Tedschadler by Ted Schadler

In our conversations with many information and knowledge management professionals, it's clear that their distributed and multicompany teams need better extranet collaboration tools.

And they feel the problem is only getting worse as companies go virtual, global, distributed, outsourced, green, travel-less, and partnered, thus driving the need for ever-better collaboration tools that work outside the firewall.

Trouble is, the messaging and collaboration services that  companies have implemented are designed primarily for internal teams.

For example, it's bloody difficult to set up a secure instant messaging connection with every partner you might want to work with. Such interoperability between IM platforms is technically possible, but operationally nightmarish.

So clever employees do what they must: Use public IM and calendaring services, cobble together conferences from piece parts, and fall back on endless scheduling and sharing emails and voice conferencing. Ugh. Ugly. And scary.

Well, the solution's just around the corner say vendors new and old. After all, many are on the cusp of major product releases that promise much better extranet connections and capabilities:

  • IBM Bluehouse promises a new extranet collaboration platform.
  • Google already offers an extranet collaboration toolkit in its Google Apps Premier Edition.
  • Cisco is adding extranet collaboration capabilities to WebEx.
  • Microsoft is moving its services into the cloud for easier extranet access.
  • PBwiki is already cloud-based and ready for extranet collaboration.
  • The extranet collaboration toolkit list goes on: Veodia, Forterra, Dimdim, Qwaq.

That may be true. I surely hope so. But I fear that we have a few more hurdles to clear before extranet collaboration becomes as straightforward as internal collaboration. The basic problem is the many-to-many combinatorial problem. (The mathematicians I know call this a combinatorial problem, and its solution scales exponentially with the number of companies, nee people, involved.)

In addition to all the important stuff to support multicompany teams — conferencing, video, shared calendars, team sites, persistent chat, search, shared documents, unified communications, structured processes, etc. — these structural problems must be solved:

  1. An extranet collaboration platform will have to be set up in the cloud. Using a cloud-based provider turns a many-to-many exponential problem into a many-to-one linear problem. But one of the partnering company must still own and control the platform services.
  2. The many-to-many permission problem must be solved. How do to manage access control when teams form and disband and companies sometimes partner and sometimes compete? The access control tools need to get easy to use and integrate well with existing corporate directories.
  3. IT will have to grow comfortable with new access control dashboards. Thomson Reuters Messaging has solved this problem for some industries, giving individual companies control over what their employees can do on the extranet collaboration platform that it hosts.

Agree? Disagree? Please comment.