Rich options expand the collaborative horizon

This article appears in the issue November/December 2011, [Vol 20, Issue 10]
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Collaboration solutions are becoming pervasive in the workplace, and are found in forms ranging from document-centric virtual workspaces to Facebook-like social platforms. Forrester Research divides the market into four categories: e-mail and calendaring, real-time collaboration solutions such as Web conferencing, collaboration platforms such as Lotus Notes and SharePoint, and the rapidly growing category of social collaboration.

"Many companies are placing a big bet on collaboration to support their business activities," says Rob Koplowitz, VP and principal analyst at Forrester. "In particular, the workplace is moving toward one in which many business applications are integrated through collaboration and exposed through the social layer."

Global problem sparks collaboration

Historically, scientific inquiry has moved at a slow pace because it took years to get research published in journals, and a decade or more for new knowledge to make its way into textbooks. With the Internet and today's collaboration tools, progress can be much more rapid. Such speed, for example, might prove to be vital in solving a pressing global agricultural problem ... the development of a new and dangerous strain of wheat rust, a fungal disease that is threatening a third of the world's wheat production. Because wheat accounts for about 20 percent of human caloric intake, the potential impact of such a loss is significant.

The Borlaug Global Rust Initiative (BGRI) was formed to support international collaboration on wheat rust research. Funded by the Gates Foundation and other organizations, and coordinated by Cornell University, the BGRI includes researchers at numerous universities and government agencies. To leverage the collective knowledge of the participants and to educate others in how to identify and combat the disease, the BGRI decided to establish a collaboration portal.

The organization selected TeamPage from Traction Software as the collaboration solution and the Attivio Active Intelligence Engine (AIE) to aggregate the many types of content on the website. TeamPage includes wiki, blog and social networking capabilities. "We chose TeamPage because it could be deployed very quickly and was simple to use," says John Bakum, webmaster for the site, which is hosted by Cornell. The site was up and running in just a few weeks, and has grown rapidly over the past several years.

One of the first steps taken was to provide the community with information that had been scarce or expensive. "We arranged with the publisher of the Wheat Rust Atlas to put a PDF version of the book on our site," Bakum says. "The book was out of print but was a valuable resource, and now it's available to all the researchers."

The website helps expedite the administrative aspects of conducting research. Forms to request screening for wheat rust or dispatching seeds that may be resistant to the disease are available on the website, for example. "If a lab in Canada has a variety of wheat that may be resistant, researchers can send it to nurseries in Ethiopia and Kenya, where it can be grown and tested. Our website acts as a central place for that data, benefiting researchers around the world," Bakum explains.

Because members upload files into collaboration workspaces via e-mail, some content arrives in the form of attachments. "Attivio searches Word documents, PDFs, spreadsheets and other types of files, even if they are attachments," Bakum says. Much of the site is public, but TeamPage allows for the creation of internal spaces that are password protected, to enable private virtual meetings.

Being able to access all the content associated with a collaborative environment is becoming more complex, as Enterprise 2.0 layers on additional content. "During collaboration, a second wave of content is produced," explains Sid Probstein, CTO of Attivio. "Once the individuals connect, their comments, assertions and arguments become a part of the story and need to be searched along with the original content." Therefore, an effective method of storing and searching the content is essential.

Rich media environment

Constellation Wines U.S., a subsidiary of Constellation Brands, produces 80 wine brands in the United States, Italy, New Zealand and other countries. With a widely dispersed work force, the company needed a robust collaboration platform that integrated well with its other applications and could serve multiple purposes, including training and virtual meetings.

The company evaluated the options, and found that Adobe Connect was the best match. "It worked well with the other tools we were using, such as Illustrator and Photoshop, and was very easy to use," says Rob Hennigar, director of education at Constellation Wines.

A primary use for Adobe Connect at Constellation Wines is to train salespeople and other employees who are located all over the world. "We use webinars to support communication among our staff for a variety of corporate activities, including wine tastings," Hennigar says. "We also use Adobe Connect for webinars to train the staff of many of our large accounts so that they can provide their customers with the best possible wine experience."

