Collaboration used to be simple: stock a meeting room with soda, coffee, and a whiteboard, add workers, and shake until done. No longer. Today collaboration involves not only your co-workers but also members of dispersed “virtual” work teams: salespeople, distributors, retailers, suppliers, customers, and who knows who else.
In response, technology vendors are scrambling to provide a new generation of collaborative tools. It’s not easy, says Robert Mahowald, an analyst with IDC, because CFOs and CIOs have been stubbornly refusing to invest in innovative technologies. “In terms of buying anything new, companies took the last year or so off,” he says. “They upgraded existing products, while more-advanced products waited in the wings.”
Microsoft, IBM, Siemens, and others are among the companies that hope to prove that collaborative computing can make knowledge workers far more productive by putting technology at the heart of every team, work group, and shared effort imaginable. Since that’s how most work gets done, the thinking goes, why not design technology to serve collaborative processes versus the traditional focus on individual empowerment.
Collaborative computing is not a single product or technology, but a class of software-driven products and services. While definitions and groupings vary, it’s generally agreed that collaboration technology includes groupware, instant messaging (IM), Web conferencing, unified messaging and communications, E-mail, and calendaring. That is, it runs the gamut from the indispensable (E-mail) to the nearly undefinable (suites of products that somehow make new ways of working together possible).
These applications all facilitate collaborating on business projects, with most promising to speed reaction times and save money. “It’s got to be more than just sending messages,” says Kevin McLellan, a former marketing manager for workplace-collaboration products at IBM. “The real power is when I can put this in the context of a business process and reduce cycle time.”
Let’s Not Get Together
Collaborative computing can trace its roots to pre-Internet days, but now, to speak of collaborative computing without the Internet is a contradiction in terms. Whether you’re trying to send someone an instant message, schedule a meeting for a far-flung project team, or simply E-mail a group of suppliers, you’re almost certainly using the public Internet.
From there, the technologies vary. IM runs like a mini-Web browser on a computer screen and lets you instantly send short text messages and data files to others equipped with compatible IM software. E-mail, of course, lets anyone send a message to anyone else with an E-mail address. Unified messaging allows users to receive multiple types of messages—including E-mail, voice mail, and faxes—from a single, universal inbox, and to send and receive messages from various devices, including office and mobile telephones, computers, and PDAs. Web conferencing lets team members working from various locations share documents and slides in a virtual work space accessed from a PC (via the Internet, of course) while simultaneously talking via traditional teleconference or Internet-enabled phone service (aka Voice over Internet Protocol or VoIP).