Collaboration made simple

Since the introduction of web-based tools that allow managers, workers and partners to exchange ideas and collaborate on...

Since the introduction of web-based tools that allow managers, workers and partners to exchange ideas and collaborate on projects, the days of marker pens and whiteboards are numbered

The key to this business is personal relationships

Many business activities require collaboration. Often this may be an informal meeting within a department, around a convenient desk or coffee machine. However, when documents need to be considered, the photocopier and the whiteboard may also be called into play. When meetings require staff working out of the office, or external partners, teleconferencing is a useful tool. Increasingly, most informal meetings need access to a wide variety of electronic documents either for review, editing or creation by the group. These documents may need to be worked on in parallel, with some members of the group requiring different degrees of access. When working with partners, some parts of the decision making process may even be confidential.

Software to help with collaboration and informal meetings is not new. The oldest and often overlooked is Internet Relay Chat (IRC) software. Known as instant messaging, thanks in part to AOL's adoption of the technology, IRC has been around since the late 1980s and sprang up from the bulletin boards used by academics. Modern IRC software now supports file transfer, real-time audio and some advanced scripting. However, managing an IRC environment for business users is difficult and, as such, IRC has largely been relegated to common interest groups such as sports fans or lonely hearts.

Within the education environment, tools such as CommonSpace and WebProject have long helped teachers coach students on writing, especially with regards to distance learning. For the most part, these packages are free and concentrate on annotation and revising textual documents. Software accompanying video conferencing packages such CuSeeMe have provided many of the features of a real-time meeting, such as whiteboard and file transfer, but have required active participation and very little else.

The challenge now is for businesses to both deploy and manage collaboration tools quickly and securely. Most meetings, whether real-word or online, need a structure and a conclusion for them to be successful. What many of the collaboration tools fail to provide is a template for conducting a meeting.

What we need is a plan

The collaboration software market has exploded and ranges from advanced IRC packages, like Microsoft's NetMeeting, through to web-centric tools, such as Lotus QuickPlace and rival eRoom, to full-blown project management software such as TeamWare. Although each category has its strengths and weaknesses, for meetings which need to be organised quickly between people not in the same physical location or using the same computing architecture, web-based tools offer the most effective response.

Within this space Microsoft's NetMeeting and Lotus QuickPlace have taken (in Microsoft's case) a lead in installed user base and (in Lotus's case) a technological advantage. NetMeeting's biggest advantage is that it is free. The 4Mb NetMeeting application provides audio, video, whiteboard, file transfer and textual messaging. The software can also allow some Microsoft applications to be viewed and shared. NetMeeting uses either your own ILS server or third party Internet server as the meeting point. Each member of the meeting needs to be running Windows, Internet Explorer and the NetMeeting software.

Netmeeting has attracted several prestigious clients including Ford and Boeing. It is a powerful product and the latest version has ironed out many of the bugs that made version 2.0 little more than a toy.

However, it is not without its limitations. Users running non-Microsoft operating systems or thin clients cannot use the software. NetMeeting also fails to have a structure or provide any task management or workflow, relying on order to form from the chaos of whiteboard. In addition, it does not provide a location for common documents or tasks.

Lotus QuickPlace is a relatively new product but it has a different approach to collaboration. As a totally web-based product, any browser running on any architecture can take part in a meeting. From the meeting room, diverse types of data can be stored such as spreadsheets, documents and graphics.

Each item placed into the meeting room is converted to HTML so that all attendees can examine documents with corresponding applications such as word processors or spreadsheet software. The editing process can take place online or documents can be moved locally. Common meeting tools such as real-time chat and white boarding are available and simple task management and scheduling is built into the software.

QuickPlace is not cheap - the electronic environment has to be served from a Domino hosted web server. However, many companies such as BT and Deutsche Telecom are offering QuickPlace as an ASP (outsourced) service with per seat pricing.

Show me the money

One question that does remain unanswered is integration between ASP-based collaboration systems and other applications hosted within the company. Sara Gemmel, group marketing manager for XTML, a leading UK ASP and hosting services company, agrees in part. "In essence, integrating any application poses similar problems. However, there is a slight increase in difficulty when working with applications served from an ASP. When dealing with suites of programs such as Peoplesoft or SAP, both provide comprehensive API and hooks to allow smoother integration even via ASP."

"Also, the integrating of in-house software with an ASP solution is often an outsourced activity. Using skilled partners can help reduce the burden on developers allowing them to concentrate on improvements and functionality," Gemmell goes on to add.

The majority of XTML's clients are currently deploying HR and financial solutions, but several are currently evaluating collaboration software. "We see collaboration software as a useful addition for many companies looking to take the load off core systems, "Gemmell continues, "especially as it can be served solely through a browser."

XTML is not alone; Internet-based Collaboration software works well within the ASP software. ERooms, for example, offer their own hosted service viable via the Web. In the UK, BT has rolled out a host of ASP services for collaboration and education based around Lotus QuickPlace and LearnSpace. With a per seat cost of around £5 per user per month, these managed services seen likely to become popular. With broadband around the corner, ASP is likely to grow.

Collaboration software may seem a luxury, but with zero administration and fast deployment time, it may change how your company conducts its meetings for good.

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