The use of Adobe Connect extends beyond training to other collaborative activities. "When we wanted to develop our Luxury Wines Presentation App for the iPad, to be used by our sales staff," Hennigar says, "we had them log on to a shared meeting space, along with the software developers, to discuss how each of them envisioned the program." The software development vendors and salespeople are in various locations throughout the United States, and using Adobe Connect, they could view the presentations together and make suggestions for improvements in real time.

Although an online meeting does not duplicate all the elements of a face-to-face encounter, it is getting closer. "The rich media, including good quality video, make the interaction much more dynamic," Hennigar adds. "When we spoke with one of our winemakers in Tuscany, it was great to see his animated discussion on the screen." He expects the company to continue using Adobe Connect, because its experience has proved to be both enjoyable and productive.

Adobe Connect is based on Flash, which has the advantage of being nearly ubiquitous, and the interface is easily modified by users to configure it for each situation. "Users can set up persistent meeting rooms at a designated URL," says Michael Londgren, director of product marketing for Adobe Connect, "so that it opens up exactly as it was left, with all the information present on screen." Adobe Connect also offers closed captioning and other accessibility features, along with security, audio support and compliance support to restrict certain actions such as sharing spreadsheets.

Collaborative learning

SMART Technologies provides interactive whiteboards, and SMART software is used by educators for lesson creation. To support and enhance its products, the company has created more than 400 interactive courses. Some of the courses are designed to instruct customers on the use of its products, and others are general courses geared toward the use of technology in education.

The company was using a learning management system (LMS) to track the courses it offered but wanted greater functionality. "Our LMS system was no longer meeting our requirements," says Wayne Williams, manager of learning systems at SMART. "We wanted to extend beyond formal training into a social environment where collaborative learning could take place, and integrate our existing social media activities with a learning platform."

SMART selected the Saba Learning Suite, which includes Saba Learning (an LMS) and Saba Collaboration, which provides capability for virtual classrooms, online meetings and webinars. It then added the newly introduced Saba Social Learning product, an enterprise social networking solution that allows users to interact with each other during their learning experience.

Social networking was already familiar territory to SMART, which has a Facebook page, Twitter and a set of YouTube (youtube.com) videos. "Saba Social allowed us to tie these functions in with Saba Learning," explains Williams. "It let us expand and utilize features that don't exist in a traditional LMS."

The new capability in Saba Social allows users to create their own groups around topic areas, an approach that encouraged proactive participation in discussion groups. "In several courses, the forum really took off," Williams says. "Our learners enjoyed sharing and developing their ideas about how to create engaging lessons, for example." SMART Technologies participated in a pilot program on using Saba's enterprise social software to monitor and track informal learning.

Saba Social is powered by the same technology as Saba Learning, but has broader applications, for example, as a companywide social intranet. "Take strategic on-boarding, for example," says Milind Pansare, senior director of social cloud applications at Saba. "Because Saba Social is so effective at getting people connected with each other and with relevant information, it can expedite and enrich the on-boarding process."

A new employee can check to see what items his or her project manager has bookmarked, and locate the latest customer presentation. Users of Saba Social can generate Twitter-like announcements that are shown in an activity stream related to topics or people. Saba Social can also be extended to an extranet, where the entire network associated with a company-employees, partners and customers-can connect and share information with the appropriate level of security and privacy expected in an enterprise social network.

Social business

"Social business" products are one of the most rapidly growing types of collaboration solutions. Jive Software (jivesoftware.com) offers a software product that began as a platform for online collaboration forums and then added blogs, discussion threads and social groups. "Jive provides a way for collaboration either behind the firewall with co-workers or outside it with partners," says Curtis Gross, technology marketing manager at Jive.

The mobile interface leverages HTML5 and can be delivered to the iPhone, iPad, Android and Blackberry. The browser interface is similar but provides more information. "Users can locate co-workers, choose topics to track and receive alerts if their name is mentioned in a comment," Gross says. As long as an Internet connection is available, users can also access and share information on their desktop.

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