Pathways to Collaboration

Collaborative computing is more than just another catchy computer term; collaborative computing is a way of using computer technology to do business more efficiently. In the traditional business environment, employees work alone, sometimes in a vacuum. When people need to work together, they have to exert special effort to meet with each other and more effort to complete a project. The farther apart those people are, the more effort overcoming the distance takes. Usually, the result suffers.Collaborative computing consists of several technologies and processes for short-circuiting the isolation of individual employees and constructing a new, cooperative business model. The basis of collaborative computing is that employees are resources, not islands, and to get the best result, you need to put the resources together in the most efficient way.

Picture the average business: Lots of frontline employees work away at their assigned tasks; then they present the results of their work to managers, who collate the work of multiple employees and present the results to their managers, and so on. If two groups--engineering and sales, for example--have to contribute work, the collation probably takes place a couple of levels up the chain, and the people who did the work never see how the company is going to use what they created.

Collation usually occurs in meetings, and meetings are an inefficient way to run a business. Meetings take people away from their regular work and require extra time--the time necessary to prepare for the meeting, to participate, and to deal with the results. Because large companies tend to be geographically dispersed, meetings usually require time and money for travel, too. This process is hierarchical: Employees report to managers, who report to their managers, and so on.

By contrast, a collaborative environment is project oriented. If a project requires both sales and engineering people, those people work together directly and produce a result that reflects both departments' efforts, undiluted by passing through multiple managers. Collaborative projects demand few meetings and--thanks to the wonders of wide area networking and the Internet--little travel.

Putting collaborative technologies to work in a company changes the structure of the company to accommodate the process. If the work requires people from various departments or divisions or even from several companies, companies often form workgroups that cut across layers. If a person has knowledge the workgroup needs, the person's level in the company (frontline, middle management, top management) is not important. Such workgroups tend to flatten corporate structures.

The costs of implementing collaborative technologies can be high, especially if you select high-end components such as videoconferencing and video-enabled email. But collaborative technologies also can offer tremendous cost offsets. Telephone and travel expenses decrease significantly, and individual worker productivity increases in a collaborative environment. Costs can vary from free (if you use software and systems you already have) to "Hoo boy!" for the highest quality, most expensive videoconferencing equipment. For example, PictureTel manufactures very high-end LAN-enabled equipment that can cost $3000 per seat--or more, if you want a dedicated videoconferencing facility.

Too much money? Not necessarily. You can create collaborative--even multimedia-enabled--offices less expensively. I used videoconferencing as an example to scare you, but here's an example to reassure you: If you're willing to accept excellent audio but less than broadcast-quality video, you can use Connectix's Color QuickCam and VideoPhone software to create a multimedia collaborative environment for less than $300 a seat. Yep, $300. Not a typo. What do you give up? Multipoint videoconferencing (more than two locations conferencing simultaneously) and excellent video quality. Video quality can be downright awful at times, especially when the frame includes a lot of movement.

Types of Collaborative Technology
OK, let's talk technologies. Four categories of collaborative technologies are email, groupware, whiteboards, and videoconferencing. Many applications, however, offer two or more of these technologies, and you can split each technology into several sublevels of capability. For example, email can be text only; text and audio; or text, audio, and video. You can use groupware applications for document management only, or you can add revision control.

You can categorize these technologies into two types of collaboration: your-time and realtime. In your-time collaboration, each person in the collaboration works during that person's normal working hours, regardless of the location of their coworkers. Your-time collaboration uses technologies such as email and groupware that accommodate workers' diverse schedules. If you're working on a project with other people who are a few time zones away or halfway across the globe, when you're working, they're sleeping and vice versa. Collaborative systems can take this difference into account by not requiring immediate response.

A realtime environment lets people communicate directly and immediately, usually by voice or video across the network, regardless of their locations. Whiteboarding and videoconferencing are examples of realtime collaboration.

Each technology requires a certain level of hardware. Email requires a client (such as the Windows NT Exchange Client or a third-party email client) at each workstation and as many servers (such as the Exchange Server) as you have groups or locations. If you're supporting a regional or global enterprise, you need some method--an intranet or the Internet--of getting mail from one site to another. You probably already have everything you need. Likewise, groupware doesn't require anything more than LAN/WAN connections and the appropriate software, such as Lotus Notes or Microsoft Team Manager.

