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From the ICE Age to contextual collaboration

By Robert Mahowald & Mark Levitt

Nearly every company uses some type of collaborative data application--e-mail is by far the most common. Most medium and large businesses use comprehensive collaborative platforms, called integrated collaborative environments (ICE), to schedule meetings, manage e-mail and to build custom applications. IBM/Lotus. Notes or Microsoft Exchange are the most popular examples of ICE applications. They are used by more than 125 million users worldwide and for several years have been the dominant building blocks in many large companies’ enterprise collaboration plans.

The ICE AgeIn the early 1990s most collaborative applications and ICE vendors, as well as user organizations, believed that ICE products would serve as the foundation on which many other commercial applications would be built. While users have for years built custom applications to perform automation, reporting and other tasks, there has been a slow shift from the supply side, wherein collaboration vendors opted to build more standard functionality into their ICE products, and launched standalone products that did not require the ICE platforms. Team collaborative applications, data conferencing applications, and instant messaging software began to provide users with functionality, often missing from ICE products, along with superior ease of use and user control. Even standalone e-mail and, to a lesser extent, group calendaring/scheduling applications have experienced a market bounce by providing superior performance and scalability compared to ICE products.

On the user side, nearly 70% of ICE users relied on those products primarily for e-mail and other standard functionality. Some of the companies came to the conclusion that deploying and supporting a high-cost ICE infrastructure was overkill--more power than they needed to get the job done.

At the same time, many of the same companies rely on other kinds of software to serve their customers, organize their finances and manage their Web sites. Knowledge management (KM), supply chain management (SCM) and enterprise resource management (ERP) applications, for example, allow those businesses to run efficiently. A high percentage of a company’s human resources, sales and management teams spend much of their day behind their desks, their heads deep in some workflow application or another. The problem is that they have to leave their primary applications if they want to collaborate, and they are faced with an entirely separate environment and different interfaces. In short, there is a schism between how people get information and what they can do with it.

The age of contextual collaborationThings are starting to change. Vendors of workflow applications are joining forces with vendors of collaborative applications to build and deploy applications that are rich with structured collaborative features. Instead of working in one application to learn a fact, then using another collaborative application to convey that fact or take action based on that fact, people can learn, do, archive and retrieve from the same user interface.

IDC has coined the term “contextual collaboration” to describe ways that collaboration can enrich business applications and processes, while taking into consideration work preferences, locations and access devices. In the process, users are discovering the value of collaboration made easier.

Over time, many collaborative features—such as presence awareness, instant messaging, real-time conferencing, file exchange and virtual workspaces--will be embedded in other business applications through service provider integration of multiple applications and partnerships between collaborative and business software vendors and internal users and developers. The common goal will be ad hoc, user-driven, seamless collaboration within the context of business processes, applications and Web sites.

Contextual collaboration benefits users in the following ways:

  • ease of use. The transition will be seamless to users. The only new thing to learn is the new option, tab or icon located within a familiar interface. For example, in 2WAY’s new instant messaging (IM) application, users are invited to click an icon within the UI to launch a Placeware Web conference as part of an escalation of a virtual conversation, such as: “You don’t understand me through my instant messages? Let’s look at this slide show together, or let’s co-browse and come to an agreement.” The complex code machinations needed to make that happen are invisible to the user.;

  • focus. Users’ primary business work and collaboration happen concurrently from the same interface and using the same business rules. That encourages solving problems as they arise rather than waiting until the problem grows. For example, a logistics manager bidding in a B2B e-marketplace who notices a delivery problem can use presence detection to locate and send an instant message to the manufacturing team’s PCs or cell phones to check on the problem, as well as launch a conference with the supplier for clarification. The manager can do all this from within a Web browser and e-marketplace interface. Later, the manager can e-mail a record of the entire transaction and related collaboration to his/her staff for the weekly meeting.;

  • mobile access. “Context” refers to more than just the situation--it means using the appropriate form factor too. Mobile users do not have the time or the display devices to access application and information the way they would when they are sitting at their regular desks with 17- to 21-in. monitors. Providing the exact collaborative features and information access based on the mobile users’ context--current access device and location--is key. For example, unified messaging applications offer mobile as well as desktop users access to messaging and other business applications via voice commands or touchscreens on WAP and data-capable cell phones. ;

Contextual collaboration will eventually touch the lives of many people who work within or otherwise rely on business workflow applications by making it easier to make decisions based on the best information available, as well as making decisions widely and instantly available. Look for that enhancement to come soon to an application or Web site. For more information, please see “Contextual Collaboration: On Tap, Targeted, and Inside Web Sites and Applications Near You “ (IDC #24573, April 2001).

Robert Mahowald is senior analyst, Collaborative Computing, with IDC, e-mail rmahowald@idc.com, and Mark Levitt is research director, Collaborative Computing, e-mail mlevitt@idc.com

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