Moving Immersive Collaboration Forward

Today we are making not one but TWO major announcements, each of which represents the most important product announcements Teleplace has made to date. In fact, these may be the most important announcements made in the immersive enterprise collaboration space ever.

First, today we’re announcing a new product called Teleplace Connect. Years in the making, Teleplace Connect unifies the two worlds of enterprise collaboration and enterprise communication within a true multi-user platform. The vision behind Teleplace Connect is to provide teams with seamless, multi-user access to the entire spectrum of communication and collaboration technologies and business applications deployed across their enterprise, making these systems and technologies available in the flow of their daily activities.

We’re also announcing the initiation of a new open source project called OpenQwaq. Long-time followers of Teleplace will recognize the name Qwaq as the former name of our company. The code made available through OpenQwaq is equivalent to that currently used in our commercially available Teleplace product—a highly secure, immersive, enterprise-class, real-time virtual collaboration solution used by thousands of users across hundreds of enterprises worldwide. OpenQwaq is available for download and deployment completely free of charge, supported by our entire community of engineers, business partners, and end users.

Each of these announcements on its own represents a tremendous leap forward in enterprise collaboration. Combined, we believe these new offerings will completely reshape the use of immersive technology in the enterprise.

Admittedly, immersive technology has thus far failed to live up to the vision of some of its early advocates and visionaries. Reflecting some of those expectations, I recall a senior analyst at a well-known IT consulting firm once telling me he was certain that Second Life would beat out Facebook as the preferred platform for Web-based social interaction among consumers. That prediction was made in 2007, and he was just one of many who thought consumers would prefer 3D gaming environments over text and pictures when interacting with their friends over the Web. Online multi-user gaming was exploding at the time, and why wouldn’t users prefer a UI that more closely simulated the real world?

By the end of 2010, that analyst admitted he had been completely wrong. “In the end,” he said, “text and pictures won.”

But I think we should stop using war analogies when it comes to describing the business of technology. Winning and losing imply permanence. When it comes to high tech, there is no permanence. Just ask Microsoft and Apple.

Technology adoption is much better understood—and predicted — in the context of how it’s being used. When it comes to immersive technology, online gaming is a great example. I recently observed a group of kids playing a game with each other over the Internet using Xbox Live. These kids had never actually met in person. They lived thousands of miles apart. But the interaction between them was little different from what would have taken place had they been playing in their own backyard. It was highly interactive. There was a lot of shouting, with a few gestures thrown in for good measure. It was structured yet unpredictable. It demanded tremendous focus. The strengths and weaknesses of each of the players were readily apparent. Peer pressure was rampant. There was a clear pecking order, and alliances ended up separating the winners from the losers. In the end, it was a shared experience—not an individual one — and that’s what made it feel highly social even though the users were thousands of miles apart.

What I observed that day was far different from how those same kids interact on Facebook. Though we call Facebook a social network, social networking is not a good contextual description of how it’s used. Facebook is more like a hole in the fence of your backyard allowing you and your neighbor to peek in on each other from time to time. It’s certainly not about shared experiences at all. At its core, the Facebook experience is a clever amalgamation of voyeurism and narcissism. It’s either all about me or it’s about what I’m going to discover about you.

Of course, neither narcissism nor voyeurism is encouraged at work, and that may be why the concept of “Facebook for the Enterprise” has never really taken off. CEOs understand the concept of Facebook, but they struggle to see how it’s appropriate in the context of work.

Group interaction in the context of work has a lot more in common with what I observed in those kids playing Xbox Live than it does with Facebook. Work-based collaboration is highly interactive. It often involves a lot of talking and gesturing. It’s structured yet unpredictable at times. It demands focus. The strengths and weaknesses of other people are readily apparent. Peer pressure is rampant, and there’s always a pecking order—both formal and informal. Alliances often separate the winners from the losers. And in the end, it’s a shared experience and a shared outcome, not an individual one.

Though I’m a veteran of the social business software market, I’m convinced now more than ever that the asynchronous collaboration technologies most often associated with social business software will continue to fall far short of what’s needed for distributed enterprise collaboration. Those technologies are inappropriate for the context. Workers need technology solutions that more closely replicate how they interact in person. They need ways to make distance irrelevant without losing intimacy.  They need tools that enhance, instead of interrupt, the flow of their daily activities.

