Understanding the Business Value of Unstructured Environments

Following on from the core issues I discussed in 'Understanding Enterprise 2.0 Tolerances & Scale' last November, this is a post about another recurring theme during consulting conversations: the different values, needs and understanding of structured and unstructured information and data.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

Following on from the core issues I discussed in 'Understanding Enterprise 2.0 Tolerances & Scale' last November, this is a post about another recurring theme during consulting conversations: the different values, needs and understanding of structured and unstructured information and data.

We are at a point where Web 2.0 is broadly understood by the mainstream web user on an experiential level.  the 2.0 suffix is arguably long in the tooth now, and the mainstream web has subsumed and absorbed much of the interactivity which distinguished it from the old static web.

Today's connected browser user, on a personal level, is used to interacting with web sites, adding and removing content and information on websites where they share information about themselves with their friends and acquaintances. The decisions they make on the fly as they interact online are almost always singular -  photos they share may also feature other people, something they write may mention other people - but the focus is very much on their singular online persona.

This empowerment of the individual online is being appropriated to great effect by marketers: personal interactive communication, intimate 'conversation' about what you really like about a product or what you would do to improve it is a holy grail in advertising, and egos are being massaged by the million as individuals are made to feel special and heard by large companies.

As this social revolution influences the individual's sense of entitlement and freedom to communicate online, the various strata of business software, from the flimsiest software as a service offering for the small office to group ware behemoths to the various industrial strength backbone applications have taken on the trappings of the consumer web's flexibility.

Where the individual is empowered by technology to explore the broad horizons of the web and make personal decisions on how, where and when to interact or withdraw, the challenges of behaving in the same way as a group take on very different characteristics.

A group of empowered and entitled people can be immensely powerful but can also turn into a group of opinionated individuals who can't agree on anything and verbosely take positions. Anyone who has tried to manage a group of people who are getting mixed messages from a hierarchical, command and control organization and who all feel they know best will be instantly familiar with the cat herding issues this brings up.

Business collaboration should be all about facilitating communication, streamlining processes and providing valuable contextual information to coworkers, against which business value can be measured as increased efficiency and awareness.  Often due to lack of clarity about how to interact as a team, sometimes providing modern web technologies to employees enables selfish, entitled behavior which is the exact opposite of the desired outcome. Like the weeds disrupting structure in the image above, opportunistic roots can quickly take hold for negative as well as positive discourse within the enabling environment.

All companies are unique cultures, but there's a commonality around the respective values of structured and unstructured data. As an example, your timecard, assuming you're an hourly employee, is structured data: how many hours you've been at work. Not much need for contextual conversations around this: you contract says show up by 9am, leave after 5pm with an hour for lunch. It's unlikely your boss will see the need to install a sophisticated web 2.0 collaboration environment to discuss how many hours you think you should work - unstructured data - bringing in context from other departments.

While this is a slightly absurd example, it's surprising how many companies don't address the issue of what they want employees to actually do in the unstructured environments they introduce, and what they don't want them to do. Today's employee, ego massaged by social media marketing and acutely aware of the lack of job security in today's business world, generally doesn't have time to craft an online culture around tacit knowledge and other forms of unstructured data and information.

Broadly and superficially speaking, there are two polarities to modern business. One pole are companies with highly sensitive security requirements around information due to regulation and compliance, who require stringent records keeping and document management, such as pharmaceutical and legal companies. The other pole are those with the need to propagate information and share knowledge as broadly as possible both internally and with selected partners and in some cases consumers of products and services. This later group includes types of manufacturing and companies with chronic inefficiency issues due to multiple silos.

In reality many companies have both these issues running concurrently and simultaneously in different parts of their organization. Sometimes there is confusion, and in some cases frustration, as those who need to collaborate can't, while those who should be careful with sensitive information are kitted out with online environments which aren't appropriate for their structured needs. The issue isn't one of technology, it's one of thinking through intents and desired results, and of applying appropriate solutions to specific business problems.

This is a tough time for IT strategists, who see great desire from employees for the online freedoms individuals enjoy outside work, but lack of clarity of how these tools work at scale with teams. Security, Identity and privacy issues, core competencies of the IT professional, are often challenged without clarity of the upside of allowing greater personal freedom.

Identifying needs around content management to allow findability of structured information within secure environments isn't easy, but it's tangible. Creating a successful unstructured environment ironically requires much greater thought given to the structure within which to give users enough, but not too much, space to collaborate in order to achieve defined objectives.

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