Come Together Carefully: How to Select Collaboration Tools to Match Your Needs

As the available options multiply, it becomes increasingly important for businesses to match collaboration tools to their needs.

Robb Chapman, an IT specialist at the Centers for Disease Control

Robb Chapman, an IT specialist at the Centers for Disease Control

Image Credit: Ann States

Robb Chapman, an IT specialist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, discovered how complicated the choice of a collaboration tool can be when he became involved in the CDC's effort to purchase software that would let researchers work more effectively with universities and state health agencies. The options proved so numerous that the agency hired an outside consultant to sort through all the candidates — an effort that took six months.

"Different vendors had different bundles of functions — discussion boards, Web conferencing, document sharing," Chapman recalls. "It got quite complicated for us to determine whether we needed a single, integrated product with all of the functions or several best-of-breed products."

In the not-so-distant past, the options for collaborating with customers and colleagues were fairly limited: e-mail, file transfer protocol (FTP), perhaps a listserv for group discussions. Today, the choices are more numerous — and more difficult to sort out.

Chapman's sense of confusion about selecting a collaboration product is shared by many IT managers, and for good reason. There are close to 1,000 vendors in the collaboration market, according to David Coleman, managing director of Collaborative Strategies LLC in San Francisco. "There are way too many vendors," he says. Coleman projects that sales of collaboration software, services and related hardware will reach $40 billion in 2008, with an average annual growth rate of 13%.

The products offer a range of features, such as instant messaging, virtual team collaboration rooms, Internet audio and video, screen sharing, wikis for group posting and editing of content, blogs, whiteboards and repositories for accessing common documents. Products may have one or many of these functions bundled together.

To complicate matters further, many large organizations treat collaborative tools as a departmental decision, allowing line-of-business managers to bring in whatever they want. That has led to a proliferation of products within companies, many of them totally unknown to corporate IT. Coleman says most large companies have 10 to 12 collaborative applications.

"It's been line-of-business adoption, with a manager signing the contracts," notes Robert Mahowald, an analyst at market research company IDC.

Lower-level employees, on the other hand, tend to stick with e-mail, resisting newer communication tools. "E-mail is often used for collaboration when it shouldn't be," notes Coleman. "Often, they just don't understand that there are better things out there."

Who Needs It?

The CDC's role as both a research agency and crisis management leader in the event of a regional or national health emergency makes it an obvious candidate for collaborative technologies. The agency chose SiteScape Inc.'s Enterprise Forum, which allows it to collaborate with outside health agencies and research groups, as well as quickly create a virtual "war room" to deal with a health crisis. With Site­Scape, the CDC can create a team work space and accounts for new team members, share documents and schedule Web meetings and notify attendees via e-mail, automated phone calls and SMS messages. Related groups may be created to coordinate emergency responders and disseminate information to hospitals. Later, the workspace can be archived for historical and auditing purposes.

But it's not always so clear that a business can use collaborative technologies. There are general organizational characteristics of companies that need collaboration software.

Distributed teams. Few large organizations have just one facility, and they need a way to make it easier for employees in different locations to collaborate. Their options include simple tools such as instant messaging applications, which workers can use to get quick answers to urgent questions, and more elaborate software such as virtual team rooms where employees can collaborate on shared projects.

Such is the situation in the corporate Internet group at financial services firm J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. With IT staffers scattered among four U.S. cities, employees have had to use e-mail and the phone to work on Web projects. But e-mail isn't ideal for sharing large files or holding threaded group discussions. So the Internet group implemented Microsoft Corp.'s SharePoint Services, which enables staffers to remotely access a central repository of documents and create Web sites for different projects.

"We store test plans, project plans, requirements documents, issues logs, status reports, etc.," says Michael Brown, senior project manager in the corporate Internet group. "We have architects in different cities, so all want to have a site where they can share information."

Down the road, they'll add a wiki — or HTML-based pages that team members can use to post content online — and a blog for publishing employee commentary.

Road warriors. Business travel will never go away, but employees can save considerable time and money with virtual-meeting technologies.

Pemco Aviation Group Inc. uses Oracle Content Services for webcasting, as well as fax, phone, e-mail and instant messaging. Thanks to the webcasting feature, the Birmingham, Ala.-based company's engineers now log fewer frequent-flier miles visiting customers.

