Collaboration Tools - Benefits Now and Later

As the potential value of collaboration over the Web becomes increasingly apparent, so does the complexity of collaboration software.

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No forward‑looking enterprise can think of collaboration software as merely providing a file server accessible through the browser—though, for the moment, this is still its most common use. Many have begun a much broader and deeper collaboration initiative, and soon, all will. The relevant questions now are how much, how fast, what features and which implementation path?

The scope of collaboration is strategic. It reaches out to every corner of the enterprise and beyond to suppliers and customers. Collaboration tools are likely to do the same. This strongly motivates an enterprise‑wide, systems‑oriented implementation strategy that begins with careful requirements acquisition and analysis—as any strategic technology investment should. The focus should be on capabilities that the enterprise has currently and that it wants in the future.  Particular tools are not, yet, part of the picture. The output will be a road map of benefits prioritized over time. At some point, it will be possible to evaluate candidate tools in terms of business value, mapping the features of tools to the satisfaction of requirements and performing a trade‑off analysis. It will also be possible to refine the road map, firming up its time course. Central to such a strategy is developing a strong relationship with a systems integrator.

“Collaboration is a personal and contextual thing,” says Carl Frappaolo, co‑founder of Information Architected
(www.informationarchitected.com), a Boston consulting firm. “It won’t be achieved with a ‘best practices’ approach. Each implementation requires a comprehensive and individualized needs assessment. The integrator should know this and encourage it.”

The integrator should have industry sector experience and documented implementation processes, Frappaolo says. Any integrator who downplays intelligence gathering is suspect. So is an integrator who wants to talk to users but avoids information technology (IT), or who wants to talk to IT but avoids users. “An integrator who attempts to redefine your needs with a limited set of tools is not working in your interest,” adds Frappaolo.

Collaboration is not new, but collaboration using information technology on the scale currently being contemplated is brand new. Precious little evidence‑based guidance exists on how to apply collaboration technology to problems in industry—on how to best accomplish collaborative engineering design, for example. However good the planning, the unexpected is essentially certain.

Two conclusions

Two conclusions can be drawn from this. First, it's important to distinguish between benefits that the enterprise will receive now and benefits that the enterprise may receive later. “Manufacturing customers need reliable core functionality in a collaboration tool,” says Craig Hodges, general manager for Microsoft Corp.’s U.S. Manufacturing and Resources Sector (www.microsoft.com), Redmond, Wash. “They need to easily create workspaces and share assets across teams, departments and organizations while maintaining secure IT control. Looking ahead, they need more sophisticated, unified communications.”

Second, an open‑minded, iterative implementation will be an advantage, because changes to the collaboration system, possibly substantive ones, are likely. By deploying first to representative pilot groups, then analyzing performance metrics to understand how features actually translate into benefits, and finally using the data to make informed modifications, it will then be possible to deploy to the enterprise with confidence.

Marty Weil, martyweil@charter.net, is an Automation World Contributing Writer.

Information Architected
www.informationarchitected.com

Microsoft Corp.
www.microsoft.com

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