Collaboration: All Together Now

By Karen S. Henrie  |  Posted 07-01-2004

Collaboration: All Together Now

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Challenge

Shown to improve productivity, collaboration tools are proliferating. Problem is, companies may soon have more collaborative tools than they know what to do with.

As the old Irish proverb goes, "Many hands make light work." That, of course, is the idea behind every collaborative technology, from two-man saws to Web conferencing. Only recently, however, has the variety of networked software aimed at corporations reached the point where it can be taken seriously.

Gartner Inc. defines collaboration as "a process, supported by a wide variety of technologies, that occurs when two or more people take actions in pursuit of shared high-level goals." Jared Spataro, director of collaborative solutions with Open Text Corp., a Waterloo, Ont.-based vendor of enterprise content-management software, says, "Business is the intersection of people, process and information. Collaboration is nothing more or less than making sure people are tightly integrated at that intersection." Those definitions are true enough, but may try too hard.

Simply put, collaborative software can be useful any time an exchange of information is needed for people to work well together. It can improve coordination between geographically remote sites, streamline specific processes and increase productivity.

"At the end of the day, collaboration is a productivity play," says Bruce Richardson, a senior vice president with Boston-based AMR Research Inc. Superior collaboration can translate into faster time to market, shorter cycle times, improved customer responsiveness, regulatory compliance or any number of other corporate imperatives. Collaboration tools can also eliminate delays common with other modes of communication, such as the phone and e-mail, and create a place—say a Web site or an online conference room—for people to work together toward common goals. Or, to look at it another way, now that economists have unequivocally linked IT to individual productivity growth, corporations want to extend those productivity gains to groups and even entire organizations.

Take Chicago-based Grant Thornton LLP, a firm that provides accounting and business advisory services to midsize companies. Four years ago, Grant Thornton began exploring more cost-effective and efficient ways to keep its roster of 3,500 professionals, mostly consultants and accountants, up to date on frequently changing regulatory legislation, and evolving accounting and tax assurance practices. The goal: to improve the quality of work for clients, sure, but also to meet a licensing requirement to provide a certain number of continuing-education hours to its staff each year. This ongoing education requirement, as well as volatile business travel costs, prompted CIO David Holyoak to investigate Web-based alternatives to live training sessions that had been conducted all over the country. After evaluating a dozen vendors, Holyoak went with Lexington, Mass.-based Centra Software Inc.'s Web-based learning software.

Today, Grant Thornton uses Centra for all manner of online meetings. It has adapted its training content for online presentation and added interactive features such as chat (which allows for more give-and-take among training participants and trainers) and polling (which lets the firm quickly "take the pulse" of a group of participants to see how well the information is being received and understood). Holyoak acknowledges that while the cost savings and efficiency are clear, effectiveness is more difficult to measure. "When users are sitting in a remote location, we sometimes wonder: Are they paying attention? Are they multitasking? We know the training is good, but is it being effectively received?"

Holyoak also recalls a conundrum faced by the firm in November 2001, when many partners were reluctant to travel in the wake of Sept. 11, yet the firm was obligated by its partnership agreement to hold an annual meeting so that partners could tend to issues facing the company in the coming year. Grant Thornton held the two-day meeting via Centra's Web-conferencing software, thus satisfying its obligation while respecting partners' concerns.

For many CIOs, the key challenge now, and for the next two years, will be to get a better handle on their collaboration assets. Says David Coleman, managing director of Collaborative Strategies LLC, a San Francisco-based consultancy: "The marketing guy brings in WebEx while the head of sales is using Open Text. Multiply that by dozens of groups and the complexity quickly becomes unwieldy, especially for the CIO ultimately charged with overseeing it all." CIOs should start by taking inventory of the tools that have been brought in by individual groups or business units over the past several years. Next, they need to understand exactly how each of those tools is being used, and by whom. This is also a good time for CIOs to look for business processes that might benefit from collaboration technology, just as Holyoak did with Centra at Grant Thornton.

Ask your CFO:

  • How much could we save on travel and phone costs through better collaboration?

    Ask your business unit managers:

  • What collaboration tools are currently in use in your department, by whom, and for what?

      Ask your COO:

  • How much value are we getting from the collaboration tools we currently use throughout the enterprise?

