Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Online Collaboration for Government

Denise Holehouse, from Microsoft presented "Creating Business Value through Better Collaboration" to the ACS Canberra branch on Tuesday:

The world is becoming more interconnected and organizations that want to succeed in this new environment need to become more connected as well. This is not simply an information technology (IT) architecture issue, but a challenge to individuals, teams, government, businesses, and the wider world:

How can we work together better?

How can we pool our knowledge to improve results?

How can we make processes more efficient, while delivering personal care and service when it matters most?

How can we manage the flood of information that’s overflowing our inboxes, our mobile phones, and our lives? ...
Denise concentrated on aspects likely to be most of interest to an audience of government ICT people (A show of hand indicated three quarters of the audience were from government agencies). She showed a slide illistrating some of the issues for government, including consultation and collaboration.

She then showed a short video which saw a spoof of the film The Devil Wears Prada. This had people in an office quickly organizing a video conference, interacting using computer and phones and using technologies such as voice recognition.

Clearly none of the technologies Microsoft was illistrating in the video, or offering, are new. Collaboration tools, including desktop video are already available, including open source free versions. What Microsoft were claiming is that all the technologies can be combined together and made easy to operate. Microsoft Office 2007 includes interface features such as
"The Ribbon" and Contextual Tabs.

One interesting development is that Microsoft have acquired Groove, and incorporated it in Office:
At its most basic level, Groove is desktop software designed to facilitate collaboration and communication among small groups. It is a Windows-based commercial product initially developed by Lotus Notes creator Ray Ozzie (former CEO of Iris Associates). The central Groove paradigm is the shared workspace, a set of files to be shared plus some aids for group collaboration. ...

From: Microsoft Office Groove, Wikipdedia, 16:23, 27 April 2007
In incorporating new collaboration features and making its existing Microsoft Office product easier to operate, Microsoft is not so much competing with other companies, as with itself and with the web. The most commonly used office product is Microsoft Office. So to convince customers to use the new easier to use version, Microsoft must convince customers to stop using the old version.

If Microsoft pushes the customers too hard, they may decide to move from their current version of Microsoft Office to something like OpenOffice.Org. This is a free open source product. It may not be as powerful, or as easy to use, as Microsoft Office 2007, but will look familiar and be adequate for most office tasks (and more than enough for home use).

Open Format Wars

Denise mentioned in her talk that Microsoft's Office Open XML (OOXML) format has been adopted as a standard by the European body ECMA. This is a respected standards body and gives the new format some credibility (ECMA have also submitted the OOXML to ISO to make it an International Standard).

But it should be noted that OOXML is a new format and the formats used by the old versions of Microsoft Office (such as .DOC for word processing) are not part of the standard. Conversion tools will be needed for the old packages to read and write the new format.

OOXML is a Zipped XML format and is conceptually similar to the OpenDocument (ODF) format used by OpenOffice.Org and some other open source packages. But ODF is already an International Standard (ISO/IEC 26300:2006) and is much smaller and simpler than OOXML.

It is likely that the old Microsoft Office formats will continue to be used for day to day work. New application needing good integration will likely use some XML based format. But newer versions of XHTML are likely to be a better format to use than OOXML or ODF for most word processing documents.

What is likely is that simpler XML formats which can be directly displayed by a web browser will be used for publishing and interchange. These formats will be converted to the new package formats (and legacy Microsoft Office formats) only when the documents need to be edited. Applications such as ICE already take this approach, allow publishing of large, complex documents from Microsoft Word into print, web and PDF formats. Microsoft has similar features in its software.

Twenty first Century Collaboration On Web 2.0?

The competition for Microsoft's collaboration tools is not a particular product or company, but is Web based applications and the so called "Web 2.0". Microsoft is emphasizing traditional collaboration tools, such as automated workflow and support for meetings. If you ask, they will tell you they support web applications and Web 2.0, but they do not emphasize it as it is likely to worry traditional corporate customers.

Staff who are used to wikis, blogs and the like socially will want to use these tools to do their work. The idea that they have to use rigid workflow processes to move a form around the office electronically, or have to use a rigid meeting structure online will seem so "last century". These staff will want to get the work done online now, using the tools directly to do the work. If the tools are not available from the software on their PC, they will turn to the web for tools. These staff may not even realize that the Microsoft software they have on their desktop is capable of providing these functions, but that the corporate IT area has disabled access to it. The staff will just see Microsoft as providing last century applications and look elsewhere.

If collaboration is being done directly online, the most natural way is with software on a web server and a web browser on the desktop. An organization only needs one copy of the collaboration software on their server. They can even outsource the server to someone else. They don't need any special software on their PCs, as any compatible web browser using any operating system will do. In fact the organization does not need any PCs: they could use thin client terminals (most likely running Linux). Mobile staff many not need a desktop at all and can use the web on a smartphone running any operating system with a compatible browser.

Throw out your PCs and Workflow Systems

Organizations looking to upgrade their office and collaboration tools need to seriously look at the options. It may be time to throw out the desktop applications and perhaps the PCs for most users. This will greatly reduce the support costs, as the minimal software on a thin client will take little maintenance. With no disk drives and no data stored on the desktop, security will also be improved. For some offices the organization could just have a router with terminals and no servers at all: everything would operate over a secure Internet connection from a remote location.

Organizations need to take a long hard look at their work practices as well. As an example, government agencies which produce large traditionally formatted documents should look at why they are doing this. Few people want to read these big documents and almost no one reads them in print. If the document is going to end up being a collection of web pages, it makes no sense to use a word processor, or any traditional typesetting tools, to create it.

The traditional approach to creating a government report would be to circulate a request for input, collect contributions, collate a draft in the word processor, circualte it for comment, make revisions, typeset, print and then create a web version. An alternative would be to create a Wiki which allows any authorized staff member to edit. The coordinator would prepare the outline of the document as a series of pages in the Wiki and check contributions. But rather than approve contributions in advance, and have meetings about what should be in the report, the editor would check what was in and join the online conversation about it.
Most of the workflow and meetings are then not needed, nor is software needed to support them.

A more radical approach would be to also invite external stakeholders to also edit the report, or even the general public (I have used the approach in preparing ICT industry contributions to government which later became public policy). This would get government out a rapidly building problem: online consultation. The availability of the web has created an expectation that the public will be consulted by government, but the traditional approach of inviting submissions and taking comment will not scale.

ps: Microsoft offer a paper
"Creating Business Value through Better Collaboration" on their Australian teams web site. However, when I attempted to download it I got "Sorry, there is no web page matching your request".

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