“I was talking about this idea of having to go to a separate location to do your collaboration versus collaborating where you are working: the more you force people to step outside of what is natural for them, the less likely that they are to do that.”—Christian Buckley

Christian Buckley : Product and Technology Strategist / Redmond WA

“i was talking about this idea of having to go to a separate location to do your collaboration versus collaborating where you are working: the more you force people to step outside of what is natural for them, the less likely that they are to do that.”—christian buckley

Why did you chose the social collaboration arena of tech?
For 24 years now, I have been in high tech. I started out with a little company called Pacific Bell. Prior to that, I was a technical writer and business analyst and worked for consulting companies. I got into different types of collaboration technology. Leading into the late ’90s, I was in business school and started a software company. In 1997, we started building our own threaded discussion platform. This was when instant messaging was on the rise and still a relatively new thing. Wikis weren’t yet out there. Blogging, we didn’t even call blogging. I remember going in and posting content to our website, just in HTML, because there wasn’t any automated way. That came a couple years later.

I sold the company in January 2001, and went to work for a startup that is still around, called E2open. It went public a couple of years back. I was hired as the first product manager to build a hosted collaboration platform for high-tech design collaboration. So I became familiar with this whole subset. I had known the beginnings of building portals and knowledge management systems, and I was dealing with high-tech manufacturing with companies like Hitachi and Sony, that wanted to buy this software that would allow their design teams to collaborate with their vendors throughout the world. It was very expensive stuff. And what was new around 2000 and 2001, was all of the web-based technologies that were essentially pennies on the dollar, in comparison. E2open, and other companies like that, were building these massive networks. I’ll try not to get too technical here, but we built out a network operating center, and we were actually hosting a live, real-time collaboration solution back in 2001 and 2002, where our customers went in and built a dedicated space to collaborate with their partners. Some of them might’ve been manufacturers. Some of them might’ve been raw materials suppliers that wanted to create a DVD player. They had all of their manufacturing and designed elements in there, and they could get in and collaborate around very large design files, like CAD files.

There really wasn’t anything out there that allowed people to jointly collaborate in real time. So we were creating new technology. We were solving things like the whole large file transfer problem. It’s interesting to look at the solutions that are out there now, like Dropbox, OneDrive, and Google Drive, that owe a lot to that problem. We used to use FTP servers. You would have to host it and pay for service around it. Free services came. But it was a problem of trying to upload massive design files, like a CAD file, then losing your connection and having to start all over again. So we were building our own large file transfer protocol to be able to start up again if it is interrupted. Funny enough, a lot of those technologies haven’t changed. It is the exact same problem that we had, however, a little more automated now. We were trying to get people working, and at the same time, collaborating, on these massive digital assets.

courtesy of christian buckley

When I was based in the San Francisco Bay Area, we would have people from all around the Pacific on the line, on these calls, discussing a specific design—people on the East Coast all the way up to people up in Canada. To see this output, everybody agreed to it during the call, and that dramatically reduced the cost of the design process. We could avoid having to mail things back and forth or fly people around the world.

I was with that company for three years. Then I consulted for a couple of years, and I got a taste for SharePoint around 2005. I ended up going to work for Microsoft for a couple of years, and then left in 2009, and I have been in the SharePoint space since. All of that time, from startups to SharePoint, I was a lone voice out there presenting at conferences, talking about social, and the need for it increased while we expanded social capabilities inside of SharePoint. Now everybody is talking about it. So it is always kind of fun to go back and point to a paper that I wrote back in June 2004, where I talk about the need for SharePoint to have social capabilities.

So what made you decide to write about social?
I don’t consider myself a writer. It just happens to be something that I enjoy doing, and because I enjoy doing it, I write the way that I speak. It is always in that personal tone and voice. I was an English minor, and I’ve always enjoyed it.

My expertise for a number of years was building project management organizations. I did that for a number of companies. When I started getting into knowledge management, and that side of things, I found that I was constantly training people on how to best work in a virtual team, so I started writing a lot of articles around project management, management and leadership, and best practices. So when my software company started in 1997, I kept writing about our technology, and the business aspect of what we were actually trying to do. It resonated with some folks. I also wrote a number of magazine articles for Software Development magazine.

There was a company called Rational Software. IBM bought them a decade ago. They had a magazine that my co-founder and I wrote for in every edition. I just kind of got the bug. People keep asking for my opinion on certain topics, and so I find myself getting on these topics because I am passionate about it, and it comes up pretty easily. If somebody asked me to write on a topic that is something that I generally don’t write on, I struggle. I just finished an article yesterday that took me three days, and it was 1,200 words, which is nothing, but it was very painful for me to write.