Though some very interesting products, such as what we have been offering at Teleplace, have attempted to deliver against these requirements, it’s clear that a lot more needs to be done. More people need to be exposed to the technology. More people need to add their insights about how the technology needs to evolve. A platform needs to emerge that can be embraced by a broad community of developers, users, and solution providers that collectively have full confidence that the platform will continue to be enhanced for a long time to come. And that’s why we decided to initiate OpenQwaq. We have decided to provide the world’s first enterprise-focused, fully functional, tightly integrated, commercial grade, AND completely free of charge immersive collaboration platform in the market. See for yourself by downloading it at http://code.google.com/p/openqwaq/.

In addition to the need for a freely available commercial-grade immersive collaboration platform, it’s equally clear there are too many redundant and competing communication and collaboration technologies being used within each enterprise. Communication and collaboration can never be unified until the individual components are first standardized. But standardization can be tough to pull off. Text messaging is a great example. Skype, Sametime, Lynx, Twitter, Facebook, WebEx, Yahoo! Messenger, MSN, Google Talk, Yelp–the list of choices goes on and on. Which one should you use when you want to quickly chat with a colleague at work? Nobody ever seems to know. While this broad selection may be fine for personal communication, it’s not okay for enterprises. Enterprises need to deal with compliance laws and retention policies. They need to apply security and access controls. Management needs to be able to measure and monitor what’s going on. And workers need to be able to easily find and connect with each other. They shouldn’t have to know what technology they should be using. It should be seamlessly and instantaneously presented within the flow of their daily activities. It turns out the technologies best suited to do that have more in common with Xbox Live than with Facebook.

At Teleplace, we have been offering a solution that effectively demonstrates how this should work. It includes all of the required communication and collaboration technology components – voice, video, chat, documents, applications, social media, laser pointers, digitized meeting artifacts, activity streams, and so on. It’s all there, tightly integrated, highly secure, and performance optimized. But in some ways it competes with the other communication and collaboration standards in an enterprise. That’s why we developed Teleplace Connect. What’s different with Teleplace Connect is that we’re now allowing customers to plug in their own standard components. And we’re making it all accessible from within a browser (or from within an app on a mobile device). Yes, you read that correctly.  Teleplace Connect runs in a Web browser!

We’re kicking off the plug-and-play integration capabilities of Teleplace Connect with “out of the box” support for SharePoint and other native Windows applications. A SharePoint Team Site can now become an entry point into a Teleplace virtual workspace. People, permissions, identity, and content flow seamlessly between the two systems. Any native Windows or Web-based application can now be presented within Teleplace Connect, and all users present in a virtual workspace have multi-user access to any of the applications presented in the workspace.

Though we’re starting with SharePoint and other native Windows apps, our intent in the future is to allow any business application—not just SharePoint—to become an entry point into a Teleplace virtual workspace. In addition, we intend to make any communication, collaboration, or application technology deployed in the enterprise instantly accessibly by Teleplace Connect users. With the inclusion of mobile device support, users will get anytime, anyplace, any content, any application, any communication channel, always-on access from any device and from within any application. Teleplace Connect represents the ultimate enterprise collaboration system.

Teleplace Connect is initially being made available under a development license to select business partners and customers. Users of the current Teleplace product, which is licensed on an annual term basis, have the option of moving to an OpenQwaq license with no disruption of service. The OpenQwaq community and the Teleplace partner community are both enabled to provide a variety of service and support options to meet the needs of even the most sophisticated users. Once Teleplace Connect becomes generally available under a production license, users of OpenQwaq will be able to migrate to Teleplace Connect at their option.

This is a lot to digest, but as you can see this is a big day for immersive technology in the enterprise.  I hope you’re as excited as we are.

What About the Physical Channel?

