Business Solutions with SAP

Corporate Collaboration

Back in the late 1990’s, while at Grant Thornton, and then later when the management consulting organization was sold to Hitachi I worked on a comprehensive knowledge management model (see the image below).  The model  has application and relevance to integrating collaboration tools into any enterprise application.

Carefully structured and planned integration of collaboration tools can produce great results,  but it is a challenge.  Finding ways to tie collaboration into the business technology for productive use in the enterprise is the goal of a lot of social media types but few of them have any idea how to do this.  Clearly there is a lot of hype around “Web 2.0” interactive functionality but little in the way of productive business use.

By moving outside of the enterprise walls to integrate customer interaction and the extended supply chain the enterprise can gain valuable insight.  By using structured data gathering and organization techniques business value can be achieved.

In this post we will look at a few approaches I’ve taken over the years that have been effective and powerful for creating dynamic collaborative organizations.  They don’t use the trendy social media outlets like Facebook, or Twitter, or other marketplace channels, but they do leverage the collaboration concept.  Maybe someone can create a use model for social media outlets like Facebook or Twitter combined with enterprise applications.

Why Enterprise Collaboration Tools have Not Yet Taken Off

Too many organizations undertake the introduction of social media for the purpose of introducing social media into the enterprise.  In the Knowledge Management area this is like having information without any context of how to apply that information or the experience to apply it properly.  Information alone is NOT knowledge and social media or collaboration tools which do not have a specific business purpose are not very productive (if at all).  Without a specific “context” to apply social media tools, and the understanding of where they might fit, and how they will be used, they are more likely to be a distraction (see Social Media Fads and the Risk to the Enterprise ).

There are few methods, and even fewer tools to filter through all of the “noise” from social media tools to find what is meaningful.  From there, it is still even more difficult to distill what is meaningful into something useful.

Facebook and Twitter may NOT fit in your enterprise.  They might provide good advertising channels, however, being able to capture employee, customer, and vendor knowledge, suggestions, or criticisms (information) and then publishing this internally to the right people (the context of applying that information) directly affects your business.

Few social media “gurus” have any idea on how to start this type of structured information gathering dialog from an unstructured information source (see the graphic below).  They do not know how to develop a structured program to take advantage of the unstructured data by finding meaningful ways to apply that information.  There are few methods, and even fewer tools to filter through all of the “noise” from social media tools to find what is meaningful.  From there, it is still even more difficult to distill what is meaningful into something useful.

What are the social media guru responses?  You don’t understand social media and it is all about building relationships and you haven’t spent enough time and you can’t apply old business rules, etc., etc., etc.  Snake oil, snake oil, snake oil…  All you get are excuses and that you’re not doing enough or spending enough.

Why Consultants and Collaboration Evangelists Have Not Shown Much Progress

Few consultants or businesses have learned how to use social media to drive business value.  It is rare to find a coherent or even minimally functional method, for business to use collaboration or social media tools, to affect a company’s key value propositions.  Beyond things like video conferencing and webinars, which help to reduce expenses related to travel and coordination, not much has been done to move social interaction and collaboration in business to the next level.  There is a lot of hype, a lot of claims that this is the “next big thing” but very little substance.

The real issue is not to use social or collaboration tools in the enterprise just to collaborate.  They must serve a business purpose and a business need.  The business enterprise is not a social club, but social tools can be used to serve business purposes or goals.

In my prior post on SAP, ERP III, SOA — Learning Organizations through Social Media Collaboration there are 9 steps noted toward the end of that post on exactly how to use open source forum software for developing a learning organization.  That integration doesn’t deal with the cool, hip, or trendy social media tools of today, but they are effective collaboration methods.  The same concepts in that post can be generalized and applied to knowledge capture activities around innovation or customer experience.  The way you use these forum type tools inside the company depends on what your goals are, but the instructions for use are there.  And properly used they can be very powerful business tools for competitive advantage.  Little if any of this type of direct, clear, and understandable use case information exists for the “trendy” social media of today.

Toward Transforming Information to Knowledge – A Working Knowledge Management Model

By using collaboration tools properly, or by finding meaningful ways to use the Web 2.0 tools in a more structured way, it is possible to make systematic progress to support business purposes.

