The Informatics Behind Collaboration

Back in 1999 and 2000, I took up ownership of some very large marketing databases, and was tasked with providing deep insights into the purchasing habits of a couple million consumers across Northern California. Of course, I had been managing consumer data warehouses and business intelligence applications for a number of years — but much of that had been from a data center perspective: imagemanaging the hardware, installing and supporting the front end applications, and deciphering end user requirements into actionable plans for my engineering team within a reasonable timeframe.

But in my new role, I got even closer to the data, appending basic demographic profiles with deeper psychographic details and geographic information coupled with whatever data we could find from then-fledgling social communication tools and social networking platforms. It was all very bleeding edge stuff, with no case study or best practices behind it. In fact, most of the vendors we worked with at the time are no longer around.

It was a time of intense learning for me. I had just wrapped up my MBA and was torn between going on to pursue a JD and focus on corporate law, or to dive deeper into the sociology, psychology, and technology around the burgeoning collaboration technology space. As some of you are aware, it was during this time that I sold my 3.5 year old software company to Rational Software and joined a well-funded startup just south of San Francisco, with plans to pursue a doctorate in the field of social informatics, with a focus on collaboration technology.

Social Informatics is the study of information and communication tools in cultural and institutional contexts. When looking at informatics through the lens of collaboration, it can be viewed as a broad, inter-disciplinary analysis of usage patterns that spans sociology, anthropology, psychology, technology, and business. More specifically, it is a study of the way that we do business – the tools we use, how we connect and collaborate, and how we consume and disperse information.

While the doctoral plans didn’t happen (work and life happened — delayed my start 3 times and lost my placement, but I’m ok with it) the fascination with social informatics has continued, and occupies a large portion of my bedtime reading.

Social informatics of collaboration is much more than web analytics — its about understanding patterns of usage, and why and how those patterns persist. It is important to understand social informatics because the fundamentals of how the next generation of our workforce (Millenials and beyond) relate to each other, how they work alone or together, and how they use technology has changed dramatically over the past decade. Understanding these changes in how people think about their enterprise applications may help you to evolve your thinking about how to deploy or transform your SharePoint platform.

Of course, I’m always trying to relate my interest in social informatics back to the day job: SharePoint. Within the context of SharePoint are the building blocks of an enterprise social informatics shift, helping you to shape your environment to meet the needs of your evolving end users: metadata and taxonomy, service applications, social computing features, and the first steps into mobile. Some things to consider from an informatics perspective:

  • Metadata and Taxonomy
    It is important to build and (proactively) maintain your metadata and taxonomy regardless of your SharePoint architecture and future plans, but even more so with SharePoint 2013 and the soon-to-arrive Office Graph and Oslo capability, which will put search back in the spotlight (did it ever leave the spotlight?). Metadata is the building block of collaboration, powering both search and social computing. It is critical that organizations build a governance model that allows for fast, flexible, and transparent changes, so that end users can develop confidence that their input is being heard – and so that they can find their content quickly and easily. Review usage patterns (just like you do for Search Engine Optimization of your online advertising) and make adjustments often.
  • Social Computing
    Social is so much more than group chat, or the sharing of LOL Cats (although the latter will be viewed historically as a defining moment in our culture). Think of social computing as another layer of the search experience. Aside from the fact that the rich user profiles power many other capabilities than social tools (for example, use these profiles to build workflows), social computing is a core component of the way we now work. Look beyond the consumer-based platforms, and what you see is a real-time web of connections and data that can be searched, analyzed, and connected to create a whole that is better than the sum of its parts. Social is being integrated into every aspect of information worker workloads, and intricately woven into v.Next of both SharePoint and the Office family of products and services.
  • Mobile
    SharePoint has taken the first steps toward anywhere-access. While the app model and mobile capabilities are still nascent technologies in the SharePoint ecosystem, Microsoft is making strides in this area which will eventually become a major component of the platform. As with the social features, you need to clearly understand your end user requirements for mobile, the business value of offering mobile solutions, and how these solutions will be introduced and supported within the business. It’s a fine line between anticipating future needs and promoting technology that nobody is asking for.

Social informatics is a huge topic to try and fill in a single post, but hopefully these ideas got you thinking. How you apply these things depends on a number of factors that span environmental, cultural, governance and informatics considerations. As you develop your SharePoint strategy, understanding how your end users work and their enterprise application expectations will help you set the right path.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.