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Collaborative Tool Kit

-- Anjana Srikanth

The most difficult thing about information is collecting it. Then comes the responsibility of sharing it among the right people and applications. Transforming this information into knowledge and utilizing it efficiently is collaboration. Collaboration options include enterprise applications, web services, e-mail application and integration with enterprise information portals. Document sharing tasks and project management alternatives to email-oriented tasks provide greater access to information and thereby increase productivity levels. Peer-to-peer networks connect groups of people sharing files and enable all users to view information in the same view.

Chatting on Yahoo messenger or MSN messenger in the office just got approval! Online chatting, once considered taboo in the workplace is now the standard form of communication after email. Communicating with team members, sharing information and collaborating on other tasks like online meetings and seminars through a chat server are fast becoming commonplace in the work environment of today.

Welcome to the new collaborative tools of the millennium! Augmenting traditional collaborative tools like email and acquiring business-related features like application sharing, threaded discussions and whiteboard features, instant messaging and other collaborative tools are changing the work place of today. Not just within the work place but also external to the enterprise, this kind of synergy has far-reaching effects.

You may ask why? Why cant people just meet and speak like they’ve been doing since ages? Well, in scenarios where business projects get more and more complex and people work in virtual enterprises remotely, it becomes imperative to meet often and discuss issues and unforeseen developments.

Also, apart from geographical distances, we are also looking at the global workplace of different time zones. Getting all the people concerned into the right meeting together is becoming more and more difficult.

The dispersed work forces of today have increased competition and decreased shorter product cycles. At this critical juncture, collaboration between employees and business partners is a must. Collaboration tools are an important means for turning the travel time and expense of old into work time and increased profits. Integrated collaboration tools that combine collaboration and enterprise applications aspire to streamline the workflow process in an organization.

Even with teams working in the same location, online discussions permit individual thinking and introspective chatting (of course, brainstorming in actual meetings has its advantages too) thus allowing teams to add value through reflective thinking.

With new vendors popping up everywhere and offering an assortment of collaborative tools ranging from web conferencing to integrated suites that can create knowledge repositories and enable document sharing, meeting and conversations, collaboration is predicted to be one of the top trends today. By enabling business processes to flow smoothly both internally and externally to the organization they ensure holistic business process automation.

Collaboration tools range from simple to complex backend systems. Some of the new e-mail-based collaboration software is designed to streamline project management and workflow and allow workers to collaborate on processes such as invoicing, purchasing, expense reporting, and project management. The creation of dynamic project-level teams, facilitates instant collaboration among users, and allows file sharing, attachment distribution, and creation of polls and alerts. Collaborative project planning improves visibility of departments and what they are doing and shares their solutions and needs with the right people involved in the project. Deepening collaboration in the enterprise portal can improve employee productivity and customer-facing relationships.

Collaborative virtual workspace tools

A distributed or virtual team is a group of workers who are not co-located but need to work and collaborate together in specific projects. Designing a virtual team and monitoring their performance on projects is even more difficult.

First generation online technologies such as email, listserv and electronic team rooms are not really optimized for creating effective distributed teams. Email is optimized for one-to-one communications and conference calls cannot really sustain conversations in an extended environment. None of these tools are fundamentally designed for enhancing the work of teams.

Collaboration tools fill in all the gaps. Gaps of all kinds, those that exist between people, applications and organizations.

A collaborative digital workplace that ties into cross enterprise business processes and provides a rich collaborative environment for project work is the solution. Virtual workplaces allow team members to store files, check calendars and conduct discussions. The digital workspace is a web-based collaborative environment that enables companies to innovate and drive projects to completion.

Collaboration is not limited to file sharing and static documents. It’s of a more dynamic nature and involves calendars, timelines and milestones, planned and unplanned ad hoc interactions that in turn tightly integrate with time management and project management applications.

It extends beyond the organization and the traditional methods of collaboration. Asynchronous collaboration enables participants at different locales to work together in a synchronous manner, while synchronous collaboration supports ongoing project work and takes into account ad hoc ideas and suggestions.

Phone, fax and email are the earliest examples of collaborative technologies. Although limited in their applications they are the most pervasive forms of collaboration. But in terms of project collaboration, they fail to maintain information context and relevance.

Instant messaging

Whether corresponding with colleagues across the hall or with those who are a part of the virtual enterprise, instant messaging (IM) has tremendous value today. Checking to see who is online and whether they are available for immediate discussion on something urgent can be of great advantage in today’s busy work scenario. The most common kind of collaboration tool is the desk-to-desktop kind, while the more complex applications extend to wireless applications and handheld devices like PDA’s and cellular phones.