Back in 1997 and 1998 I worked through the model and developed a systematic approach, by using primitive collaboration and social media tools, to convert consulting into knowledge centered learning organizations.

It relied heavily on:

  • collaboration,
  • cooperation, and
  • information dissemination.

This was done by using the tools that were available at the time.  A systematic process was developed to capture, then synthesize, organize and disseminate the information to knowledgeable individuals throughout the organization.  By doing this the first seeds of a collaborative learning organization were planted.

The knowledge management graphic and model I produced years ago (see below) was used to advance the concept of a learning organization because that was a clear business fit for consulting companies.  A consultant’s capabilities are directly tied to their knowledge, and that knowledge is a consulting company’s capital or stock in trade.  From that learning organization real business transformation and business benefit is achieved.  A learning organization is more dynamic and adapts to change more readily.  Your ability to absorb change ensures you are a leader rather than a laggard in the marketplace.

Early Collaboration and Social Media Efforts that Started to Produce Results Shortly After Y2K

Even the most knowledgeable, talented, and proficient consultants get stuck at times. The nature of complex business and technology problems means there are times you need a little help.  Early on we recognized the need to have dynamic tools, templates, and resources available to consultants.  But the consultants were widely dispersed and didn’t all know each other.  At the same time we also recognized the need to be able to tap into other knowledgeable experts within the organization on a moment’s notice, even if the consultant who needed the help didn’t know the individual.  Outside of a consultant’s own personal network they didn’t know where to look for the specific skills or expertise they needed to resolve a particular issue.  The solution had to be simple, almost instantaneous, and be able to gain key information and insight even from someone you had never contacted before.

It had to be, the right knowledge, right now!

We wanted a structured method that was simple and intuitive to create a collaborative environment.  After looking at our technology landscape right after Y2K we started to use MS Exchange Public Folders, Outlook Shared User Folders, e-mail, and MS Messenger.  Today these collaboration tools have been rolled into SharePoint.

A Simple Collaborative Solution Using MS Exchange Public Folders and MS Messenger

We developed an MS Exchange folder structure that matched our client project needs and sales force needs for tools, templates, resources and our own best practices on demand.  The beauty of MS Exchange was that the Web Access version allowed our consultants to leverage public folders through the web interface from anywhere, just like they were using MS Explorer / MS File Manager.  The public folder structure was the perfect fit because there was little to learn beyond the new folder structure of how we would store the data.  Dragging, dropping, and opening files in this MS Explorer like interface was intuitive and took no time to adjust to.  This was immensely helpful at some client sites where security is very high so that only the client’s computers or hardware were allowed on the client’s corporate network.  In other words, where access to internal resources would have been limited or non-existent this allowed for ready access to anything that was needed.  Add to this the MS Exchange folder permissions are moderately robust so security was meaningful.

Together with this we used MS Messenger as our IM client but rather than just having an employee’s  name which was unknown to those outside that employees “circle” or network, we applied their key skill to the logon name.  From a standard list of key skill codes for SAP (SD, MM, PP, FI, CO, AM, CRM, SRM, APO, etc.) we placed that in front of the person’s name so that it automatically grouped like skills, and placed the skill reference first in a list of over a hundred resources.  In an instant if you needed some input from a seasoned Sales and Distribution person you would just look on your IM list for those names starting with SD_Employee_Name.  SAP practice users were then exposed to each other all over the United States and even in other countries by their skill codes so that even if they did not know the user, if they had a question of a colleague or peer they could ask in real time.  This was part of the “pull” information exchange infrastructure.

There was also a regular weekly publication containing special “tips and tricks” for productivity or functionality.  This was part of the “push” information exchange sent through e-mail and a copy stored in the knowledge management folder in MS Exchange.  It could be referenced at any time in the future.  This created a reusable but organized information  repository that allowed the quality of the tools, templates, resources, presentations, and other material to be continually advanced and quickly reused.

