Knowledge as a sales pitch
For a collaboration solution, know your product and your customer
Stories of delayed communications are legendary.
England had ended its trade embargo against the United States, but the message couldn't get across the Atlantic fast enough to prevent Congress from declaring war in 1812. Three years later, the Battle of New Orleans was fought after the peace treaty had been signed.
Today's military doesn't have that problem; collaboration tools and platforms bring real-time coordination.
Col. William Randall, deputy commander of the Air Force's 951st Electronic Systems Group at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., oversees the development of Mission Planning Systems. MPS is an umbrella term for numerous software packages that flight crews use before a mission to plot their course, select their weaponry and determine how best to use those weapons.
Developing these systems requires coordination, not only within the Air Force but also with outside contractors. To speed coordination among all parties, the Electronic Systems Group used Microsoft Corp.'s Sharepoint software to create the Mission Planning Central portal, used by 4,500 staff, including military and contractors at more than 300 locations.
"The bottom line is: everything is faster," Randall said. "We have increased the throughput of the organization and its ability to respond, and responsiveness is critical to success."Better integration
Collaboration software is not new. E-mail, discussion lists, teleconferences and the like have been around for more than a decade. Today's packages bring together all these features, and let you integrate them with other enterprise software.
"One of the really important changes is the ability to start using the real-time collaboration solution as a platform," said Adam Gartenberg, IBM Corp.'s offering manager for real-time collaboration. "You can start including applications or writing applications in the real-time platform."
To achieve this, the newest release of IBM's collaboration suite, Sametime 7.5, is built on the open-source Eclipse development framework, letting customers and third parties write extensions for custom applications in the platform.
For instance, a program manager could add links in a messaging client to databases, so users could run a query for information needed during an instant messaging chat, without having to separately log into the database.
In Randall's case, one requirement was the ability to integrate with identity management software. The Air Force had an enterprise portal, maintained by Lockheed Martin Corp., but mission planning itself was using about 20 different Web sites. To find relevant information, the user not only had to search a Web site, but know which site to search.
Now, these all are consolidated into Mission Planning Central, saving about $500,000 that was supporting the separate sites. Further simplifying matters, MPC is set up so the users don't even need to log in. All they need to do is log into the Air Force portal, and they are granted the appropriate level of access to MPC.
"What we have pioneered at Mission Planning will be standardized on the Air Force portal for anybody to build collaboration Web sites," Randall said. "As we, or anybody else, build applications in Sharepoint, those will be exposed and made available within the Air Force or any other federal agencies."Tech buffet
In selecting an enterprise collaboration platform, users can choose from a full smorgasbord of tools, including e-mail, Wikis, RSS feeds, instant messaging and document management.
But don't put too much emphasis on the technology features.
"Most bells and whistles are never used, but there is lots of overhead connected with learning the technologies," said Jessica Lipnack, CEO of NetAge Inc. of West Newton, Mass., and co-author of "Virtual Teams" (Wiley, 2000).
Systems integrators should look closely at what their customers are trying to do with the collaboration software, and then create user case scenarios for all participants, said Mike Gotta, principal analyst for Burton Group Inc. of Midvale, Utah.
Some questions to ask: Is your customer doing project management, research, intelligence gathering or knowledge sharing? Who will use the system? Office employees? Mobile workers? Business partners?
WiredRed Software Inc. of San Diego is helping the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Environmental Compliance Office use the e/pop hosted Webconferencing services to develop geographic information systems software that will track assets.
"One of our GIS scriptwriters is in Seattle, and we work together every day on this project," said project manager Will Freeman. Before using e/pop, this required that the scriptwriter send over new files daily so Freeman could load them onto his desktop and look at them. But no longer.
"Having Webconferencing, he can show me his updates without me going into the system," Freeman said. "It saves time for seeing what the latest development was on the system."
For the Energy Department, security was a major concern when collaborating. The department uses Via3, from Viack Corp. of Scottsdale, Ariz., to coordinate activities of Office of the CIO staff who work with users at agency offices. With Via3, all files are encrypted, and the data is stored at a guarded facility.
"There was a number of concurrent efforts going on, looking at desktop collaboration products," said Doug Way, the Energy Department's Via3 site administrator. "As time went on, all the others would drop out of contention because of security issues."Hunt for the suite spot
When it comes to collaboration, agencies should go with a suite rather than multiple discrete tools, said Bill Bruck, lead solutions architect for Q2Learning LLC in Falls Church, Va., and author of several books, including "Taming the Information Tsunami" (Microsoft Press, 2002).
Bruck uses a matrix to categorize collaboration tools; some are designed for one-to-one or group communication. Others are synchronous, letting communication occur in real time such as a phone call or Web conference. Still others are asynchronous, staggering communication over time, such as e-mail and discussion threads.
"The bottom line is that we don't need more meetings, we need to collaborate effectively between the meetings," Bruck said. "That is where the work is done."
Each of the tools has its own sweet spot. For example, threaded discussion tools are useful for divergent thinking. Wikis are good for convergent thinking, and blogs are useful for publishing a final version of the data.
Don't roll out all of the tools at one time, Bruck said. Instead, deploy them in sequence to let users get accustomed to each tool.
In evaluating products, look at the strength of the reporting features, he said.
It's ideal to have a single vendor, but it's not always possible to find a product that meets all needs.
"Most people have multivendor environments," said Jessica Lipnack, CEO of NetAge Inc. of West Newton, Mass., and co-author of "Virtual Teams."
"You should segment the request for proposals into a communication section that would deal with e-mail, IM, RSS and another section that deals with collaborative workspaces, forums and Wikis," Burton Group's Gotta said. "There is no one tool that does it all."Drew Robb is a freelance writer in Los Angeles.