Enterprise messaging tools are replacing the public Yahoo and AOL chatting tools and they contain added security features to keep critical data from the view of unauthorized viewers. Messaging tools for team collaboration and knowledge management initiatives including workflow analysis open up communication bottlenecks and combine a heterogeneous knowledge bases thus allowing the entire organization to speak the same language.

How does an online discussion help in collaboration? An entirely human activity like conversation that is now being automated? Firstly, it saves on meeting personally and allows the actual saving of chat transcripts. Allowing real-time audio and video conferencing including whiteboard integration enables application sharing and takes collaboration to another level.

Web conferencing tools

Web conferencing tools offer desktop and application sharing and can help conduct real-time meetings and seminars. When applied external to the organization they can be used for training and customer support.

Enterprise information portals

With the new shift in information from a document-centric model to a dynamic one, the defining characteristics for an enterprise information portal are changing. Common functional components are content management, personalization, application integration and collaboration.

Content management solutions

An enterprise information portal facilitates collaborative creation and deployment of content and also manages large volumes of content and transactions. Increasingly, it concerns itself with document creation. Form and textual content are separated and stored separately in a content repository. Workflows concerned with content creation and deployment are managed and monitored too. Currently, content management supports access to wireless devices without any device-specific formatting.

Web based employee communication tools range from email to instant messaging to and selecting the right one that will suit all the team members is sometimes tricky. The portal solves this problem by hosting all these tools and ensures that ideas and knowledge is not lost thus playing a fundamental role in knowledge capturing and sharing.

The personalization features offer filtered and targeted content and thus enable a user-customizable interface on the portal. The portal also hosts search services that can offer results from various data bases, web sites and other collaborative categories that make the search process an easier one.

Contextual collaboration

All the above collaborative tools combined with enterprise applications are what Gartner and other analyst firms call contextual collaboration. These tools help organizations store and share information from a centralized location from various applications like CRM and sales force automation. Contextual collaborations embed collaboration into other applications such as enterprise information portals and give the user a fresh and personalized feel. Through the creation of dynamic project-level teams that promotes collaboration among users, allows file sharing, attachment distribution, and creation of polls and alerts, project management and workflow are streamlined. Alerts that tell the user what happened in his absence when he didn’t use the portal allow a collaborative web that extends beyond the presence of the portal.

Integration with CRM applications

Organizations can tie together critical information from various applications like CRM and SCM into a common storage from where other collaborative applications interoperate efficiently. CRM technologies are customer-facing technologies that represent the interface that interacts with its customers and suppliers.

Finally, adding web services to the existing collaboration tools like e-mail, P2P technologies provide a better chance to create and link relationships. What’s important is to select a common easy to use platform to implement all collaborative ideas, like web and email and with a clear understanding of the organization’s culture and the needs that motivate such a solution.

Selecting the right collaborative tool

Consider the current state of collaboration existing in your organization and decide if you want to expand it or merely digitize the process. Do u need simple chat or instant messaging? Do u need to save the chat sessions? It is always better to select a package that offers shared services and supports multiple file types.

Basic features of any collaborative tool should include web conferencing, shared calendars, discussions, shared workspaces, document sharing, chat, instant messaging, and whiteboard features, either offered individually or as hybrids.

Selecting a product is fine, deciding how and where to deploy it within the organization is the next step. Study your business and understand the role that the Internet plays in interacting with suppliers and customers. How is information shared between suppliers and customers? Across private lines or firewalls? Find out how the service addresses firewalls and what limitations regarding security exist.

Map your integration and customization requirements and understand them. Understand how they integrate with backend and CRM-like systems.

Determine the length of time required for integration and customization. How many internal resources are required for support? How easy is it to train users? The answers to these questions will make for an easy and painless deployment.

Use a common easy to use interface like the web to deploy the solution. This requires no prior setup and users from different locales remain connected irrespective of the collaborative application that they are working with.

Collaborative systems make it easier to capture interaction between participants in a team and respond to a crisis situation to gain insights into failures and successes. Additionally, what they do is to:

  • Increase efficiencies
  • Streamline business processes
  • Deliver services more cost effectively
  • Enhance organizational intelligence
  • Develop stronger relationships with key stakeholders — e.g., employees, vendors, nonprofit, the business community, other levels of government and the public
  • Sharing resources

The collaborative marketplace is continuing to experiment and investigate tools that promote teaming and efficiency in the work place. Collaboration applications improve decisions, increase knowledge and better distribution of knowledge, improved planning and development cycles, more functional and productive relationships within teams. This in turn increases productivity and increases company understanding of internal and external environment.

We offer services like Business Process Engineering, Porting Legacy applications to the web and Enterprise Application Integration. Please contact us here for more details.



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