The costs go up when you add multimedia to the mix. Adding sound capabilities to email means that each client needs a sound card, speakers or a headset, and a microphone, so figure around $200 per set. As I mentioned earlier, adding video can be as inexpensive as $300 or as much as $3000, depending on the minimum level of quality you can accept. So now that I've alerted you to the costs, let's take a look at what each of these technologies can do for you

You are probably using the simplest form of collaborative computing: email. It lets two or more people communicate quickly and economically, but most important, it lets them work when they choose to work. Email delivers messages across the building or around the world in seconds, so two people working at the same time can see each other's labors almost immediately. Others working farther apart can write or respond during their respective working hours. So email can be either realtime or your-time.

Collaborations via email can be as simple as passing ideas back and forth until the participants reach consensus, or passing files as attachments between team members. Advanced environments add the capability of sound- and video-enabled email to incorporate voice inflections and body language to head off misunderstanding.

If you're not already using email, what do you need to set it up? Surprisingly little. NT and Windows 95 both include the Microsoft Exchange client, which is a perfectly acceptable email program. Exchange supports all types of attachments, including sound and video, so you can use it for multimedia-enabled email. In fact, because Windows supports file associations, you can receive an email with a video object and merely double-click the object from within your email program to launch the video player and see the message. One nice thing about the Exchange client is that it supports the Internet's Post Office Protocol 3 (POP3), the most popular method of attaching email servers to clients.

In addition to the email client at the workstation, you need one or more email servers, especially if you communicate across networks or the Internet. Microsoft's Exchange Server is one possibility, but other third-party server programs work with the Exchange client.

The next step up from email in the collaborative continuum is groupware. IBM's Lotus Notes program is probably the best known example, but Netscape Communications (Communicator), Microsoft (Exchange and other products), Novell (GroupWise), and others all have offerings in this arena. Like email, groupware is still for your-time collaborations, which let people work on a common project but at their own pace.

Groupware encompasses email and adds many features. A typical groupware package includes document and revision management, group calendars and scheduling features, and the ability to plug in other capabilities specific to your needs. Hundreds of programs--from enhanced email to sophisticated production management systems--are available for Lotus Notes alone. You can use standard programming and scripting languages to create these capabilities, or you can buy them from third-party vendors.

These programs are typically tightly integrated with the operating system they run on. This integration means, for example, that a Notes environment running on NT works with the Registry for user and configuration management, and users have one logon to access both Notes and the NT domain. The newest versions of most popular groupware packages are also Internet-enabled, so users with a Web browser (and the appropriate security authentication) can access the groupware environment from anywhere.

The real power of groupware is its document management capabilities. Traditional collaborative projects are usually paper based. They start as ideas, progress into proposals, mutate into specifications, and then break down into many individual documents that detail components, compare prices, track development, and discuss problems. In a traditional environment, one person has custody of each document. That person has responsibility for seeing that the document remains up-to-date and is properly distributed to those who need to see it. Users give their changes to the custodians, and the custodians alone have permission to make those changes. How inefficient!

With groupware, the system is the custodian, and anyone who needs to see or change a document can do so. The software tracks changes separately, and users can quickly and easily see the revision history and the document in its current state. The groupware system can resolve conflicts, such as two people making changes at the same time, or ask for help in conflict resolution.

The group calendar and scheduling features in groupware packages are also useful, but in a fully collaborative environment, users don't use these features very often. Why schedule a meeting when all the participants can obtain the same information, express their opinions, and arrive at consensus without leaving their desks?

From these your-time applications, you can take the big step up, to realtime. Progressing to realtime collaboration is a big step for several reasons, not the least of which is cost. Collaborative your-time technologies aren't hardware intensive, and most 386 and slower 486 vintage processors can run email and groupware programs acceptably. When you step up to realtime collaborations, you need the latest generation of both hardware and software, so the expense can be a little scary.