    Page 2

    The market

    The market is at once expanding and maturing, consolidating and converging. Stay focused on your own strategy.

    The market for collaboration technologies is really two markets, at least for now. The first involves synchronous, or real-time, tools (such as Web conferencing), which typically bring people together over the Internet for a particular event—say a strategic planning session, sales training or a project kickoff meeting—and provide all of the communication tools necessary to support the event. The other market includes what's known as asynchronous tools. These include electronic workspaces that allow people to share documents, files, project plans, calendars and the like in the same online place, though not necessarily at the same time. Bulletin boards and blogs, which allow people to share thoughts and ideas on a particular topic over the Web, are further examples of asynchronous collaboration tools.

    Over time, these two categories of tools will converge onto a single platform and will be served up in different flavors by a handful of vendors. Some of this convergence will take place through consolidation. Smaller vendors with a particular specialty, a two-year-plus development lead and a loyal user base will prove attractive targets for large vendors looking to kick-start their collaboration play or fill out a platform or suite.

    Meanwhile, a number of previously separate markets, such as those for document- and content-management systems or project lifecycle management systems, are now being recast as collaboration technologies. Vendors within these multitudinous segments bring their respective biases to the table. As Mark Twain said, "To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail." While vendors such as Open Text and FileNet Corp. view collaboration tools as a opportunity for pounding on document-management issues, Oracle Corp. takes a "big picture" approach, emphasizing the importance of databases in collaboration. Enterprise application vendors view collaboration as a way to hammer out exceptions and problems that arise from otherwise automated production processes. CIOs, faced with a growing blitz of collaboration marketing hype, need to be ever mindful of these biases and stay focused on bringing in only those collaboration tools that satisfy the needs of specific groups of users and business processes.

    Barclays Global Investors, a San Francisco-based asset-management firm, is typical of organizations trying to strike the right balance today. In 2001, BGI began using the CollabNet Inc. environment, a collaborative software development platform from Brisbane, Calif.-based CollabNet Inc., in order to bring together IT developers, project managers and business users from around the world. CollabNet helps BGI manage its extensive internal software development effort, from defining requirements to version control of source code to quality assurance and change management. According to Paul Stevens, global head of technology for BGI, "Having a collaborative platform for all of our stakeholders has sped up software development. It improves communication. It improves understanding." BGI also uses other collaboration mechanisms, including Intraspect (since acquired by Vignette Corp.), which allows users to set up online workspaces for sharing and storing documents and other unstructured data.

    For now, however, these various tools, all of which can be used by a single employee, remain separate and unintegrated. At some point, Stevens would like to link these different collaborative spaces together, but he's not just sitting around and waiting for that to happen. "We began using these tools and standardizing on a small number for now. The convergence will be easier because of the knowledge we've gained along the way." Meanwhile, BGI users are left to sort out when to go where for what, with some help from IT. "We have to clarify what we put where and train people to use different tools for different situations," says Stevens.

    Ask your enterprise architect:

  • Can we wait for the enterprise suites to get better, or should we go for the best-of-breed packages now?

    Ask your current vendors:

  • How does your technology support collaboration today, and how will that change over the next three years?

    Ask potential vendors:

  • How will your applications co-exist with dominant players entering this market?

    Page 3

    People

    Worst-case scenario: You build it and nobody comes. Take it slow and sell the technology to all prospective users.

    Says Collaborative Strategies' Coleman: "Eighty percent of collaboration issues are people related. CIOs need to understand that. Collaboration is a behavior. The CIO can provide the infrastructure and the applications, but it is the behavioral changes that will present the most challenges."

    Honeywell International Inc. tackled those challenges head-on two years ago, when it began looking around for technology to help groups of employees collaborate more effectively on specific projects across time zones and geographic locations. The company chose Microsoft Corp.'s SharePoint, which allows employees to create Web sites, invite coworkers to join discussions and post documents. According to Ramon Baez, CIO and vice president of IT for Honeywell's $8 billion automation and control solutions group, the group's 27,000 information workers—located in 700 offices around the world—now rely on SharePoint for collaboration. The marketing department uses SharePoint in order to work outside the firewall with customers, while the global IT team uses it to coordinate its technology efforts. While Microsoft may tout the fact that users don't need to involve IT staff to set up a SharePoint site, Baez recognized that without an awareness campaign, followed by education and training, few would use the new system.

