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Initiatives create fresh market for tech companies
As agencies grow more comfortable with collaboration technologies
and practices, the companies that serve them are
responding. Vendors are developing products to facilitate
collaboration and taking stock of tools already on hand
that fit the collaboration market.
Companies also are shaping their marketing messages to capitalize
on the burgeoning area of interest.
But the market is still hard to gauge, so many companies are moving
Most of the time, collaboration requirements are buried inside larger
procurements, said Andre Etherly, vice president of federal solutions at Keane Inc. Rarely does a contractor searching for explicit
collaboration solicitations strike pay dirt. But that situation may be
changing, he said.
"Agencies are going to have to take a break from some of those big,
hard-to-do long-term initiatives and take a look at these shorter-term
approaches to facilitate information sharing," he said.
Collaboration is a general term that encompasses a variety of activities.
It can describe any case where information is shared among people
and groups, whether by forwarding e-mail or using an application
that lets multiple users access and edit the same set of documents and
files. Collaboration technology includes desktop products, such as
Microsoft SharePoint, and Web-based tools, such as wikis and portals.
The term can refer to technology that connects contractors and their
customers and also information-sharing efforts within and among
But most agency customers don't think about what they do as collaboration.
They just see the need to share information as a component of larger programs.
"Collaboration is never somebody's primary job," said Mark Levitt,
program vice president of collaborative computing and the enterprise
workplace at research firm IDC. "Their job is to send invoices or design
airplanes. The collaboration piece is a way of doing those things."
E-mail is still the primary collaboration tool, Levitt said. It has the
advantage of being already available and familiar to most people.
However, organizations are facing a growing list of needs that make
e-mail inadequate in some cases.
"What organizations are looking to do is add the tools ? including
real-time collaboration and coordination ? to the mix," he said.BUYING IN TO THE IDEA
Autodesk Inc., a software company based in San Rafael, Calif.,
acquired Emerging Solutions and its product ConstructWare in 2006
to round out its collaboration portfolio. Autodesk had its own collaboration
product, Buzzsaw, and now is integrating the two products.
"We see an increased interest around government customers and
their contractors to collaborate," said Rebecca Chisolm-Walker, director
of business development for Autodesk's government business. "We
saw scenarios where contractors would manage their budgets and
construction timetables themselves, but government couldn't join in.
There needed to be a way for contractor personnel to allow some
sharing of information."
Like many emerging ideas, though, collaboration has its share of
skeptics in agencies. Chisolm-Walker said the holdouts are usually
people who are not convinced that making significant changes to the
way they operate will have much payoff.
"There is hesitancy, but once people begin to
see their real return on investment in terms of
reduced numbers of errors and in the efficiency
that comes with it, that tends to win people
over," she said.
Many also come to see soft benefits, said
Tracy Murphy, marketing manager for government
architecture, engineering and construction
solutions at Autodesk. Managers discover
they have better control over the scope of a
project and don't have to wait for someone else
to provide information before they can make a
decision. Those benefits are harder to measure
than cost savings and error rates, but they
make a big difference to some, she said.WRAPPED UP
The technology needed to facilitate collaboration
is largely available, but each project raises
questions about the best approach to take.
Companies are finding that in many cases the
traditional approaches are not the best.
Etherly noted that for many people, the
phrase information sharing implies storing
data in a centralized data warehouse. But the
data in many cases doesn't have to reside anywhere
but in the system that created it. What's
needed is a way for other agencies to query
those systems and extract the data.
One option is to modernize older systems to
take advantage of built-in data-sharing capabilities
in newer systems. But that usually
takes too long to meet immediate needs, he
Keane uses wrappers, or open-source Web
services code added to the data, to let other systems
retrieve and use it.
Policy and data governance are bigger challenges
than technology. "In the legacy world,
there were system owners," Etherly said. "That
starts to break down in an information-sharing
world. One of the questions agencies have to
wrestle with is who has the authority to share
the data."THINK TECH BUT ALSO BUSINESS
One challenge for companies providing collaboration
tools is to find situations that demand
them, said Michael Donovan, enterprise architect
of U.S. government solutions at EDS Corp.
Some are obvious, such as EDS' Navy Marine
Corps Intranet (NMCI) contract, but there are
other cases that might seem like collaboration
but really don't require sophisticated tools.
"Where people are sitting in an office and
working together day-to-day, there's not a high
demand for these tools," he said. "Where there is
the real need is when people are in widely dispersed
locations and they need to be able to
work together as if they're in the same room."
EDS is planning a deployment of IBM Lotus
Sametime, Adobe Connect and Jabber ? an
open-source instant messaging application ?
"Defense customers are asking for a way to
connect processes and people that have information
with processes and people that need to consume it," said Dennis Hayes, chief technology
officer of EDS' NMCI account.
The available collaboration tools are
steadily improving, Donovan said. The government
has sometimes balked at implementing
collaboration products because of
the difficulty of authenticating the identity of
people using the connections. But increasingly,
collaboration tools have authentication
capabilities built in.
Digital rights management is becoming a
bigger issue. "We're moving away from protecting
the space where the data sits to protecting
the data itself," Donovan said.
Another improvement is the ability to see
what hardware participants have available, he
said. If someone is connected via a smart
phone rather than a desktop computer, another
user will know it's not a good idea to send
that person a large file.STANDARDS CAN HELP
Keeping the technology current is a key component
of success, Donovan said. "The average
age of somebody coming into the military is
18 or 19. The way they're used to working is
on wikis or Facebook. They look at an e-mail-based
network and say, 'How quaint.' It's like
what I would say seeing someone write with a
But the very young are not the only users of
collaboration technology, Donovan said. Older
workers might be nervous about relying on
something other than an e-mail network, no
matter how outdated it might seem to the
"The key, I think, is getting folks to realize
the value of collaboration," Hayes said. "In the
tactical space, in the battle space, the value is
pretty well demonstrated. But in the more
ordinary work environment, it's got to be
Collaboration comes with some risks to
business processes, said Raj Sharma, president
and founder of Censeo Consulting
Group. It's easy to oversaturate users with
unneeded information. When people must
sort through data to pick out the pieces they
need, efficiency suffers.
The solution is to approach collaboration
from a policy perspective, he said. An organization
should set standards for when and how
to share information so the right people have
it when they need it. In some cases, making
data available to everyone via a Web portal
might be the right course of action, and at
another time, it might be better to share the
data in an e-mail to a select few people who
"Collaboration as a theory sounds good
and dandy, but we have to specify what we
mean," Sharma said. "You have to think about
the negative part of this. As quickly as you
can gain efficiency, you can lose it at some
point."Michael Hardy (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an
associate editor at Washington Technology.