Collaboration as an online service

Knowledge management is a fuzzy IT challenge that feels like it will soon become as tired as Artificial Intelligence and Decision Support Systems, but finding new life online under a few new labels, such as co-creation, collaboration, and innovation networks. What I know about knowledge management systems and tools comes from my participation in McKinsey’s Business Knowledge Services initiative in 2000-2001, my strategy consulting with Richard Lusk in the go-to-market strategy at the online collaboration company, Foldera, and reading of Thomas Davenport’s Working Knowledge and Thomas Stewart’s The Wealth of Knowledge and other desultory scans of the business theorists.

I’m going to focus the next few weeks on the concept of external knowledge management — the practice of seeking and managing intelligence from the market versus managing what lies within the organizational wall. I wrote an article in 2004 for Forrester Magazine with Navi Radjou on his research into corporations that constructed networks within and outside those walls to increase their time to market and improve their portfolio of innovations (I hate the term innovation on principle, having seen the term abused by makers of everything from candy to pickup trucks. I define “innovation” as invention made commercial). Those networks have tended to emphasize the connections between an organization’s internal resources and contractors or partners.

The extension of knowledge management to include outside contributors and participants leads to the point of this post: what tools can facilitate the collaboration? The old models of using enterprise solutions such as Lotus Notes or Microsoft Exchange have crumbled under the rise of PHP forums, commercial (and open) wiki structures such as JotSpot and MediaWiki, and now Office 2.0 plays such as Zimbra, Foldera, and 37 Signals’ Backpack, and Google’s moves into online applications such as spreadsheets and word processors.

IBM’s announcement last week that it was moving its online innovation activities — such as its lauded “Innovation Jam” — to Second Life sparked some interest, but I remain reluctant to endorse Second Life due to the more significant account set up issues that confront new users. Some press beefed about the PITA factor when a competitor of ours held a press conference in Second Life, but I can’t completely throw the metaverse play to the dogs just yet, even after spending an hour in “Amsterdam” yesterday ogling the virtual hookers …

But I digress. Online collaboration tools seem to be focused on point to point collaboration plays such as 37Signals which extend an organization’s reach beyond the constraints of its enterprise tools – aka Lotus Notes. Opening a Notes account or granting a non-employee VPN access into a corporate knowledge management system is much more trouble than its worth, so solutions such as Basecamp are filling that niche. Foldera’s tool offers a lot of promise and when it comes out of beta next year, the proof will be in its adoption. I have not played around with Zimbra, but my buddy Dan Lyons at Forbes has been experimenting with it and gives it high marks.

For public collaboration — inviting the masses in to comment and play — there are of course blogs and their comment structures, but as I have noted in an earlier post on the mechanics of blogging and community development, they ultimately give too much amplification to the power of the blogger’s voice and little to none to the commentary.

That leaves wikis — a solid platform for collaboration as the Wikipedia attests — but not one without a significant amount of parliamentary processes to control vandalism and defacement.

And so I shall experiment, downloading the installer for MediaWiki and building out an instance here on