    For starters, Honeywell chose the name "TeamRooms" because it sounded friendly. "We thought it would make more intuitive sense to business people," says Baez. The company generated interest in TeamRooms by sending out an internal "press release" that included a call to action: "Click on this link to start your own TeamRoom today." The sign-up process was simple, and the browser-based interface provided a familiar look and feel for anyone using a Web browser. Honeywell also set up a special hotline with people who were knowledgeable about TeamRooms. The effort paid off: Within a month, Honeywell employees created more than 500 TeamRooms. Today, roughly 2,000 are in use.

    So far, most CIOs are taking a measured approach to new collaboration tools. This helps mitigate the risks involved in deploying an expensive piece of software, and gives users plenty of time to adjust their behavior. "It's all about graceful escalation," says Spataro of Open Text. "You might start by giving the user IM," he says. "Then move into shared workspaces, followed by Web conferencing and so forth."

    That's especially true where older workers are involved. Despite the overall success of TeamRooms at Honeywell, Baez acknowledges that not all information workers approach them with enthusiasm. "People who aren't tech savvy aren't going to go to a TeamRoom. But they are a dying breed. You have young people coming into the workforce now who grew up with computers in their bedrooms. Computers are second-nature to them." Collaboration tools may be only the most recent example of a technology that highlights the workforce generation gap, but CIOs and business managers alike would still do well to adopt the "graceful escalation" approach, allowing workers the option of participating in trials with new tools.

    Ask your HR department:

  • What impact might new collaboration tools have on employee morale?

    Ask your IT staff:

  • Do we have a safety net for employees who might resist a new collaboration approach?

    Ask your CFO:

  • How can we measure the ROI of new collaborative tools?

    Page 4

    Technology

    Don't wait to pick the low-hanging fruit.

    Most experts believe that collaborative technologies will have settled into a new state of equilibrium within three years, with more clearly defined segments, more mature infrastructure, and tools and applications that deliver more measurable value. Jim Lundy, a Gartner vice president, predicts that a few dominant suite vendors will provide the overall platform both for popular collaboration features such as Web conferencing and workspaces, and for newer technologies such as presence engines, which let people know instantaneously who is reachable via instant messaging. In turn, those common platforms will be useful to in-house developers and to enterprise-application and other software vendors, who will embed collaborative features into their industry- or process-specific applications.

    Convergence will continue along multiple lines, according to Coleman at Collaborative Strategies. First, synchronous and asynchronous tools will be more commonly combined within an application or through a portal. Although workers might rely on workspaces much like Honeywell's TeamRooms for sharing documents and files asynchronously, they may occasionally wish to chat while there. Workspaces that include presence engines (e.g., Beverly, Mass.-based Groove Networks Inc.) permit that today. In fact, presence engines are emerging as a powerful way to consistently embed time-saving, real-time communications into otherwise asynchronous or automated business applications, from logistics management to sales and customer service, notes Jeanette Barlow, market manager for IBM workplace client technology.

    Audio, video and data conferencing will also continue to converge. Many more organizations will rely on in-house Web-conferencing systems, drawn by the control and cost savings they will afford compared to hosted models, especially once these systems support Voice over IP as a standard feature. VoIP may be the development that causes companies to go from piloting Web-conferencing systems to fully deploying them. Says Jim Freeze, a senior vice president at Centra: "Today, the majority of Web conferencing uses IP to control sessions, push slides and keep everyone in sync. But the audio conference is a separate hookup. Over time, most of the audio will take place over IP. The cost savings will be enormous."

    Meanwhile, CIOs will be faced with some difficult decisions as they work to rationalize their current collaboration tools while building a more useful and standardized platform for the future. Gytis Barzdukis, director of office system product management at Microsoft, thinks individual productivity may suffer, at least in the short term. "Personal productivity has been improved through technology. Now we're looking at team and organizational productivity."

    Ask your IT staff:

  • What will we lose if we eliminate the ad hoc collaboration tools we currently use?

    Ask your business managers:

  • Are you willing to sacrifice some individual productivity to further the goals of your business unit?

    Ask your telecom staff:

  • What is the best way to deliver audio conferencing services and why? How will VoIP affect these services?

    Karen S. Henrie has been researching, analyzing and writing about information technology and business strategy for nearly 20 years.