Observations from Gilbane Boston 2009

The 2009 version of the Gilbane Boston conference was held last week. It was the second one I have attended and my first as a track coordinator (I designed the Collaboration and Social Software track and made it happen.) The event was well attended (c. 1100 people) and the number of sponsors and exhibitors was up significantly from last year’s Boston conference. Many of the sessions I attended offered valuable insights from speakers and audience members. All in all, I would label the conference a success.

The Collaboration and Social Software track sessions were designed to minimize formal presentation time and encourage open discussion between panelists and audience members instead. Each session focused on either a common collaboration challenge (collaborative content authoring, content sharing, fostering discussions, managing innovation) or on a specific technology offering (Microsoft SharePoint 2010 and Google Wave.) The sessions that dealt with specific technologies produced more active discussion than those that probed general collaboration issues. I am not sure why that was the case, but the SharePoint and Wave sessions spawned the level of interactivity that I had hoped for in all the panels. The audience seemed a bit reticent to join in the others. Perhaps it took them a while to warm up (the SharePoint and Wave sessions were at the end of the track.)

Here are some other, high level observations from the entire Gilbane Boston 2009 conference:

Twitter: Last year (and at Gilbane San Francisco in June 2009) attendees were buzzing about Twitter, wondering what it was and how it could be used in a corporate setting. This year the word “Twitter” was hardly uttered at all, by presenters or attendees. Most audience members seemed to be fixated on their laptop or smartphone during the conference sessions, but the related tweet stream flow was light compared to other events I’ve attended this quarter. The online participation level of folks interested in content management seems to mirror their carbon form patterns. Most are content to listen and watch, while only a few ask questions or make comments. That is true across all audiences, of course, but it seemed especially pronounced at Gilbane Boston.

SharePoint 2010: This topic replaced Twitter as the ubiquitous term at Gilbane Boston. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “SharePoint” at the conference, I would be able to buy a significant stake in Microsoft! Every company I consulted with during the event was seeking to make SharePoint either their primary content management and collaboration platform, or a more important element in their technology mix. Expectations for what will be possible with SharePoint 2010 are very high. If Microsoft can deliver on their vision, they will gain tremendous share in the market; if not, SharePoint may well have seen its zenith. Everything that I have heard and seen suggests the former will occur.

Google Wave: This fledgling technology also generated substantial buzz at Gilbane Boston. The session on Wave was very well attended, especially considering that it was the next-to-last breakout of the conference. An informal poll of the session audience indicated that nearly half have established a Wave account. However, when asked if they used Wave regularly, only about 20% of the registered users responded affirmatively;. Actual participation in the Wave that I created for attendees to take notes and discuss the Collaboration track online underscored the poll results. Most session attendees said they see the potential to collaborate differently, and more effectively and efficiently, in Wave, but cited many obstacles that were preventing them from doing so at this time. Audience members agree that the Wave user experience has a long way to go; functionality is missing and the user interface and features that are there are not easy to use. Most attendees thought Wave’s current shortcomings would be improved or eliminated entirely as they product matures. However, many also noted that collaboration norms within their organization would have to change before Wave is heavily adopted.

Open Source: This was the hot topic of the conference. Everyone was discussing open source content management and collaboration software. An informal poll of the audience at the opening keynote panel suggested that about 40% were using open source content management software. Many of the other attendees wanted to learn more about open source alternatives to the proprietary software they have been using. Clients that I met with asked questions about feature availability, ease of use, cost benefits, and financial viability of providers of open source content management and collaboration software. It was clear that open source is now considered a viable, and perhaps desirable, option by most organizations purchasing enterprise software.

My big take-away from Gilbane Boston 2009 is that we are experiencing an inflection point in the markets for enterprise content management and collaboration software. Monolithic, rigid, proprietary solutions are falling out of favor and interest in more lightweight, flexible, social, open source offerings is rapidly growing. I expect that this trend will continue to manifest itself at Gilbane San Francisco in June 2010, and beyond.

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