Collaborative technologies set to shape business over the next five years

Collaboration and a company's ability to leverage the collective knowledge of a community will be the keys to future prosperity, according to research by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU).

Speaking at the Online Information 2008 conference in London earlier this week - at a session titled 'The digital company 2013: how technology will change the way we do business' - Denis McCauley, director of Global Technology Research at the EIU, proposed that in the pursuit of innovation, where companies currently focus on R&D, new ideas will increasingly come directly from its customers. This is likely to lead to the co-creation of products.

Fellow panelist Roger James, director of Information Services, University of Westminster, called this pooling of ideas "microcontributions", citing the notebooks of Ian Fleming - in which the author jotted down short phrases and story ideas whenever (and wherever) they occurred to him, eventually incorporating them into his James Bond stories - as a good example of how seemingly disparate collective intelligence can coalesce into a greater whole.

In a Web 2.0 world of wikis, blogs, social networking sites, discussion forums and other communicative Web-based services, both customers and employees are increasingly likely to adopt these tools in order to marshall communal thoughts and mobilise opinions. For this generation of Web users, "technology ignorance will (almost) be in the past". 

McCauley summarised this near future, saying that "technology will create a more 'democratic' workforce", noting that all Web 2.0 enthusiasts have a public voice - whether projected outwards from the company by employees or directed in towards the company from customers.

Accordingly, "companies will have to grow a much thicker skin", McCauley said. "Companies are going to need to trust their employees." The idea of a company internally banning Facebook or not outwardly engaging with its customers will become increasingly outmoded. Technology is already starting to shape and drive company policy and companies that embrace this change, instead of resisting or rejecting it, will be the most successful.

Despite McCauley's belief that there will be "no big-bang technology leaps in the next five years", the EIU research indicates that employees will increasingly use available technology differently and more effectively. The mastering of collaborative technologies will be crucial in gaining competitive advantage, provided that the obstacles of organisational rigidity, cost and the skills shortage can be overcome, McCauley concluded.

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