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Article

An Evolution from Project Management to Cloud-Based Social Collaboration

Social collaboration cuts through organizational boundaries and behaviors

As hundreds of Enterprise 2.0 tools continue to flood the market, the use of social networks within the enterprise is extending into other toolsets such as project management. The intersection of project management and social collaboration has the potential to improve complex project management by leveling customary organizational boundaries and facilitating interdepartmental co-creation. By doing so, innovation is crowd-sourced at an enterprise level, enabling and filtering out the best ideas rather than the loudest. This area of cloud adoption could potentially change organizational behavior and innovation as we know it.

Social Networking Enters the Enterprise
Business-focused social sites have successfully made their way into thousands of enterprises, unhinging the antiquated ideal that it is the tool, and not our attention span, that make us less productive. By the time I finish writing this, I expect to receive upwards of a dozen responses to a post I made on sprintr this morning asking my colleagues for input on this article. This subsection of social networking, aptly named Enterprise 2.0, aims to streamline business processes and enhance collaboration with real-time, crowd-focused information sharing. We are entering an exciting era of social collaboration in the enterprise, one where organizational boundaries are broken so that cross-functional teams can innovate.

The continued success and growth of adoption around enterprise 2.0 applications will be driven by our natural love for consumer-driven social sites. They are simple to access and require almost no information beyond an email address to sign up. Most of them are free to use and cleverly (yet somewhat innately) designed to be viral, offering us additional functionality when we invite new members. Most noticeably, these sites give us instant access to valuable information once confined solely to water coolers, conference rooms, and whiteboards.

While the idea of "office buzz" may come across like an unproductive value proposition, it's the psychological connection to a group perspective relevant to my work that makes me come back time after time. Social activity streams enable us to capture information exchanges throughout our organizations in an extremely efficient manner. When used purposefully, these enterprise social hubs greatly improve productivity by replacing complex email threads and impromptu hallway conversations with perfectly recorded and prioritized strings of commentary. This, however, is nothing compared to the productivity boost when social collaboration is applied directly to a project management framework.

Project Management Gets More Social
The transmission of this organizational interaction to other business processes is where I see the most value in Enterprise 2.0 technology. While applications like Yammer and Chatter provide us with social activity streams connecting us to our entire organization, the subdivision of project teams sitting between the individual employee and the entire enterprise cohort has the most to gain. Even Microsoft has jumped onboard with an injection of social activity streams into its once despised collaboration tool, SharePoint.

The combination of social networking and project management has quite a few interesting effects on the way we work as a team. Anyone involved in a project can now participate from anywhere and at any time as long as they are invited to do so. Beyond the obvious efficiencies in having a centralized repository that maintains brainstorming, planning, progress, and all of the commentary in between - we have a way to capture insights from the rest of the organization and effectively aggregate their perspectives.

It is worth noting that the security concerns behind storing our project information in a cloud may be nullified by the fact that (reputable) companies behind this software have our trust in their best interest.

I recall a conversation with a very early employee at Facebook, who claimed that when a destination is built upon the organic growth of social interaction (a viral mechanism), the users are at the helm. In Enterprise 2.0 scale, your organization's social collaboration space will become an organism in itself, growing only as fast as it proves its utility.

I should also add that this point about the organic nature of Enterprise 2.0 tools was suggested by a colleague who just commented on my early-morning sprintr post. There seems to be some debate regarding the adoption of Enterprise 2.0 tools based primarily on reference, rather than looking more deeply at the technological underpinnings that truly keep our data secure. Luckily for me, I have this real-time debate recorded in full on sprintr - and lucky for you, it's unrolling in real-time as I write this article. I suppose this is as good a time as any to discuss the impact that co-creation has on the final result of our projects.

Social Collaboration Jumpstarts Innovation
When you give everyone in your organization a voice, the best ideas are heard over the loudest. I've heard this phrase a million times, and yet it always strikes me as more prophetic than anything I could tangibly do.

When we give our organization a social collaboration space, aren't we only bringing the horse to water? How do we make the horse drink, or the community participate? The value we gain after all - whether an organization, project team, or individual employee - is directly proportional to quantity and quality of our input.

