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A portrait of success:Collaborative tools ease communication, build knowledge

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

As the relationship between painter and model illustrates here, collaboration inspires art. Collaboration, too, is a motivational tool for organizations, and software that eases the collaborative process is sought by companies to enrich their business procedures, as well as their businesses.

Many corporations are finding that collaborative technology tools enhance the processes that are essential to them--such as new product development, human resources functions and other tasks that are routinely performed in companies across all industries. They enhance communication within and outside the organization.

The trend in collaboration, according to Neil Wilson, VP of product marketing for Open Text Open Text, is "toward application-specific systems. People are looking for team work spaces, real-time meetings and workflow to help manage the everyday processes. Many companies, for example, have a process for managing the product life cycle. It is an established process that is repeated time and time again to be sure that the right product is being developed."

Wilson uses the example of hiring a new employee as a process--common to all companies—that can benefit from collaboration. "You can gather the résumés, get together to discuss them online in a virtual meeting. You can review a CD of the prospective employee's work. You can send out letters to the candidates who were not selected. For the candidate who was selected, you can continue to manage the process through the collaborative KM system to be sure the employee fills out all of the proper forms and gets a laptop."

What collaborative knowledge management offers is the ability to define the process and capture the information in real time as the project is underway. Wilson explains, "What people are requiring today are virtual meeting spaces and real-time collaboration. They want to be able to go into a meeting and share screens and perform instant messaging. Where most meetings fall short is in follow-up. Decisions are made and there is a set of actions to be taken. What collaboration does is take those actions and captures them into a knowledge management system that tracks them. If no action is taken, then the system escalates them."

"So much of what happens now happens online, and to be able to capture those discussions is key," Wilson adds.

The ability to capture discussions and manage online communication of its far-flung sales force was key to Sun Microsystems’ decision to implement a collaborative knowledge management system. Sun has 17,000 users in 70 countries, and has set up a portal for them to share ideas, interact with experts and perform other functions, according to Mike Douglas, director of communications and marketing management. The system allows users to tap into experts worldwide who participate in question-and-answer sessions.

"There may be someone in Europe who sees things relative to their area, but that information may be relevant to someone trying to win new business in the United States," Douglas says. "The key is to identify winning tactics and distribute those tactics widely throughout the country."

While the system from Intraspect Software , which was installed a little over a year ago, has improved efficiency, "the big benefit," Douglas says, "will be improved customer service. If we're able to identify a client's need and fill that need based on our ability to collaborate, that will truly pay for the system."

While Sun's solution focuses on internal collaboration, Bob Schoettle, VP of marketing for Intraspect Software, says there is a growing need for collaboration and knowledge management systems that extend beyond the internal staff. "We're seeing desire to collaborate outside four walls," Schoettle says. "Our customers want collaboration and knowledge management systems not only for employees, but also for all the members of the extended enterprise."

The ability to reuse information is one of the largest benefits that companies experience from installing a collaborative knowledge management system. Schoettle explains, "They can be doing a proposal for one company, but as much as 75% of the information needed to capture that new business has been created before for another client. A user can access that information and even seek out the person involved in the original proposal to ask questions and gather more information."

The ability to integrate the collaborative KM system with standard communication tools such as e-mail is crucial to success.

"If you are going to need months to install a system and two weeks of training from the IT department, it is not going to work," Schoettle says. "If you need to install some client-server software, for example, it is not going to work. It has got to be Web-based. The ability to integrate the system with e-mail makes it easy for the users to collaborate. They don't have to use a new system. The system can even e-mail them when someone has placed new information into the collaborate portal. The key is to mix and match applications and tie them into the collaborative effort."

In the future, for example, a customer relationship management system may be tied into the collaborative KM system. "When a new prospect is identified through the CRM system, a virtual workspace can be automatically created to manage that relationship and tap into existing expertise," Schoettle says. "CRM systems are great for figuring out how much business is in the pipeline, but collaborative software can really make the most of this information."

Another firm, Advanced Reality, offers technology that can add collaborative features to any application. Company officials say the system, called Presence-AR, uses a data-centric model that is not linked to any hardware platform, operating system, application or user interface.

The system is being used by M.D. Anderson , a cancer treatment and research center. Says Dr. Don Schomer, director of outpatient therapy at the center, "The ability to add collaboration capabilities to our existing radiological visualization system, and collaborate in real time with doctors anywhere, is a major breakthrough for medicine,". Presence-AR enables several experts to manipulate and share precisely the same views of complex images, using a system we are already familiar with, so we can better care for patients."

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a free-lance writer, 732-636-3612, e-mail kimzim2764@yahoo.com

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