The internet's academic roots lay in collaboration, but the rise of client/server computing favoured a more hierarchical way of working. However, the rise of Web 2.0 platforms has both revealed and tapped into a desire for knowledge sharing and collaboration.
That trend has spread to the enterprise, where the same collaborative potential of social platforms is being unleashed within business decision-making, both across the organisation and within specific departments, such as HR and marketing.
Business intelligence (BI) is at the heart of it, because the need for analytical tools is growing as enterprises gather statistics from the internet via cloud-based dashboards and browser-based mash-ups of rich media streams and begin to release the customer-specific information embedded within them.
Analysts at Gartner have identified an emerging applications market: collaborative decision-making (CDM).
"CDM combines social software with business intelligence. This combination can dramatically improve the quality of decision-making by directly linking the information contained in BI systems with collaborative input gleaned through the use of social software," says a recent Gartner report.
User organisations could cobble together such a system with existing social software, BI platforms and basic tagging functionality, says Gartner, "but it will be far more efficient when software suppliers deliver 'out of the box' CDM solutions".
Analysis of who the main players might be is conspicuous by its absence. This is because CDM is currently a trend more than a standalone category - although 'pureplay' CDM systems are emerging.
Accord is a standalone suite, developed by Robust Decisions. The application melds decision-making templates with social tools and BI inputs to measure decisions against possible outcomes and to build consensus within a distributed workforce. An audit trail of business scenarios is core to the product, which includes decision-making templates and workflows.
Some enterprises might feel that reducing management to a series of templates and team referendums may be a level of transparency too far - what Gartner calls "cultural resistance by decision-makers". Others might feel it exploits talent within the team and creates organisational buy-in.
Web 2.0 drivers
Away from pureplay solutions, CDM is an emerging component of many application types - including BI, HR, talent management and suites - but it is also a behaviour brought about by the use of Web 2.0 applications.
In the vanguard of this trend is the fact that BI is being built into collaborative, cloud-based applications. For example, RightNow Technologies is one of several software as a service (SaaS) players that have introduced BI. Its most recent quarterly upgrade sees the company offering "business insight on demand", including an on-demand data warehouse facility and pre-built BI features.
Virtual world Second Life is also emerging as a platform for collaborative decision. For chief product officer Tom Hale, the key benefit is "collapsing space" and the ability to blend synchronous and asynchronous activities. "For conferences and events, the benefits are having all the relevant information and people on demand, which removes the constraints of schedule and geography," he says.
Greenphosphor.com is one developer building tools to allow Second Life users to visualise and interact with complex data "in world" and then to reach collaborative decisions based on them.
In the HR space, SaaS talent management company SuccessFactors has announced its Employee Central module. CEO Lars Dalgaard describes the tool as offering "revolutionary organisational insight and social collaboration for the enterprise" via a social-network-style interface.
But does this functionality itself need to be based in the cloud, and if so, what are the advantages and disadvantages of using a hosted service?
BI specialist Good Data is one of several SaaS start-ups, including CloudSwitch and RightScale, that are building a new business management space in the cloud. Many of these companies are built on the EC2 infrastructure provided by that sleeping giant of the business cloud, Amazon's web services.
Good Data CEO Roman Stanek says the advantage of cloud-based BI is its elastic scalability, which avoids the problems of spikes in usage. "Traditional IT departments build systems for peak load," he says. "We don't. It is all about economics, not technology."
Focus on value
The downturn is a factor in the growth of collaborative decisions. Nick Millman, senior director for information management services at Accenture , says, "There is a major focus on the value context, thus a need for greater BI and up-to-date performance metrics to help companies do more with less.
"The industry is moving towards operational BI where the intention is to make the power of BI available at the ground level. SOA has played an important role in making this a reality. BI permeates an entire organisation and, if used correctly, can positively influence decisions that affect every functional area."
Picture from Greenphosphor.com demo of Glasshouse, a tool for visualising data in virtual worlds