Collaboration Gets It Together

After years of hype, collaboration tools may finally be approaching that elusive goal of enabling employees, vendors and customers to work with one another when they're in different locations as smoothly as they can in face-to-face meetings. And for those organizing the meetings, these tools can help them do it a whole lot more efficiently than ever before.

Collaboration technologies had their humble beginnings in e-mail but now include everything from application sharing to workflow management to videoconferencing. But what's finally bringing these technologies into companies is the way they are being assembled into virtual workspaces.

"We were going crazy," says Christy Keener, senior vice president of organization at CNA Insurance in Chicago. She had the job of bringing together 350 people from different parts of the company to review corporate strategies and direction. Prior to the conference, those involved became bogged down in project status reports, budgeting, conference goals and, in particular, review and discussion of key documents. With input from hundreds of dispersed groups, keeping track of changes and responding to the revisions of others proved to be a nightmare. By setting up a hosted virtual office using the Caucus Consortium's Team software, Keener grabbed control of document tracking.

The Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Caucus Consortium is composed of a software firm, collaboration consulting firms and an educational institution. Team is part of a new generation of virtual workplaces. Available either as an in-house or a hosted product, the software combines communication, document management and project management features into a customizable, virtual-team portal.

"That project launched our use of collaboration technology," says Keener. "We couldn't possibly have managed without those tools."

CNA's experience is far from unique. Although the basics of collaboration involve nothing new, the tools have finally matured to the point where they can facilitate human interaction without being a burden on IT or users. As a result, Framingham, Mass.-based IDC estimates that companies have spent about $4.5 billion on collaboration applications this year.

Those sales are being driven not by technological breakthroughs so much as by product packaging and integration. Much like collections of related office or systems management applications, collaboration software packages now come bundled with tools for emulating every aspect of an office environment, from physical features such as conference rooms, bulletin boards, telephones, file cabinets and calendars to interpersonal interactions such as chat and document exchange. The latest tools create realistic virtual offices, minus the coffee.

Virtual Offices

Typically, virtual offices are set up as secure intranet or extranet portals. Some are designed to resemble a physical office, with "walls" where information can be posted or accessed. Team members have "facilities" to communicate with one another and move the project to its conclusion. These include all documents created during the project, discussion archives, calendars, bulletin boards and timelines as well as communication tools such as e-mail, instant messaging and videoconferencing. One useful newcomer is presence management, which works like AOL Instant Messenger's "buddy list"—an icon or picture indicates who is currently logged into the office and available for real-time interaction.

At CNA, for example, any employee can access the portal, which has a steady feed of insurance industry news and company announcements, plus links to the corporate knowledge base and e-learning area. On the left of the screen is a button that CNA employees who are members of a virtual team can click on to access their virtual office.

CNA uses Collaboration Architects LLC, a consulting firm in Falls Church, Va., that's part of the Caucus Consortium, to customize each of the virtual offices with the tools needed by a particular team. Features include a general discussion space, project management and budgeting tools, status reports, issues logs, responsibility matrices, project goal and summary, as well as the normal communication and document storage and management functions.

And access to collaboration portals doesn't need to be limited to those within the organization. Environmental consulting firm Jones & Stokes Associates Inc. in Sacramento, Calif., for instance, often brings together staffers, clients, partners and subcontractors from around the western U.S. to prepare Environmental Impact Reports (EIR). Virtual offices created by Pleasanton, Calif.-based Documentum Inc.'s eRoom application include repositories of thousands of references used in compiling an EIR. Once a document is authored, eRoom automatically notifies the next person on the approval line that it's ready for review.

"One client became excited about having documents online because now, for the first time, they had easy access to all of their own materials in a searchable format," says Lane Yago, who was manager of design and implementation for applied technology solutions at Jones & Stokes until he left the firm last month. "People are not used to having that kind of power."

Those consulted on EIRs can also use eRoom to share files during meetings, as long as participants have the appropriate software loaded on their workstations. For specialized and less-commonly used tools such as geographic information systems and computer-aided design software, participants can at least share screenshots.

Companies such as Jones & Stokes and CNA report no significant problems with implementation. It's quite likely that most companies already have the infrastructure needed to create virtual offices. Bandwidth needs are minimal unless you want to do videoconferencing, say users. Some companies may need to add one or more servers. Alternatively, collaboration packages can be outsourced.

Although CNA Insurance has a large internal IT group and Jones & Stokes has only a few IT staffers, both preferred to outsource because they could then scale collaboration services to meet their needs without having to provide IT support internally.

"If [Jones & Stokes] were a billion-dollar company with a 100-person IT group, [they] might do it in-house," says Yago. "Since the IT support team is busy maintaining the network, hardware and software for all branches of the company, it made more sense to outsource."

Cultural Change

To spawn a new virtual room, all Jones & Stokes has to do is go to the Facilities screen, fill in the appropriate information, designate what type of shell or template to use and enter the naming convention. "It isn't deploying the technology that is challenging," says Yago. "It's getting the people to use [it], experience the benefits and turn it into a standard practice."

According to Yago, the virtual office concept requires IT to spend a lot of time training users and becoming familiar with the demands of each project so the collaboration environment is optimized for the task at hand. Before setting up a new room at Jones & Stokes, Yago would meet with the project managers to make sure he understood all the physical things that needed to be done on the project, who would do what, and most important, the intended final product. He could then automate the processes and leverage eRoom to obtain the desired result.

ERoom has several templates to make configuration easier, but they must still be customized to specific project needs. Setting up a site is a matter of assembling the virtual office out of the pieces available in the template, so it's less customizable than if a company owned all the underlying software. The trade-off is in terms of ease of use; you just click on the features to add them. The eRoom Web site has samples of the templates that visitors can play with to see if the software meets their companies' needs.

However, notes Keener, virtual office packages may not be right for every meeting. CNA uses Caucus' Team software for big events, such as the 350-person convention described earlier and a finance project involving about 40 people. But a virtual meeting room can be overkill for smaller projects that involve only a handful of people, especially if the participants can meet in person without much trouble or expense.

Keener's advice: Start out with a couple of teams for which face-to-face meetings would clearly be too expensive or time-consuming. Then scale it down until you find the size and type of meeting where the collaboration suite itself becomes a burden. "Where the circumstances make it easier and more convenient to use the tool, people will use it," she explains. "You have to look for the right degree of pain."

Robb is a freelance writer in Tujunga, Calif.

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