When I left we had just started on the internal forum posting initiative and did not get to complete the effort.  That approach would provide a central location to capture knowledge sharing or information discussions in a searchable database.  Using open source content management systems, and open source integrated forums, the goal was to create a central communication collaboration hub to capture and exchange ideas, custom coded solutions, and best practices.  With the many available add-ons to the open source CMS systems, I prototyped a high level project management status tracking system, and resource request system, to gain near real-time visibility to the status and resource needs of all of the many projects taking place anywhere in the world.

This was a very practical way we leveraged existing social and collaboration technology by building the structure and processes to add business value.  It enhanced the customer value proposition by providing better and faster customer solutions, more customer focus, and better internal employee interaction.  In other words, this whole solution was low cost and used existing collaboration tools to advance business interests.  It helped to promote end client satisfaction because of the nature and ability to gain “the right answer right now.”  It started to produce a “learning organization.”

Refinements, Enhancements, and New Dimensions to Collaboration and Knowledge Tools

As the efforts and my research on the subject matured I wrote a piece about my perspective on this issue as it had matured and called it SAP, ERP III, SOA — Learning Organizations through Social Media Collaboration.  That post laid out a way to integrate social media tools like Forum software into the SAP help system.  What this means is that end users can capture real time information about the system, or shortcuts, or requests for simplification or other useful information and disseminate it to the organization.  This also provides a method for workers in any department or area, in real time, to provide feedback that focuses on the company value proposition or competitive pressures.  Here is the model I produced:

1)  Raw Information:  The unstructured data, ideas, “crib notes,” and thoughts that we all have.  However in this instance, it is the raw information surrounding the job or responsibility that the individual performs within the enterprise.  Sometimes these are the “workarounds” to get something done when you run into obstacles or roadblocks, other times they are just shortcuts, techniques, to perform a job or function.

Knowledge Management Process

2)    Organized Information:  This is the process of capturing and classifying that raw information.  This is where the “knowledge bases” and other types of information systems come in.  Many enterprises make it this far. Sometimes these are the “workarounds” to get something done when you run into roadblocks or obstacles.  Other times they might be the shortcuts or techniques to more efficiently perform a job or function.

3)    Acquired Information Experience: This is the interaction with the organized information.  This can be through search functions, employed taxonomies, reports, or other methods of accessing the organized information.  This is after the capture of the information in steps 1) and 2) above, and involves its wider availability than in the individual who originally developed or “held” the knowledge or information.  Few organizations or enterprises make it much further than this.  However, this is the beginning of the true learning organization.

4)    Applied Experience (Knowledge!):  This is the practical application of the organized information after it has been acquired.  Whether this acquisition is through word of mouth, training, or some type of information management system (that is wrong named a knowledge management system) or through a “knowledge base”. This is where the cost savings, revenue opportunities, continuous process improvement opportunities, and real competitive advantage begins to come to fruition.

5)    Refined Experience:  This is more of the inherent “knowing” what to do in a broad variety of contexts that may not be directly related to the task or issue at hand.  It is when an individual can draw on that level of inner experiences mixed with intuition and make the right decision or provide the right answers when there is not enough information to make such a determination under normal circumstances.  This can also be a type of “making the complex appear to be simple.”

This knowledge model I created in the late 90’s seems to be pretty well accepted today [Fn1].  It is very different than an information model because knowledge by its very nature requires information together with the context of how, what, and when to apply that information together with experience.

The ERP III future will rely heavily on delivering on the value propositions of customer focus and innovation.  By moving outside of the enterprise walls to integrate customer interaction and the extended supply chain the enterprise can gain valuable insight.  By using structured data gathering and organization techniques business value can be achieved.

It is my belief that both of these pillars will occur through the use of corporate collaboration tools–, but only corporate collaboration tools that are focused on the business goals of capturing critical “knowledge” and information around these two key premises.


[FN1]  The knowledge model I produced was based on a synthesis of a number of sources I had studied at the time to try to bring some clarity around the confusion between “information management” and “knowledge management.”  At that time, or possibly earlier, there may have been someone else with the same ideas and a similar model but I couldn’t find it then.  Today I see too many variations of these terms but the same basic process all over the place.  If someone else can claim *earlier* authorship I won’t dispute it.  I produced my first version before Y2K.


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Bill Wood
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