If you search my name online, you will find a wealth of opinions as social design technology advances. That is actually how my blog started back in 2002. It was initially called the Samaritan Web Project. It was going to be part of a doctoral program that I was going to pursue with a degree in Social Informatics, which is about collaboration technology. In 2002, I started cataloging all of the social platforms that were out there: writing about them, talking about them, comparing and contrasting, writing on where they were at and where they needed to go. I am a big fan of content marketing. I like to describe it as “thinking out loud.” Just because I write something down and sound like I am strongly opinionated, sometimes it’s just an idea that I am looking for feedback on. I may change what I actually believe, based on how people respond.

In terms of collaborative opportunities or collaborative technologies, what do you think designers need that they don’t have now?
I think what’s evolving and what’s changing is that you see social capabilities that are being integrated into enterprise applications. Nobody is surprised by that. It is happening. But I was talking about this idea of having to go to a separate location to do your collaboration versus collaborating where you are working: the more you force people to step outside of what is natural for them, and the way that they are naturally working, the less likely that they are to do that. So you are going to see that kind of integration. The difficulty with getting artists together to collaborate involves the context within which they are trying to do that.

There are plenty of platforms that I think are successful, with different levels of collaboration. Even the relaunch of MySpace and Facebook, to some degree, is from a music standpoint. MySpace largely rebranded themselves as being a place for bands to launch. The idea out there is that artists can come together and collaborate around that. ReverbNation has not been completely successful, even though they are better at collaboration aspects, just because their main momentum has not gone in their favor. So I don’t think it is the lack of the right technology for a platform like that be successful. It is a number of things that have to happen. The numbers have to be there. Just like within a company, collaboration only works if people participate. So like anything, there are some cultures—if you think of musicians as a culture, artists as a culture—that are more likely to be drawn to that kind of technology, and embrace that. We are still at the beginning. This technology is only a decade old, and it is changing rapidly, because it is becoming less about going to a specific piece of technology, or website; it is being integrated into our lives.

How much are the tools still under development?
I don’t think it has anything to do with technology. It has to do with the context in which you are bringing those two groups together. There are sites that try to pull people together with different backgrounds—designers, engineers, and business persons—to solve a problem. There are actually Kickstarter Weekends, which are physical collaborations where people may meet for one night or one weekend, and part of the project is to come up with an idea, and list believers from the group. There might be a couple hundred people participating. Get them in, find the skills that you need, and put a whole proposal together. This is how some businesses have launched.

It really has to do with context. It is successful when the context is right, when the culture is right.

Speaking of context, how much does thinking about the physical environment play a role in terms of collaborative tools?
There are a lot of different tools out there. Think of instant messaging. How many dozens of instant messaging services and systems are there out there? Some are very extensible. Like you can actually go and take the code for free, and incorporate it into your website, and make your own private chat. You can do that with wiki. There are open source things that are out there. Even with all of the proprietary solutions—if you think of Microsoft, IBM, Cisco, and all of the players that are out there—it is less about the technologies. It is very much like a tool belt. In this example of bringing designers together with engineers to build solutions, and the technologies that make it work, each group may pick different solutions.

Does that mean the tech more or less exists, but collaborators haven’t maximized it yet?
Yeah. It’s interesting, there was an article that came out today on CMS Wire, talking specifically about how Yammer has had limited success. Yammer was, of course, bought by Microsoft, and I am a Microsoft-centric guy, so I pay attention to that stuff. But the idea there, the fundamentals, are the same problem that we were talking about a decade ago, which is that technology hasn’t improved. There are a lot of new things out there. A lot of it has just gone faster, cheaper, better. The systems, the backend, redundancy, all of that stuff.

But the seminal problem, when you look at Yammer, when you look at SharePoint, when you look at Jive, when you look at Box, when you look at any of these platforms, is that they are all having an adoption and engagement issue. Adoption means people that actually pick it up and log into it. Engagement means what people are doing once they are actually in there. How much are they using it? Are they using 10% of it? Or are they using the full capacity of it?

Five Phases of End User Adoption

courtesy of christian buckley

The author of this article mentioned a point that a lot of us have talked about repeatedly, which is that social has less to do with the technology, than understanding what people are really trying to accomplish. You can choose the best way for the group to come together on a shared purpose, activity, or conversation. It might be wiki, with some instant messaging capabilities. Or real-time shared collaboration, meaning that we can do real-time editing of the documentation. So you see what a wiki does for a lot of this real-time collaboration. Word does this now too. Google Docs does the same thing, where you see people making edits in real-time, and it highlights the changes that have been made. But until you have that shared understanding, to even talk about which technology to use, it is irrelevant. It might be, at the end of the day, that all you and I need to collaborate efficiently, is simply a file shared through Dropbox.

