Working together

New web-based tools are giving collaborative working within organisations a new impetus, Mark Vernon looks at those in the...

New web-based tools are giving collaborative working within organisations a new impetus, Mark Vernon looks at those in the vanguard.

Collaboration applications, such as e-mail, instant messaging and videoconferencing, have been around for some time. They are certainly big business. Analysts at IDC have estimated that the market is worth £2.9bn, and Ovum has predicted that sales of a new generation of what it calls "advanced collaboration tools" will double from £235m today to £500m in 2006.

But how the tools are actually used for collaboration is another question entirely. In particular, piecemeal installations of these tools do not make for joined-up working.

"Organisations have accumulated various systems to manage their enterprise content, making consolidation a priority to reduce costs and legal risks as well as improve effectiveness," says Jeffrey Mann, an analyst at Meta Group.

"Content consolidators need to build and develop end-user and business manager support for their efforts and set priorities for the systems to be targeted as this cannot be executed all at once."

Employees must also be encouraged to use the tools. "The key to a successful conferencing and collaboration is ensuring that the potential user base requires the minimum possible level of training and expertise," says Tony Heyworth, regional director of marketing at audio conferencing products supplier Polycom. "It is for this reason that web-based collaboration products are becoming key."

Video on the desktop provides a case in point. A survey of IT directors' attitudes to the technology, carried out by IT market researcher Vanson Bourne, showed that well over half see the benefits, in terms of time savings and improving customer relationships, but that almost 50% are holding back since only a limited number of companies with which they would communicate in this way are able to reciprocate calls.

Other inhibitors include the suspicion that collaboration tools are actually a distraction. "One of the key barriers to the adoption of collaborative applications is the fear among management that employee productivity will decrease," says Neil Lock, head of Lotus online applications at BT Global Services.

"However, this is nonsensical. I have had a telephone on my desk for years, but that does not mean I will pick up it and randomly call Australia every five minutes just because it is there."

Here we look at the experience of companies that have deployed these collaborative applications and ask what they have done, what benefits they have gained and what limitations they have found.

Converged document management

What is it?
Information storage that does not depend on fragmented e-mail systems and can impose best practice across offices for controlling information, tracking documents and changes.

What benefits does it bring?
Masons, an international law firm, has installed a system from Interwoven. "Law firms today are driven by the need to improve client communication and collaboration," says Masons' IT director Kevin Connell. "Historically, law firms have implemented systems to manage documents - now they need products that streamline the way they do business. The challenge is managing and collaborating on the ever-increasing volume of content."

In addition, the development of such business automation processes ensures that valuable knowledge is captured and made available across the firm.

What do you need to use it?
Masons' system has a web-based architecture and integrates tightly with the Microsoft infrastructure the company already has in place.

What about installation and training?
"The roll-out went very smoothly, and with the help of Baker Robbins, the implementation partner, all offices were live on the new system within 12 weeks," says Connell. "One senior partner said of the project, 'This is the best IT implementation the firm has been through.'"

What are its limits?
The limitations of these systems are often defined by the expectations of users. Masons came from a starting point where information sharing had been limited to phone calls, e-mail exchanges and faxes, so the system exceeded original expectations. Companies already sharing content in more sophisticated ways may come up against limits more quickly.

Instant Messaging

What is it?
Immediate texting. "We are using a recruitment package called Adapt in conjunction with a wireless messaging platform developed by Telrock," says Vincent Barreto, systems manager at recruitment services company Bloomfield Group. "It provides us with the ability to instantly text candidates with details of new vacancies or send birthday greetings. Our payroll department also uses the batch functionality to remind temporary workers to send in their timesheets at the end of the week."

What benefits does it bring?
Apart from the obvious benefits of cheap, direct, immediate contact, SMS messaging is more discrete than a phone call. "Many candidates are unwilling to take a call from a recruitment consultant but will happily receive a text and reply to it, the reply going straight back to the mailbox of the consultant sending the SMS," says Barreto.

What do you need to use it?
Bloomfield Group uses the e-mail functionality of its Adapt application to send a message to the Telrock gateway which then handles the SMS from there.