Editor’s Note: To kick off our blog, we thought it would be appropriate to publish a couple of posts that were written earlier this year by our CEO, Anthony Nemelka, as he was joining us at Teleplace.  These posts were originally published on Esteban Kolsky’s blog, “crm intelligence & strategy“.  You can find the first post here.  Here’s the second post…

In my earlier blog post, I asserted that in order to really transform how businesses operate, social business collaboration faces one more big challenge. I called it “The Last Mile of Social Collaboration” and described it as follows:

“At the end of the day, business is all about getting the right stuff done. If the right work doesn’t get done, you really haven’t accomplished anything–whether it’s shipping a product, closing a sale, or fixing a bug. Making sure the most important work actually gets done is the biggest challenge for social business today. It’s the “last mile” in enabling social collaboration to transform the way businesses operate.”

After coming to this conclusion several months ago, I began to think about the skills, processes, and technologies needed to pull this off. Somewhere in the back of my head I kept hearing two voices. One was the voice of that delightful Yankees fan (yes, I know that’s an oxymoron), Paul Greenberg, who time and again has pointed out to all of us that the social part of CRM is all about engagement—engaging with the customer on his or her terms. The second voice I kept hearing was that of my Argentinean friend, Esteban Kolsky, the esteemed host of the crm intelligence & strategy blog. Esteban’s voice kept drilling into my head that online social collaboration is nothing more than a channel for CRM, not a replacement for CRM. To do CRM right you need to be effective across all channels, not just the so-called social channel.

(See, Paul and Esteban, I do listen to you guys, despite being a Dodgers fan—God help me–and preferring Chinese over Spanish)

These two critical insights led me to wonder that if the social side of CRM is all about engagement, and online social collaboration is simply one channel for that engagement, what’s going to happen to the physical channel?  You know, that’s the face-to-face, voice-to-voice channel that in the old days was considered the only social channel. Somehow we’ve forgotten all about that channel, yet it’s the one that defines what it means to be social.

Is the physical channel doomed to extinction, permanently replaced by Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Wikipedia, YouTube, and Sharepoint? Are we going to find a way to integrate the physical channel with what we describe as social business? Or are we destined to abandon the very core of what it means to be social—live face-to-face interaction?

The answer lies in a comment made by @CobraA1 (whoever he/she is—how social is that?!?) in response to one of Paul Greenberg’s recent posts:

“The best CRM is a friendly smile and a great attitude.”

Wow, @CobraA1 is a genius!  And if he/she is correct, then the physical channel is alive and well. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that as long as we’re human it will always be the primary channel.

So what does all this mean, and how does it relate to the questions I posed in my previous post?  Where is all this social business collaboration activity taking us, and how are we going to address The Last Mile of Social Collaboration?

I believe the answer lies in going back to the roots of what it means to be social and applying some proven tools for effective management. From a methodology point of view, that means

  1. enabling face-to-face engagement,
  2. embracing and extending physical means of communication,
  3. integrating online social collaboration with how people work in the physical world,
  4. modifying how people interact with existing computer systems and business processes, and
  5. making it possible to constantly deliver “a friendly smile and a great attitude.”

From a technology point of view, by far the most promising technology I’ve come across that’s capable of addressing each of these requirements is commonly referred to as immersive technology. The goal of immersive technology is to pull people into virtual environments that mimic the physical environment they’re accustomed to. And, after spending a lot of time looking into it, I believe we’re on the cusp of seeing immersive technology do for business what James Cameron’s “Avatar” did for the movies. We’re about to enter a whole new world. If you want to begin to understand what that world will look like, I strongly recommend reading Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge. This book has quickly become the blueprint for immersive technology innovation by companies around the world (and will forever change the way you think about your retirement).

After reading this book you’ll easily understand why I’ve decided that my next big venture will be in the immersive technology space. And today I’m thrilled to announce that I’ve accepted the position of President and CEO of Teleplace (www.teleplace.com), one of the leading immersive technology vendors in Silicon Valley. Together with other immersive technology companies like Proton Media, VenueGen, On24, and others, Teleplace has been quietly engineering the underlying technology required to enable large enterprises—both in the commercial and public sectors—realize the efficiency and effectiveness gains derived from integrating immersive technology with the people, processes, and technologies they depend on to effectively run their organizations.

As a veteran of the social business software community, my vision—and passion—is to apply this same technology to the challenge of bridging “the last mile” of social business collaboration, enabling enterprises of all shapes and sizes completely transform the way they do business and deliver “a friendly smile and a great attitude “ to every customer they serve. Thank you @CobraA1, whoever you are.

