The limits of #LOL: How context is emerging in collaboration tools

An analyst with Constellation Research discusses the crop of “intelligent” productivity software that will become a network mainstay


Constellation Research collaboration software

“LOL can only take you so far.”

Alan Lepofsky laughs out load as he’s saying this, which essentially proves the point he is trying to make. The Toronto-based analyst with Constellation Research is standing in a movie theatre in San Francisco, which has been turned into a makeshift breakout room at the recent Dreamforce conference, hosted by Salesforce.com.

Alan Lepofsky, Constellation Research

Alan Lepofsky,
Constellation Research

He is talking about the importance of context in communications, and why productivity tools — arguably one of the most important collections of software running over corporate networks — need to evolve into more intelligent forms. Although he could be making his comments anywhere, or just online, it underscores the importance of his message that he came to one of the industry’s biggest events, where his slides can be projected on an enormous screen, and where he can hear us all laughing along with him — showing how we understand that what he’s saying makes sense.

The characteristics of intelligent collaboration

Leposky has researched about areas such as social media in the enterprise or “social business” for years, but only as big data emerged has he seen a glimpse of a more truly productive and collaborative future. “I’ll be honest — I was getting bored,” he said.

Lepofsky itemized some of the approaches to intelligent collaboration that CIOs should buy or begin building as follows:

Co-authoring: Traditionally, we’ve all worked on documents and saved them on the network as our own, untouchable work. “Track Changes” in Microsoft Word started to change this, but Lepofsky pointed to Writely, which later became Google Docs, as an example of where the creation and revision of content is headed.

“We’re seeing a culture that is getting comfortable with sharing. There’s no more of this,  ‘This content is my own’ mentality,” he said. Mobile devices and cloud computing has made this a lot easier to happen, he added. Box Notes and Quip are some of the other apps taking interesting approaches to co-authoring.

In-place annotations: Anyone who has read a story on Medium has probably noticed how the service allows readers to make comments next to specific words or paragraphs, rather than collecting them all at the bottom. This is where context becomes much more rich, according to Lepofksy. “We’ll start to have much more meaningful conversations about closing a sales deal, a marketing campaign, et cetera,” he said. In-place annotation is not just on limited to documents, either, but with images using services like Glip.

Digital canvas: Lepofsky predicted we’ll see many more user interfaces and digital tools that allow users to gather information from folders and display them like murals, with embedded images, videos, maps, PDF files and other content. Simple drag-and-drop will be the extent of the skills required, and it will change the way companies do everything from launching a product to planning a conference.

“This is storytelling,” he said. “This is how you would pin something on a bulletin board. It’s so different than switching between my Word processor and my PowerPoint deck to get at that context.”

Dynamic task prioritization: Probably the most intriguing area Lepofsky touched on was the notion that productivity and collaboration tools will start to not only help us get things done, but help us determine what should get done. “What should I be working on? What shouldn’t I be working on? What have I done that’s had the greatest impact? What I have done that’s been a waste of time? This is not what to-do lists and task systems do today,” he said. He said dynamic task prioritization, as he termed it, will make better use of corporate data to do this — for instance, looking not only at how many users downloaded a file or presentation from a network but how many used it in a meeting, and how many times those meetings led to a successful sale with a client.

Lepofsky’s talk was among the most fascinating I’d heard in some time. If he’s right that future business software will take into account our physical and emotional state and tie it to a range of other factors to make us more successful, the network supporting those tools will become more critical than ever before. “There’s so much more mental information out of what we’re doing that we could use,” he said. “It’s going to be much better than being locked away all day with our e-mail.”

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