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Personal toolkit-Peer pressure

By Steve Barth

Teamwork is the nature of knowledge work today. But we're not talking about stable, permanent groups with comfortable relationships and defined roles. More likely we collaborate from day to day in ad hoc, overlapping groups with peers, superiors and subordinates from our own companies (if we have one), customers, partners, suppliers and all manner of miscellaneous consultancies and constituencies.

Working effectively in such a situation requires a readiness for just-in-time collaboration that relies on both social skills and information tools. Unfortunately, most collaboration platforms offer either robust knowledge-sharing functions for a select group of inside-the-firewall employees or thin messaging and document posting capabilities for the masses.

Just-in-time collaboration

Groove Networks released Version 2.0 of its revolutionary peer-to-peer collaboration platform on April 15. Much of Groove's press has focused on its peer-to-peer technologies—whereby messages and documents typically replicate and synchronize on multiple users' machines without being distributed by a central server—or on its creator, Notes inventor Ray Ozzie.

However Groove's real business value is accessibility to individual users and its flexibility to adapt on the fly to the needs of any given group. Even if other members of an ad hoc team do not already have Groove, they can install it and be collaborating within minutes.

After downloading and installing the application on a desktop, the user can create shared spaces and invite others to join, or accept invitations to spaces created by others. The Groove "transceiver" is the main interface, wherein spaces can be customized with an array of tabbed features including calendars, threaded discussions, sketchpads, rich-text notepads and outliners. During online sessions, users can collaborate with those tools and all see changes in real time. Groove adds built-in chat and Internet telephony to facilitate communication during the sessions.

Disconnected space members can also work offline on documents in the Groove space and their changes will be synchronized with the rest of the group as soon as each person reconnects to the network. All of that happens seamlessly over the Internet and through firewalls with digital signatures helping to maintain security.

The company points to more than 200 features and five tools new to this version. For example, the P2P file repository now has a viewer and offers co-editing of Microsoft Word and co-viewing of PowerPoint documents. Groove begins to integrate with Microsoft Outlook with the ability to convert e-mail threads to Groove discussion spaces.

A separate document review tool tracks multiple versions of a document through a workflow path. A manager with the professional edition can import and export from the PM toolset to Microsoft Project.

A project management component provides a place to define roles and tasks and monitor project status.

A meeting management tool simplifies creating agendas, taking minutes, and assigning and tracking action items. Meeting details also can be exported to MS Outlook.

Meanwhile a forms tool lets users create, populate and tabulate forms from scratch or with templates such as 360 reviews and hiring requisitions.

Besides Groove's own additional features, a number of third-party vendor are offering add-in tools. Those include mind-mapping, polling and bulletin board functions, as well as CRM, proposal generation, software development, intelligence analysis and 3-D sketching tools.

Groove has improved performance. For example, if a user makes a change to a shared document, only the changes have to be replicated for other space members, rather than replacing the whole file. It puts less strain on a network, but is still a drain on system memory, especially if you are still running Windows 98. There are also improvements to status indicators, uninvited and delete controls, and import and export options. Spaces can now be archived for backup and retrieval.

Individuals were previously (and still are) invited to download a free "preview" version of Groove at no charge. For the first time with Version 2.0, they can also purchase standard and professional versions ($49 and $99). The preview version is almost as functional as the standard version.

Getting into the Groove

I don't know how it would work in your job, but the possibilities are intriguing in journalism. I could create a space that includes my writer or writers, other editors and possibly even subjects of the story. Using roles and permissions, imagine that editors were given manager's roles, freelance writers were given participant roles and interview subjects were signed on as guests. I could post—and keep—assignment details, contracts and ongoing instructions and advice in a discussion tool. I could walk my writers through company Web sites using the "browse together" function. I could set up separate discussions for subjects wherein they could talk to each other, spurring new ideas, before or after the interviews. Deadlines and appointments could be noted on a calendar. Press releases, photos and other supporting documents could be collected. In each case, individual tools or the ability to make changes to documents would be made accessible only to the appropriate parties. I could even review articles with my writers, collaborating to make changes to tricky paragraphs.

Would I want to do those things? That's debatable. But the beauty of a tool like Groove is that I could. And I could implement the ability within moments of deciding that I need to.

Steve Barth writes and speaks frequently about KM, e-mail barth.km@global-insight.com. For more on personal knowledge management, see his Web site global-insight.com.

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