Google: Docs is key to long-term workplace changes

Firm bets businesses will use Google Docs to get more social; analysts not so sure

Google Inc.'s vision of the not-so-distant future: The corporate workday will be quite different -- and a lot more social.

Executives at Google say that emerging cloud-based applications will foster far more collaboration among a new generation of corporate employees who will have grown up using social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Anil Sabharwal, product manager for the cloud-based Google Apps offering, predicts a major corporate shift to the cloud will be in full swing in five years, when most organizations will be using cloud-based e-mail, spreadsheet and documentation services, largely because they offer easy collaboration -- or "business socialization" -- capabilities.

"Social elements will come into play in how we get our work done," Sabharwal told Computerworld. "The idea is that businesses are, by their very nature, a social network. You're all connected by virtue of working for that company. Better collaboration. Better broadcasting of information to a group. Better social connections. All of that is going to become really interesting for businesses."

And yes, despite skepticism from some analysts, Google expects that the Google Docs family of applications will stand in the forefront of a more team-oriented corporate workplace. IBM's Lotus unit and Microsoft Corp. have long offered collaboration tools, but Google says its tools will support more seamless collaboration.

For example, Sabharwal said Google's hosted services will enable someone who needs help formulating a marketing idea to easily get input from co-workers in other pertinent departments.

The Web-based Google Docs application suite includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, documentation and storage tools. Google last year began a concerted effort to push its cloud-based offerings into the lucrative enterprise market, taking on Microsoft and its uber-popular desktop applications.

Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc., said companies will have to create social business models that don't unnecessarily slow projects down.

"The enterprise can be described as a social network in that it is a collection of humans all communicating in an attempt to accomplish common goals," he said. "A social-network-like model for corporate communications would certainly connect people that need to be connected, [which] could be helpful in a lot of cases. But it could also be a huge time sink by encouraging and enabling communications between people who don't necessarily need to talk in order to get the job done."

Olds was quick to note that a broadly collaborative organizational model would clash with the traditional business hierarchy, and that could pose problems for Google's vision.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group, agreed that selling the broad social concept to most businesses will likely be tougher than Google seems to expect.

"Businesses are hierarchical, where information flow is generally highly restricted," Enderle said. "[Information] almost never flows the way folks think it does. The social construct in business isn't even consistent within working groups, let alone across the breadth of a company. You could argue they should be more of a social network, but they generally aren't today."

Enderle added that many businesses continue to resist moving important applications to the cloud because of concerns about security and reliability. And such concerns aren't easily overcome, he added.

"While [Sabharwal] is right in terms of our current [social] direction, thanks to services like Facebook, he may be too aggressive on the [business] timeline," he noted.

In addition, Enderle said, even if the business world does follow Google's general vision, "there's no assurance that the market will move toward Google Docs. It's much more likely it will move toward a vendor they already work with [because] firms tend to favor existing relationships."

In that case, any corporate move to cloud-based applications would work out best for Microsoft, Google's biggest competitor, which has owned the desktop software market for years.

Nonetheless, Google expects that changing corporate philosophies -- and a recognition of how Google Docs could help put those new philosophies into practice -- will pave its way into the enterprise. After all, the company notes that it has a history of coming up with successful business visions that created a gold mine for itself with products like its flagship search engine and Google Maps and Google Earth.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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