by Phil Green, Inmagic, IT Business Edge

Many analysts are predicting 2010 to be the year of collaboration. In a recent study of IT strategists, Forrester found 70 percent of respondents believe collaboration technology will significantly cut decision making time and improve productivity this year. Couple that with Forrester’s Global Enterprise Content Management (ECM) Survey, which found 61 percent of organizations believe “content sharing” is a major ECM investment driver, and it’s clear business leaders have recognized the collaboration imperative.

Now the challenge is how best to address that imperative. Business leaders are increasingly focused on ways to enable faster, more cost-effective sharing, teaming, and learning among employees. In particular, they’re looking at social media technology as a means to this end, and determining how it can be used inside the firewall to foster collaboration and achieve business benefits.

But with more organizations putting these adoption plans and pilot projects in motion, major challenges are arising for IT. The department is tasked with finding, or in some cases, building, social collaboration applications that meet requirements for internal software, architecture, security, and governance standards. Not to mention they must often adhere to a tight budget.

For organizations interested in using social tools to cost-effectively improve collaboration, it’s crucial to connect the social technology directly to where collaboration occurs: enterprise content.

The Technology Backbone

This means using technology based on the latest advancements in enterprise knowledge management. Such technology lets organizations move to a new two-way paradigm regarding enterprise knowledge management, where information can be strengthened and acted upon by the “wisdom of the community.”

The knowledge management industry calls this technology Social Knowledge Networks (SKN). Empowering the broader organization to contribute to its knowledgebase, and putting tools in place to ensure knowledge is properly accessed, vetted, and managed, are the keys to creating an SKN.

As with traditional knowledge management systems, SKNs also collect and organize most any data — documents, presentations, photos, videos, audio recordings, etc. This information forms the basis of an organization’s core knowledgebase.

The difference is, SKNs take it one step further by adding social tools — such as blogs, wikis, online ratings, discussions, and social tags — to tap the collective wisdom of the corporate community.

SKNs provide a way to unleash this wisdom so employees can share knowledge and update and enrich core content. This creates a dynamic, living knowledgebase, where employees can access reliable information and enhance its value.

Perhaps best of all, SKNs can integrate with mainstream enterprise platforms, including ECMs and Microsoft SharePoint. While SharePoint is widely adopted, organizations are looking to independent solution providers to augment their SharePoint footprint with custom solutions to address specific business problems — including collaboration, and knowledge retention and preservation.

With SKNs, organizations can enhance their SharePoint environment with an off-the-shelf solution suited to their collaboration needs. For instance, they can create internal, secure knowledge communities around enterprise content, with sophisticated social, search, security, and library workflow capabilities not found in SharePoint.

SKNs also use role-based security, where users are granted access privileges based on factors such as seniority, expertise, functional role, location, and more. Credentials are typically verified using single sign-on. This enables control over what, when, and how contributions are made, and avoids the information veracity problems that are typical in traditional social media.

For example, a junior scientist in a pharmaceutical firm might have rights to view research data, but not rights to add to it or change it. That function would only be provided to senior scientists.

Content-Centric Socialization

Taken together, SKNs provide a tight connection between content and the people that enhance and inform the content, which can lead to better and faster business decisions. It is this connection between enterprise content and social media that will allow enterprise social collaboration technology to take off in 2010.

To illustrate this further, let’s look at another real-world opportunity for social knowledge networks in the enterprise. A new sales associate might refer to an old proposal as a basis to develop a new one for a prospect. But how does the newbie know the old proposal is a good model to follow?

Maybe it was rejected. Perhaps there are services mentioned that the organization doesn’t provide anymore. The new associate is left guessing, unless he consults someone who dealt with the account. And that person might not be with the company anymore.

Now introduce a SKN into the scenario. The “old” proposal wouldn’t be old at all. It would be a living, evolving document.

First, it would have a rating. For example, five stars might indicate it’s a potent proposal, while one star would signal “stay away.” It would feature tags that provide metadata about the proposal, such as the industry and status. Links to supporting documents, videos, PowerPoints, images, and so on would be embedded. Inaccuracies would be clarified, corrected, and documented.

This gives the new sales associate context for the proposal, arming him with information to gain a better understanding of when, how, and why the proposal was used, and what the result was.

After he’s presented the proposal, the sales associate rates how helpful it was, and adds a comment detailing the customer’s reaction and what changes he had to make. Shared knowledge builds upon shared knowledge. Information about the proposal is preserved, iterated, and improved as others use, critique, and modify it.

The enterprise technology market is evolving in response to the demand for cost-effective ways to improve collaboration and increase organizational effectiveness. Business leaders are looking for flexible environments where users can create, organize, and share knowledge. And IT leaders are looking for secure, low-cost, high-impact technologies to support this.

From Collide to Merge

As ECM and social technologies collide, rather than a turf war, we’ll see an integration that focuses on the huge growth of content within organizations and provides ways to support this content through collaboration. SharePoint’s continued use is demonstrating a need for ECM solutions to focus in areas like collaboration.

Social knowledge networks are uniquely positioned to cost-effectively and securely speed knowledge transfer and foster collaboration, because they connect social technology directly to where collaboration occurs: enterprise content.