web and desktop experiences, and hybrid deployment mode
  • Opportunity– making possible the next generation of solutions built on an open foundation.
  • Continuity– Building on today’s capabilities and investments of customers for a smooth path to tomorrow.

The goal of the project Vulcan design is to increase the end-user productivity by integrating the existing collaboration services with one user interface and have a good attention management with social analytics capabilities in place on any device. Another key aspect of project Vulcan is the use of a loosely coupled modular architecture, based on open standards and delivered on premises or in the cloud. This will allow companies to implement social middleware on top of their collaboration services, integrating and reusing existing and new capability by choice into the collaboration dashboard, so e.g. it does not matter if a customer is running Microsoft SharePoint with Outlook mail, or if they are running Lotus Notes clients with IBM Quickr, to be able to take advantage of the new collaboration dashboard /user interface.

Lotusphere 2012 – Project Vulcan Has Officially Been Delivered

A very good article has been written by CMS Wire. I am encouraging you to read it as I am not going to create a resume here. To conclude: IBM has shown at the Lotusphere that the vision of Vulcan has been now delivered into the products. In the center of the Unified Collaboration is the Connections homepage or dashboard. This is the entry point for the enduser to find, reach and collaborate. Including social email and instant messaging. Another product that has been announced is IBM Docs, the realtime co-editing of documents, spreadsheets and presentations in the browser. Just like Google Docs and Office 365 it delivers the capabilities to edit documents. IBM delivers IBM Docs in the cloud or on premises and embeds this capabilities into the (4th generation) collaboration environment, which is a big plus over the competitors. If you like try, just follow the link to the beta site here.

So now the waiting for Connections 4, which is now in beta, has started.