One realtime technology, whiteboarding, won't cost you an arm and a leg. Whiteboarding lets two or more people at different locations view and operate the same computer program simultaneously. One person's computer acts as a host and executes the application while the whiteboarding program duplicates that screen across all the participants' screens and collects keyboard and mouse input from any of them. The whiteboarding program also lets users highlight and draw arrows and other symbols on the screen without changing the application data. This feature is very useful for discussions.

Whiteboarding can be a tremendous benefit in several areas: brainstorming, presentation preparation, product or systems design, and troubleshooting. Intel's ProShare LANDesk Personal Conferencing Manager is probably the best-known example of a whiteboarding application, but many other good programs are available.

In addition to the software, all you need for whiteboarding is a network connection between the participants. The connection speed can be Ethernet fast, dial-up slow, or a combination of the two. Because only screen displays and keystrokes (and the keystrokes are compressed) are shipped around the network, network utilization is very low. Usually, participants communicate via a telephone conference call while they're whiteboarding, so people can discuss what they are seeing, but whiteboarding is also an excellent complement to videoconferencing.

Videoconferencing is the top of the line in collaborative technologies. Depending on the level of your computer network and the quality of video and audio you're willing to accept, you might be able to use videoconferencing for a low price. If you have an old, slow network and old computers, you'll probably have to invest a substantial amount of money on upgrades before you begin to use realtime video.

That caveat is not to say that you won't be able to use video at all. It takes a fairly recent computer to create video, but any Intel-based computer with a late 386 or better chip can play back video adequately. Video capability opens the door to using sound- and video-enabled email to communicate with coworkers, other employees, and customers using the same videoconferencing equipment you use for realtime communications with your more advanced peers.

Singing the praises of videoconferencing is not hard. Having the ability to see, hear, and talk to the people you're working with, regardless of distance, boosts productivity and saves money, even within one building. Let's say you have an urgent matter that includes going over some product specifications with a coworker. Unfortunately, the coworker is in the New York office, and you're in Los Angeles. Without videoconferencing, you have two options: Ship the specifications overnight to New York and then discuss them over the phone (with the possibility that you might miss something), or fly, expensively and uncomfortably, to the other side of the country. This situation occurs all the time in large corporations. You lose two days of productivity to travel time and incur the expense of airfare and hotel, not to mention all that yummy airport food.

If you have videoconferencing, you can just comb your hair and open a videoconferencing session with that person on the spot. You could both look at the specifications on your respective screens simultaneously while each of you appears in a small box in the other's screen. With the source documents and the problem solvers in the same virtual place at the same time, you can iron out problems and be done. No lost productivity, no extra expense, and no airport hot dogs.

Using Collaborative Technology
So how does all this stuff work? As I mentioned earlier, you can use collaborative computing in your-time and in realtime. In a your-time environment, you arrive at the office around 8:00 a.m. and log on to email. A note from Budapest says that while you slept, the East European work team added three new spreadsheets to the fiscal projections project and made some changes to the sales forecast. You reply with a "Good work!" message, and then start your groupware application (Microsoft Team Manager, in this case). Team Manager shows you which documents your coworkers revised and lets you see both the revisions and the original numbers. You notice that one change has a significant positive effect on costs and decide to acknowledge this discovery. You start the video recorder application and record a brief congratulatory message to the cost containment team. You jump into email again and send the video message as an attachment to senior management, the financial people, and the Europeans. Now it's time for some coffee.

Not so fast. Let's assume that your systems have realtime capability, too. Just as you start to get out of your chair, a tone announces an incoming videocall. You sigh and activate the videoconferencing application. The smiling face of your manufacturing manager appears in a small window on screen, and she tells you that the re-engineering taskforce just figured out a way to save oodles of money by implementing a small change in the manufacturing process for your most popular product. You're a little confused by what she's telling you, so she calls up the engineering diagrams in her CAD program, then links you to the whiteboarding application so that she can point out what she's talking about. You see the changes, and they're good ones. You approve the changes, and she logs them into the groupware system. With a click of the mouse, you close the video window, and now you can go get that coffee.

Science fiction? Not at all. These technologies are available off the shelf for very little money. All you need is a desire to improve your business and the commitment to see the process through. Collaborative computing has many benefits, ranging from immediate communication to reduced costs to improved processes, and very few drawbacks.