What about training and installation?
"We customised our database to allow users to send an SMS by simply clicking a button on the candidate's record, typing in a message and clicking on submit," says Barreto. Installation was straightforward. "We used our existing ability to send e-mails out of the system and modified it to allow us to send the correctly formatted messages to Telrock."

What are its limits?
Instant messaging depends on functioning e-mail servers and internet connections. Mobile numbers need to be up-to-date and recipients must be happy to receive texts. "There are no real limitations as far as I can see," says Barreto.

Videoconferencing

What is it?
Face-to-face video-quality communications. Not to be confused with web conferencing.

What benefits does it bring?
Automobile manufacturer DaimlerChrysler installed videoconferencing from Tandberg as the best alternative to meeting in person. Customers are now able to receive advice on funding, finance and insurance deals from qualified consultants at the touch of a button: to place consultants at each third party dealer site would have been too expensive. Customer responses have been very positive.

Construction firm Grace & Company uses Polycom videoconferencing. Guy Welty from Grace reports savings of £1m as a result of productivity gains. Improved teamwork and faster decision making are typical.

What do you need to use it?
Dedicated bandwidth. DaimlerChrysler has chosen 12in LCD flatscreens at the front-end because they are easily transported.

What about training and installation?
Given infrastructure access, screens are effectively "plug and play" units, allowing simple set-up and use. Grace's system is supported by just two people.

What are its limits?
The two main attractions of the Tandberg system are its reliability and defined camera control. DaimlerChrysler has never lost a call because the equipment has a fall-back system. Bandwidth can be an issue, but Grace routinely holds meetings that bring together up to 2,000 employees worldwide.

For companies that implement the technology, it is important to be clear that many meetings will still require the human touch that videoconferencing can never provide.

Group e-mail

What is it?
Communications and contact management applications that:

  • Converge fragmented contact data across multiple devices
  • Centralise the management of contact information 
  • Enable collaboration between account managers and across project teams.

What benefits does it bring?
For small and medium-sized enterprises, Adam Maclean, managing director of consultancy Klear Systems, uses an application from Midentity. "The main benefit is productivity. It is a lot faster to search and communicate than Outlook," he says. "Texting is a breeze, whereas I hardly ever did it before."

The system also requests contact information automatically from new clients. "Being alerted when a known contact e-mails me means I never need to switch windows to check if I have important e-mails to answer."

Large coroporate Quaker Chemical turned to Intraspect to install Quaker Business Intelligence, a system to integrate communications between sales, product and development teams.

"With information and product development teams scattered across the globe, Quaker Chemical has been able to shorten product iterations by working online with extended development team members," says Quaker's R&D director Nico Broekhof. "Additionally, development teams capitalise on previous work, methodologies and lessons to speed the formulation process."

What do you need to use it?
PCs with web browsers and internet access.

What about training and installation?
Most products focused at individual users are quickly installed and easy to use. For corporate applications, software is customised to each customer's requirements and includes training modules.

What about limitations?
Maclean says he was wary of data protection and privacy issues, but Midentity has handled these well. The replication of contacts to mobiles phones can be problematic.

Web conferencing

What is it?
Web conferencing uses the internet to hold virtual meetings where participants can hear each other as well as share documents, data or applications. But there is no exchange of video, and so web conferencing is far less demanding on IT infrastructure.

What benefits does it bring?
"The key benefit is the ability to talk and visually interact with our client's project teams on an ad-hoc basis," says Andrew Burnett, director of innovation at consultancy Knowledge Associates, which uses Meetingzone. "Audioconferencing gets us talking to clients within minutes, and we can bring in the Glance web conferencing service to look at visual information such as slides and project charts together."

Web conferencing is also useful in channel communications. Cobol specialist Micro Focus uses Webex across its international distributor community. "It enables the company to co-ordinate training and information dissemination to a geographically diverse group and so helps promote unity," says Martin Briggs-Watson of Micro Focus.

What equipment do you need to use it?
An internet connection and a phone for audio.

What about training and installation?
Since it is web browser based, it requires little training. Installation is usually straightforward too: for Micro Focus, Webex handled installation and hosts the service, providing a customised web interface.

What are its limits?
"We trialled a number of other web conferencing products," says Burnett. "They often interfered with firewalls both internally and at the customer end, or required our clients to embark on long software downloads before information could be shared."

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