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Will Federal Budget Pressures Help or Hinder Adoption of Collaboration & Social Networking Applications?

By Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D.

Last year I published Are Federal Acquisition Practices Accelerating the Move of Government Computing to the Cloud? I wondered then if complexities in cumbersome government acquisition processes might have the unintended consequence of stimulating a move to “cloud computing” and a resulting shift in both IT infrastructure and application architectures. Now I’m wondering if the huge Federal deficit in the U.S. will help or hinder the adoption of collaboration and social networking technologies by Federal agencies.

While it’s true that vendors such as Cisco are now experiencing pressures on public sector sales, I don’t yet know the extent to which cloud computing in the Federal sector is really serving as a replacement for more traditional architectures. Still, it would be unwise for technology vendors not to anticipate some sort of downturn given dire Federal budget pressures.

One question is which technology sectors will be hardest hit. One area is adoption and use of collaboration technologies, social media, and social networking by Federal agencies. For example, organizations as large and as traditional as the Department of Veterans Affairs — a client — have established blogs, Facebook groups, and special medical data download applications to communicate with veterans. Such innovations are examples of many Federal agencies’ increasing use of web based systems to improve public communication.

I don’t see public demand for such services diminishing given continued acceptance of web based systems for all kinds of relationship management and communication applications. But given worsening agency budget situations there will be a challenge to the way that agencies adopt new technology based services. This will probably affect adoption of collaboration technologies, social media, and social networking tools by Federal agencies. The question is how.

This brings us back to possible pressures on using “cloud based” services. Consider social networking tools such as Facebook. Many Federal employees already use Facebook regularly for personal networking. They have grown to expect certain features and performance when using this tool. Can home-grown Federal systems compete with such features and reach as Facebook supplies, especially now that Facebook is adding email-like messaging as a service? Doesn’t use of systems like Facebook “raise expectations” about system attractiveness and ease of use? Won’t the “low cost” and public acceptance of tools such as Facebook accelerate their adoption by Federal agencies as one of the tools used for communicating with the public?

Consider what Jim MacLennan says in Why Corporate IT Fails when Competing with Consumer Tech … and How to Change the Game. There area couple of reasons why, he says, that consumer oriented applications seem to be more attractive and easy to use than “corporate” applications. One is that features of consumer systems are more targeted, selective, and focused on delivering value. Another is that rapid experimentation — and even mistakes — are encouraged by the market. So maybe it’s not surprising that a Federal employee will look at what’s available in the public marketplace and ask the question “Why can’t we have something like that?”

When it comes to incorporating social networking and collaboration into Federal operations we’ll continue to see pressure to adopt low-initial-investment solutions such as Facebook in outward facing situations where there’s a need to communicate rapidly with external groups.

A greater challenge may come with upgrading internal collaboration and social networking tools to internal agency operations. These may require more changes to internal business processes and this is where significant change management and cost challenges will arise.

For example, agencies and individuals increasingly may recognize the inefficiencies of using email as a collaboration tool given how poorly it performs in situations requiring collaborative work on single documents in situations such as policy development, acquisitions, rulemaking, and general administration.

Will this realization accelerate adoption of internally managed tools such as SharePoint or Jive? Or will use of externally hosted and potentially lower cost tools such as Facebook, Ning, and Groupsite start looking more attractive for supporting workplace collaboration, given worsening budget pressures?

One challenge will not just be in changing habit and behavior among those more comfortable with email-dependent communication and siloed operations, but in understanding what the cost and budget implications of moving to new collaboration and networking platforms really are. It might cost less — initially — to move to a cloud-based or remotely-hosted networking system when compared with more traditional internal networks requiring per seat licensing, maintenance, and support costs. But when the possible costs of transition, retraining, and modifications to impacted systems such as security, email, and back-office HR and financial systems are taken into account, will the “total cost of operation” really be less for externally hosted collaboration and social networking technologies?

Copyright (c) 2010 by Dennis D. McDonald. Originally published 11/14/2010 on Dennis D. McDonald’s Web Site.

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