Is this integration going to happen by Apple, Microsoft, and Google buying everyone up?
You know, just the nature of these things is that there are going to be some very large ecosystems. I think three, or there could be four. Obviously, Google, Microsoft—whether Amazon enters this space eventually, I don’t think so but—I would say Apple is the third, and the possible fourth is Cisco, though they may waver and jump ship to join the others. They just announced some new partnership with Microsoft. It would be weird if they go that direction, but everybody is trying to stay relevant.

Just looking at the innovation cycle, these companies are gonna go buy a bunch and try to leapfrog. The big players can never out innovate what the little guys can do with those spot solutions. There are always going to be options. What is good about having the giant hub and the spokes with all of the other different pieces, is that if the majority of what you need is within one of those ecosystems, then fantastic. This means, they will all work together, for the most part. They are not just going to disappear. Long-term, you can go and utilize one of those hub solutions. But sometimes you might look at the scenario and you may just need a Dropbox type of thing, because you don’t need to buy into everything else. We are using Skype for free. We are using some other stuff for free, and maybe we have a paid version of Dropbox, because we are sharing massive files that we are collaborating on. That may work for two people, but as soon as you and I add five or six others into it, Skype becomes less effective, and we have to go look into another way to do it. But Dropbox may still be the right solution. If we add another 25 people onto it, because we have started the small company, now we have a bunch of property that is owned by big corporations that we are a part of, and we need to think about retention policies, the governance activities around that, and monitor it on a regular basis. Say we just fired somebody. What did they see or didn’t see? Cobble all of those things together, put them into play, and we may then gravitate towards one of those hub solutions, even though the core technology of what we need is available for free on one of these fringe small players.

How much do central technologies, file formats, or things like Web Standards, impact the development of tools?
Going back to E2open, all we were trying to do was make it possible for people to upload any content into a container online. It was just moving digital bits over. Any file type could move across. However, we wanted to be able to make any of those file types viewable, even if we were in different cities and collaborating on a design in a very specific CAD file type. Well, Cadence Design Systems owns the viewers to that. So we could upload the file, but we couldn’t look at it together. You have the software on your workstation, and I have the software on my workstation, and we can look at it independently, but we can’t look at it together, and have a pointer that draws things on it and modify it. You can’t do any of that. That’s the consideration for the context of the type of collaboration to think about. Do we need to move towards open standards, so that we don’t have those kinds of issues? Or is it so specialized that we are now restricted in how we can collaborate, because we are forced to work within this hub solution? That is always going to be the case.

Being in the SharePoint space, I would describe very few of our customers as 100% Microsoft, or 100% SharePoint. The reality is that a lot of our customers are using SharePoint and Salesforce. There is a division in that company that is using Box. Everybody’s kind of using Dropbox, and there are all of these exceptions to that. Ultimately, people will go and use what fits their needs. I think people are less likely to stay with a stable vendor for a single model.

This phrase, “consumerization of IT,” really has had a profound impact on the tools and systems from providers. Fourteen or fifteen years ago, when I was starting up E2open, we were involved with the XML standards bodies; we were pushing and trying to get our input into standardizing communication protocols around this. People said we were spending years arguing around intricacies of these little standards. Who cares? We finally said, let’s just do something that’s good enough. Go. And then it suddenly exploded. That’s the danger for these hub providers in being so closed off. All of them have experienced that. To some degree, people will reject that and turn to whatever else. The cost of being a user, or a consumer, in changing the technology is low.

How much of this goes out the window if net neutrality is compromised?
The problem with the net neutrality issue is that it has more of an impact to the cost of doing this kind of collaboration. What makes the net so powerful today, with all of these tools, is that they are free. If I want to go start a company, I can grab one or two other people, and we can go and take on major players, because we have all of these tools, which makes location irrelevant. Every aspect of that is very inexpensive. We don’t have to have an infrastructure in order to go do these things. Putting a cost around it, is essentially forcing people to adopt infrastructure. It may be less expensive for large companies to go host their own servers again and take back control. It is kind of killing that whole idea of the cloud. It is just another infrastructure that somebody else happens to be managing, and I am having to pay for, in a pay-per-use form.

courtesy of christian buckley

It’s a bad idea. I’m sure you’re in the same place that I am. It’s just a complete scam to make more money. I do believe that people will find a way to get around that. I don’t know what that is yet. But we will find a way to not pay those fees. There is going to be a black market mentality to some of these tools and systems. People are going to find the gray areas of the laws that are passed.