Yes indeed, it’s great to be back!

The Last Mile of Social Collaboration

Editor’s Note: To kick off our blog, we thought it would be appropriate to publish a couple of posts that were written earlier this year by our CEO, Anthony Nemelka, as he was joining us at Teleplace.  These posts were originally published on Esteban Kolsky’s blog, “crm intelligence & strategy“.  Here is the first post…

We often save the biggest problems for last.  In the world of business, that’s often because problems sneak up on us so slowly that we don’t notice them until they’ve gotten really big. Such is the case with the unintended consequences of social business collaboration, also referred to as Enterprise 2.0 (#e20) or Social CRM (#scrm).

Though still in adolescence, social business collaboration has already had such a positive impact on business that few seem to question the benefits anymore.  Questions like “what’s the ROI?” have given way to statements like “help me do it better than my competitors!”  But as the benefits of social business collaboration have become clear, so too have the next set of issues—as those of you working at the forefront of social business innovation have learned all too well.

Since leaving #scrm pioneer Helpstream over a year ago, I’ve been on a quest to try to figure out where all this social business collaboration activity is taking us. In hockey parlance, I’ve been trying to figure out where the puck is going to be.

To do that, I spent a year at Socialtext, learning the ins and outs of the internal side of social collaboration–complementing the #scrm experience I gained at Helpstream.  I also spent a lot of time with members of the #scrm and #e20 analyst communities, gleaning deep insights from folks on the front lines of implementation–making some close personal friendships along the way.  And I spent hours and hours talking with Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who are working on “the next big thing” sure to be needed by socially-enabled businesses.  I discovered a lot of very smart people out there with a lot of amazing ideas and insights, and to all of them I owe a deep debt of gratitude.

Throughout this process, though, I found myself coming back again and again to one major theme.  I sum it up like this:

At the end of the day, business is all about getting the right stuff done.  If the right work doesn’t get done, you really haven’t accomplished anything–whether it’s shipping a product, closing a sale, or fixing a bug.  Making sure the most important work actually gets done is the biggest challenge for social business today.  It’s the “last mile” in enabling social collaboration to transform the way businesses operate.

So there you have it.  That’s my big insight.  Social business collaboration’s success or failure will be determined by its ability to ensure that the right work gets done inside—and outside—the organization.

The early challenge of social business collaboration was to prove that work really does get done faster and more effectively.  But it turns out that isn’t enough.  The right work needs to get done.  As they have begun to implement social business collaboration methods, companies have found that the increase in the number of problems resolved through this type of mass collaboration has been accompanied by a dramatic increase in the number of critical problems never resolved.  Why does this happen you ask?  It happens because of how we’re solving the problems we’re discovering in the social ecosystem.  Even though we’re solving a lot more problems, the social collaboration methods we’re using are surfacing a lot more issues, with a lot more issues going unresolved.

Here’s an example.  Before social collaboration, of 10 problems identified by an organization, perhaps 9 got solved rather quickly but 1 really tough problem remained.  With social collaboration methods in place, an organization may now get 100 problems identified and 90 of them resolved quickly by the same level of resources.  But that leaves 10 really tough issues requiring the attention of their most highly skilled, expensive resources.  So they get 81 more problems solved than before, but they’re now left with 10 really tough ones to deal with—9 more than before.  Ouch.

Don’t expect the social collaboration Genie to go back into the bottle anytime soon.  We’re not going to solve this new problem by going back to the old way of doing things.  Clear visibility into problems we never knew we had before is not going away.

What we need is a modern, social way to solve this problem–one that brings big issues to the attention of the right people, in the right way, at the right time, while allowing everyone to collaborate in real time.  Most importantly, this real time collaboration needs to become part of the social record—not just a bunch of hollow words that disappear into a speakerphone or erased from the whiteboard at the end of a meeting like they do today.

It’s a difficult problem, but answers are on the horizon.  Before I delve into those in my next post, I’d like to hear what you think about all this.  Are you seeing this problem among your clients or inside your organization?  What are companies doing to try to solve this problem?  Let me know your thoughts and I’ll summarize them in my next post while introducing some emerging technologies I’ve found that are poised to completely transform the way we think about social business collaboration today.

It’s great to be back.