Low-Cost Doesn't Mean "Cheap"
Small prices don't mean these Web collaborative technologies can't handle bigger jobs, however. Consider all the data Hansje Gold-Krueck has to gather for her job.
Gold-Krueck is human dimensions specialist and technical program leader at the Coastal Services Center, the unit of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responsible for managing local coastal resources. The center partners in more than 100 projects.
But to fully understand the scope of Gold- Krueck's job, multiply those 100 projects by the need to assess, for each, the social, cultural and political aspects of managing public land resources. Then multiply that by the fact that the information she needs to make that assessment is housed all over the country, and some of it has never been formally published.
To gather and clearly see the points of convergence in all that data, Gold-Krueck's department turned to mashup software from Kapow Technologies. The Web 2.0 Mashup Server software lets users gather data, regardless of format (straight text, spreadsheets, Web pages, RSS feeds and the like), from internal and external sources, combine that data and redeploy it in entirely new ways, such as an information-dense and highly searchable Web site. The site lets people working on other coastal protection initiatives find research on similar initiatives in other locales. The Kapow Mashup Server is at the high end of the new collaborative technologies being built off the Web: The cost of a full enterprise version starts at $50,000.
And while Gold-Krueck says the Coastal Services Center notifies the organizations whose reports are pulled into the site (and credits them in the entries), she notes there's no need or obligation to do so. "The Kapow technology is completely non-invasive," she says. "We don't need to talk to their IT people." That is a key selling point. Most of these services are so lightweight they can be implemented and used without help from an IT pro. Many of the small vendors make their products available as a service over the Web, so they can be purchased on a project basis and not subject to the scrutiny that usually accompanies a decision to buy enterprise software. "There is an element of instant gratification here," says Gartner's Drakos. He cautions, however, that as the use of collaborative tools becomes more widespread, there will be larger questions about managing content and risk, and more need for an IT department to integrate the products with existing systems.
That's where the big companies like IBM may have an edge. Giora Hadar, the FAA's knowledge architect, says the FAA went with IBM Lotus Connections over other collaborative technologies because the FAA was already an IBM shop, using Lotus Notes, Domino and Sametime for instant messaging and Web conferencing. But a big company product doesn't necessarily carry a big company price tag: Activities, the single Lotus Connections product the FAA uses, has a list price of $55 a user for a perpetual license; the full Connections suite costs $110 a user. Hadar says the Disaster Response Team, which is spread across the U.S., is considering all the Connections components to see how they can be applied to its work.
Far-flung teams prove to be some of the biggest fans of these new tools. Take the folks at NetScout Systems, which makes integrated network performance management solutions. The company, which has some 3,000 enterprise customers around the planet, needed something to help users help themselves.
June Nugent, NetScout's director of knowledge resources, realized that members of the company's user group--network managers-- didn't have much free time on their hands. They needed an organized information source that could evolve as fast as their business needs did. But Nugent wanted something that would complement, not replace, its formal service channel.
That led her to Near-Time, a hosted service that can be used to build wikis and blogs, share files, create podcasts and handle RSS feeds. Near-Time's principals had co-founded Extensibility, an XML solutions provider acquired by Tibco Software in 2002. Near-Time's plans for corporate users range from $700 to 5,000 a year.
All plans include an unlimited number of wikis, blogs and other content tools for an unlimited number of users, but the highervalue plans include analytics, storage, bandwidth and other features as well.
Nugent's team has used Near-Time to create tutorials on best practices and to facilitate training. Instructors use the tool to post preparatory work for classes, and students use it to post questions after the classes. "The result," says Nugent, "is a richer communication channel with our customers."
It's important for companies to create new, informal channels between them and their users, "in no small part to help the former see what the latter needs and cares about," Nugent says. The Near-Time wiki tool helps NetScout do just that. "We are definitely extending our footprint for training," she says.