Once a social collaboration space is recognized as the most efficient and effective method of communication between any subsection of an enterprise, it doesn't take long for new voices to come out of the woodwork. Keep in mind that participating in these conversations is innately easier when opinions are organized into threads of commentary. Two months later, someone could be reading these discussions and offer an answer that appeases both sides of the original argument. By giving these once silenced opinions a chance to be heard in an interdepartmental conversation, we've just broken free from a huge organizational barrier that impedes innovation.

By leveling departmental boundaries, collaboration is no longer confined to people of the same mindset. I do not mean to imply that all of the sales guys will innately have a similar opinion but, rather, that every stakeholder has the opportunity to provide their input. In my own experience, the collaboration that goes on between the software developer modifying an application and the marketing manager using the application is reminiscent of two toddlers not knowing how to communicate effectively. While I can't promise Enterprise 2.0 tools will fill that gap in expertise, I have seen in practice an increase in satisfaction resulting from improved collaboration between the two.

We also cannot forget about those behavioral implications that we learned in business school. Extroverted people will say things as they think of them; introverted people will think first, and so on and so forth. These interactions take the prophetic "loudest voices" anecdote somewhat literally. Every voice on a social collaboration space is the same volume. You could argue that the CEO's opinion trumps that of the intern, but the intern's comment will be a part of the whole conversation and theoretically carry the same weight as that of the CEO.

What does leveling these organizational boundaries have to do with jump-starting innovation? Social collaboration sites open up the conversation to new mindsets, new personalities, new people and all of the experiences, knowledge and expertise that come with them. Instead of five of us sitting in a boardroom brainstorming the next big campaign - we're having a perfectly organized and productive meeting between hundreds of people, who will offer their view at a time convenient to them. No scheduled meeting to miss, no whiteboards to take pictures of, no overly opinionated executives to listen to. At Mendix, the only way we could ever get hundreds of people to collaborate and innovate towards a common goal is through sprintr.

Social Project Management Gets Agile
The instances above where innovation is fueled throughout an entire organization can be applied to smaller social communities, including project teams. Project teams have the same boundaries that organizations do; they even have an extra level of hierarchy within the project team that can easily impede co-creation and innovation.

Over the last decade, project methodologies have become a hot topic in the software development world. Agile development and its subcategories (scrum, extreme programming, etc.) take a collaborative and iterative approach to software development, as opposed to a waterfall methodology that has sequential steps that, as the name suggests, must be completed in a set order. The agile methodology is growing in popularity, and Enterprise 2.0 applications seem perfectly suited to support the highly collaborative approach.

Feedback loops play an important role in agile development. Following each iteration, a "shippable" piece of the application is up for review by the project team and any outside stakeholders that may be involved. Harnessing feedback via a cloud-based social collaboration space is perhaps the most efficient way to organize and attain (valuable) opinions of the application. Unsurprisingly, the very complex nature of software development projects combined with the natural interest in adopting the latest cloud technology has made social collaboration a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is not to say these tools will not make it to a vast majority of industries; within due time, I suspect social collaboration applications to be as common, and perhaps as impactful, as the telephone.

A Final Word on the Cloud
To wrap up my thoughts on the evolution of project management tools to cloud-based social collaboration spaces, I should remark that of the thousands of ways we will take advantage of cloud computing, I believe the subtle changes in social interaction and organizational behavior may very well be the most broadly impactful to our careers. Social collaboration cuts through organizational boundaries and behaviors, providing raw opinions crowd-sourced at the enterprise level. Its utilization grows virally within the enterprise, becoming a living network and company "pulse" without anyone having to manage it from above. Few technological advances have been so intertwined with our psychological make-up as an organization, project team, or individual, and yet so liable for our productivity in any of those forms.

More Stories By Eric Peters

Eric Peters is the Global Marketing Communications Manager at Mendix, responsible for online marketing strategy, positioning, messaging and branding. He received a BS in Business Management with concentrations in Technology Entrepreneurship and Global Business Management from Babson College. While at Babson, he wrote his thesis on cross-cultural marketing of automobiles after circumnavigating the globe as part of an international study abroad program.

Eric has held numerous marketing positions ranging from product design to product planning within large enterprises and innovative start-ups. Since joining Mendix, he has focused his writing on best practices in business agility, enterprise 2.0 adoption and online marketing.

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