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Meshing the gears of business through collaboration

In the contemporary, re-engineered world of knowledge management, the hierarchical rigidity of organizations is breaking down. Corporations are reducing the layers of management, as an increasing number of companies are changing the structure of their decision-making processes. In order to more fully engage and empower employees, they are adopting flextime and other schemes that fit the company’s schedule to the employee and raise productivity.

In the modern organization, where client-server applications are reaching maturity, powerful collaboration technologies are emerging. That sets the stage for the IT department and network administrators, in partnership with empowered line-of-business managers and their functional teams, to promote the strategic flow of information in a new collaborative work environment.

Even when everyone resides in the same time zone, coordinating a team is challenging. There might be too many people to arrange a productive work session; travel schedules may make a face-to-face group meeting impossible. The cost of supplying each worker with an office is increasing. In some positions, workers are rarely in the office, making dedication of resources wasteful.

The key to solving these problems is to enable more interaction and collaboration between people, while avoiding the cost and trouble of more in-person meetings. That requirement can be fulfilled with collaboration software, which is fast becoming an essential part of the business organizational infrastructure, even as it yields a competitive advantage.

Current state of the art

Over the last 15 years, collaboration software (CS) has assimilated into the workplace and no longer seems like strange science to the typical white-collar worker. Electronic mail is a regular component of business and personal life, and Internet chat and bulletin boards are familiar to many. And where once CS tools always required custom development, they are now available off the shelf. The consumer has any number of acceptable choices when looking for a CS solution to deploy. Moreover, with the addition of real-time voice and video, the range addressed has significantly increased in recent years--both in the size of the groups they can enable and in the experience they provide. That has resulted primarily through the increased Internet broadcast bandwidth and processing power that can be deployed at a swiftly declining price. Almost all of the categories of groupware are now available using Web browsers (sometimes enhanced by downloaded components). Because many of those services offer either free or usage-based billing, they have served to introduce the technology and to provide low-cost alternatives to investing in a dedicated system. In addition, the demands of the Internet have made much of the technology needed for collaboration more available.

Peer to peer

The recent wave of interest in peer-to-peer technology has produced a new architecture for collaborative systems, often better suited than traditional designs, to handle massive collaborations or a large number of simultaneous collaborations. The traditional client-server approach focused collaboration bandwidth and processing demands onto central servers. Those attributes limited the reasonable scope of collaboration and made IT staffs resistant to deploying the software. However, by exploiting today’s considerable power, enhanced operating systems and networks, peer-to-peer software avoids that problem.

Two classes of peer-to-peer tools have garnered a great deal of press and industry attention: file sharing and collaboration environments. The infamous Napster has made the entire world conscious of file sharing as an application. Throughout the world, vast bandwidth has been consumed daily by millions of people trading music tracks. Sharing music files easily over the network ceased to be a mystery to the general populace as they downloaded millions of songs. In February 2001, The Standard (thestandard.com) estimated that Napster had 64 million users worldwide, and CNET estimated that users exchanged 2.7 million music titles that same month.

Other products are popping up to challenge Napster or address sharing other types of files. For example, the application called Scour is a true peer-to-peer software package that, unlike Napster, uses no centralized server to create an index of music titles for users. Ray Ozzie (the designer of Lotus Notes) has a new project that enables application sharing, called Groove. Well-funded and building on the experience gained from Notes, it has attracted a great deal of attention as a next-generation conferencing and collaboration system.

Challenges in CS technology adoption

Deploying collaborative groupware requires dealing with issues that do not arise with traditional applications. Major concerns include interaction styles and certain human factors.

Regarding interaction styles, a number of configurations are available to users. One option involves choosing between a “flat” vs. a hierarchical style of communication. Even with the downsizing of recent decades, corporate culture often remains competitive and hierarchically organized. Collaboration systems are “flatter”--they require a different way of working and of decision making. They can suffer from the ills that are common in direct collaboration: poorly planned meetings, lack of full participation, ill-thought-out statements, lack of focus on arriving at a decision or a solution. To exploit collaboration tools--particularly the more powerful interactive packages--requires that some organizations change the structure of their communications culture to one that is less hierarchically organized.

For the above reasons, users of collaboration often employ moderators and leaders when using the tools. Just as face-to-face meetings can benefit from trained leadership, so can virtual meetings. A labor-intensive commitment to educating users and making the results more productive is helpful.

Without a doubt, collaboration systems challenge an organization to share information more openly. CS systems can easily bypass the structured and controlled frameworks of legacy systems. Circumventing the organizational and regulatory rules about privacy and confidentiality can be a problem.

Human factors

Since CS focuses on linking groups of humans, it is particularly prone to all the problems of human communication. For example, take resistance to change. We all know that people can resist changing their behavior. Potential users can be resistant to CS because they don’t understand its benefits. They might be uncomfortable with the technology or the new behavior required to use it. Integrators and human resource workers alike should work with users to allay their fears and to promote unanimous buy-in.

Users must consciously work to adapt to the new technology. Their ability to assimilate new technology and adapt to its use will differ. Some will be early adopters; some will be late adopters. Some will find the tools easy to understand, and others won’t get past their initial confusion. People must be trained--and probably retrained--whenever groupware is introduced in their working lives.

