Can you envision a scarier picture than people sharing corporate secrets as freely as they download MP3 files from Napster? But it doesn't have to be this way. Peer-to-peer computing, technology-based interaction that completely eliminates the company as player, can be a powerful medium to promote the kind of ad hoc collaboration that can yield better business information delivered faster. By making online collaboration like picking up the phone rather than like arranging a conference, P2P refocuses attention away from the tools and onto the task at hand.
Like the Web, P2P involves technology only secondarily. It has more to do with the many ways in which people interact with business information and collaborate on knowledge work. P2P fits remarkably well into the distributed business model by allowing people, processes and information to come together regardless of physical boundaries. So does the Web, of course, but Internet and intranet processes are still structurally centralized. And extranets, while they extend access to corporate content beyond the enterprise, typically fail to take into account the business processes that must occur around that content.
One answer to this problem is virtual workplace software such as eRoom, Inovie TeamCenter or SiteScape. These are environments in cyberspace that can be used for online meetings, complete with tools for working together on documents. They offer a convenient way for dispersed teams to view a common document and have a threaded text discussion. But ultimately, this generation of collaboration tools is weighed down by outmoded metaphors such as rooms and documents. In a virtual world, for example, the number of meeting rooms is unlimited; why is it still necessary to sign up for a room?
New tools such as NXT 3 from NextPage and Groove by Ray Ozzie go further, breaking free of many physical office metaphors to provide a more transparent interface that can inspire spontaneous bouts of collaboration. Small groups can interact in a private, secure space that exists not on some central server but on each other's machines. This allows individuals to maintain control--control over content, control over who can and can't participate, and control over the kind of functionality that is available to people in that space.
Do I sense the fear creeping in again? Of course, you still need to protect your intellectual property. But unless you provide an environment in which truly unfettered and spontaneous brainstorming can occur, you won't end up with many ideas worth protecting. Protecting that intangible capital is ultimately a matter of your company's culture, in any case, not a job for technology tools. And in the end, increasing the effectiveness of your employees will win out over maintaining control every time.