"If they want to make a customer presentation, they start the Web conference at their desk, turn on recording, do the presentation and put it on the Web site," says John Griffith, Pemco's director of IT, noting that they can also opt to do a live webcast.

Likewise, Dow Corning Corp. in Midland, Mich., has noticeably reduced employee travel through the use of both Documentum Inc.'s eRoom for document collaboration and WebEx Communications Inc.'s webcasting services for online meetings and seminars.

WebEx has substantially decreased the need to travel for marketing presentations, technical support and partner training, notes Ben Martinson, enterprise application engineer at Dow Corning. "It's used to troubleshoot problems by utilizing the desktop and application-sharing functionalities," he explains. "And some internal business [units] have moved to WebEx to host distributor training."

Paperwork overload. The Babcock & Wilcox Co. (B&W), a $1.4 billion manufacturer of power-generation equipment, had a document management problem. Each order for a new piece of equipment inevitably created a flood of documents — contracts, product specifications, purchase orders, product designs and documentation. Most of these were sent via FedEx or uploaded to one of the thousand or so FTP sites created by B&W employees. Keeping track of the location or current version number of any particular document had become extremely difficult.

"If I sent a drawing out to somebody, I had absolutely no idea what they'd do with it," says Penny Sherrod, B&W's director of enterprise systems. She also notes that the company incurred significant costs by express-mailing documents back and forth.

So a couple of years ago, B&W began moving its documents online. The IT staff first deployed a Matrix­One Inc. document management application and then integrated that with BEA Systems Inc.'s AquaLogic (formerly from Plumtree Software Inc.). AquaLogic provides additional features, such as the ability to integrate multiple back-end applications and, on a more basic level, a place to post company news.

When the implementation is complete, in early 2006, both suppliers and customers will be able to access product documents as well as check the status of purchase orders and requests for quotations.

Training without travel. When employees need to take a class to earn a degree, obtain certification or just hone their skills, they often must travel to a classroom. But the advent of virtual classrooms promises to make professional development a great deal easier.

It's making learning easier and more enriching for students and staff in the Nechako Lakes Schools District, which is located in a rural part of British Columbia. Thanks to computer-based learning, students can take classes offered only at other schools in the district.

The program has expanded from 13 to 1,200 students, who take part in discussion forums, webcasts, live chats and breakout sessions using the Lotus Domino Virtual Classroom. Instructors also use the Lotus Learning Management System to handle class scheduling, course creation, enrollment and other tasks.

Ernie Mannering, director of information services and technology for the district, says the virtual classroom provides opportunities for students to interact with a larger group of students, as well as absorb lessons better. "It gives students more time to compose their thoughts," he says.

Of course, the biggest benefit is being able to take a class via a computer rather then driving miles to a physical classroom — a benefit that business professionals can appreciate as well.

Once you have a basic idea of what type of software you need — web­casting for meetings or document management for paper-intensive projects — the next step is to evaluate the technical requirements of the products.

Integration is one issue to consider; many collaboration products have to interoperate with others, such as a document management package and a portal, or IM and e-mail.

"One example is your typical groupware application, which has calendaring and scheduling, a company directory and things like that. Those bits and pieces need to be pretty tightly integrated," observes IDC's Mahowald.

Then comes maintenance. Applications that bundle multiple collaborative features may be easier to maintain than a collection of technologies from different vendors.

"Because they integrate so well together, maintenance is easier. I didn't have to add anyone to support Oracle Content Services," says Pemco's Griffith. "I've got the same group of people doing e-mail, calendar, Oracle Content Services, instant messaging, voice mail, Web conferencing and fax."

Hardware, of course, is another issue. Will the application require its own server, or conversely, does it need to share space with your database? If you opt for webcasting, can your network handle the bandwidth demands?

How about security? At the CDC, IT staffers had to ensure that any application would work with the extranet security framework already in place.

And don't forget scalability. Your collaboration tool may start as a departmental application, but someday you may want to expand it to the entire company. Can it scale?

The choice really depends on three basic factors, says Brown at J.P. Morgan Chase. "It comes down to how dispersed your team is, what type of collaboration you need to do — like do you need to collaborate on documents or just share access to them — and your budget," he says. "Once you know what the word collaboration means to you from a process perspective, then you can start looking at your budget and what technology is out there."

Hildreth is a freelance technology writer in Waltham, Mass. She can be reached at

Copyright © 2005 IDG Communications, Inc.

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