Part of training users to employ new technology involves discouraging them from practicing system abuse. We have all experienced junk e-mail; all too often colleagues copy everyone on their messages, regardless of their need. New technology toys may enamor some so much that they forget that face-to-face communication is still essential to peer relationships.

Finally, as with any form of human communication, using collaboration systems requires an accepted etiquette. The rules are not always obvious, and may need to be explicitly developed and enforced. For example, in a virtual meeting, you might need to define how the contributions of participants are sequenced and presented. Moreover, lack of feedback via body language and facial expressions can lead to misunderstandings.

Re-engineering for collaboration

Engineering an organization to foster electronic collaboration is much more difficult to achieve than the first wave of organizational re-engineering. The “low hung fruit” of rethinking basic processes had its challenges, but really tended to look at an organization as a mechanism, with most organizational changes being systemic ones. Engineering for collaboration demands that management look at the organization as an organism, and forces it to deal with the non-mechanistic behavior of humans. That requires close collaboration between management and staff, not to mention some psychology and politics as well.

New developments and trends

As enterprise information assets are decentralized and distributed, the reliability and security of information becomes increasingly more complex and critical. Despite all of the advances made in collaborative software, a number of potential problems still stand in the way of maximizing its efficiency and effectiveness. They include:

  • collaboration that results in redundant, lost or conflicting information;

  • failure to optimally leverage each team member’s specific knowledge and skills;

  • inefficient integration of information and work products from multiple sources and formats;

  • new issues of scalability and access across increasingly distributed and decentralized computing environments. Better user training and collaboration between integrators and the human resources department solve those problems. The last two challenges are overcome as technology and software innovation evolves to meet them. Improved connectivity and increased bandwidth are helping to offset imbalances and correct problems.

Broad bandwidth enables users to take maximum advantage of the Internet’s scalability and massive parallel processing capabilities. T-1 lines are standard fare for business use. Modems that run at 56K are built in to all new computers, and LAN hardware is becoming a standard. Now, in urban areas, a choice exists of cable, DSL and fiber optics connections to the Internet.

The explosion of cell phone usage and wireless services such as BlackBerry, digital pagers and Internet services has created new collaborative tools. As wireless devices become more popular, collaboration systems will extend their interfaces to use them. That will require improving interface design and coping with limited bandwidth, but we already see e-mail, scheduling and Internet access being extended to text pagers, PDAs and cell phones. Developers have created standards such as Wireless Application Protocol (WAP) that will permit different brands of collaboration software to interoperate with Web pages and with each other.

Internet-driven change and improvements The requirements of Internet services--many of them interactive--are driving many of the improvements needed to provide quality collaboration. For example, sound and video compression research addresses the needs of Internet-based distribution of commercial music and films, but it also supports interactive requirements of collaboration. Software tools for desktop systems are free and easily acquired by a few clicks on a Web browser window. Popular examples are Real Networks tools and Microsoft's Media Player, not to mention tools for reading three-dimensional “pictures” and accessing Web-based collaboration services.

Influence of more powerful personal systems

More powerful desktop systems enable real-time decompression of audio and video streams, with processing power left over to permit local processing. The last few generations of chip sets include special logic to support those calculations, further increasing the power of workstations. Along with the power of the processors, RAM memory and online storage have increased significantly, which enable larger and more complex programs. Built-in microphones and speakers, and inexpensive AV components such as Web cameras enable multimedia collaboration.

As already noted, many simple collaboration components are currently embedded in personal systems. Economic and social issues can only encourage increase in the use of collaborative software. The rising price of oil will make electronic collaboration more compelling, perhaps even necessary, and definitely more prevalent as new generations of computer-savvy employees enter the work force. When it is commonplace, collaboration software will be a prime candidate to suffer the fate of many applications that have preceded it, i.e., end up as part of the operating system.

A growing need By using Web-based communications and workflow management, CS tools reach beyond their original use in engineering and design, in order to embrace the entire product life cycle and the extended-enterprise processes on which the cycle depends--even to the point of merging distribution and inventory activities with those of business partners through collaborative B2B processes. Indeed, a paradigm shift is taking place as American and international companies realize that future advancements in supply chain management depend on streamlining and collaborating on inter-enterprise business processes with partners.

Where transaction-based exchanges were static and simple, Internet markets are becoming more dynamic and complex. As opposed to discrete and impersonal transactions, companies are now able to engage customers and partners in an extended process of collaboration. While the old value proposition was cost savings, the new value proposition is market expansion. These changes are all a direct result of a combination of technology convergence and collaboration in the areas of team building and project management inside the corporate walls, and relationship marketing, B2B and B2C outside the corporate walls. Using collaboration software, companies are reversing the functional decomposition of work, which resulted in too many specialized functions, and are re-engineering the fragments into effective work processes that enhance business opportunities and yield a competitive advantage.

This article was compiled and condensed from the AIIM report, “Using Collaboration Software to Enable and Add Value to Group Business Interactions,” by Arthur Gingrande and Bernard Chester of IMERGE Consulting. The book is available from the AIIM bookstore at aiim.org.

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