Guide to Collaboration

Experts define collaboration best practices

By Jason Meserve

While many collaborative technologies are mainly accessed through a Web browser, installing and using them is not as easy as entering a URL, username or password. Chris Gosk understands the challenges of delivering collaboration tools to a large, diverse user base. As vice president of enterprise services and support at GlobalKnowlege, Gosk has spent six years helping the company deliver upwards of 40 IT and business training classes per month to GlobalKnowledge's customer base. With classes running four to eight hours a day, Gosk and his team must make sure their collaboration platform is rock solid. Here is Gosk's advice on how to make that happen.

Appoint a champion: Projects rarely succeed without someone to guide them through. "If you just say, 'it is available to everyone,' but it is not done in a coordinated way, things can get out of control," says Gosk. The champion should set the standards for use, which will in turn drive adoption and help with scalability, Gosk says.

For collaboration tools, standardizing on one or two platforms can help control costs in terms of training end users and licensing the software. If each department selects its own collaboration platform, economies of scale cannot be reached. Gosk used his experience from previous jobs to help select a platform that would scale in terms of the number of users and session without straining the business model at GlobalKnowledge.

Train the trainers: For those using Web-conferencing tools to replace in-classroom training sessions, it's important to train the trainer to use all of a tool's features to create a compelling learning experience. "You can't just take someone who is used to being in front of a live classroom [one week] and next week put them online, because they [lose] the visual cues of seeing faces," Gosk says. He says instructors that know how to use chat and feedback tools inside the application can get valuable insight into the pacing of the class and interaction with students.

Also, giving access to reporting systems inside the application can help trainers see if people are staying in the classes or bailing early. "You can see when people log in or log off and can tell that someone left after 17 minutes of a 45-minute class," says Lewis Shepherd, former senior technology officer and chief of requirements and research at the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Ease of use: It sounds simple enough, but when rolling out a Web-conferencing tool or other collaborative software application, it is important to ensure that the tool is easy to use from both a user and IT perspective. For Web conferencing, this typically means finding out how easy it is to start a meeting, how people enter/log into a conference and how the server or service is administered.

Bandwidth considerations: For most collaborative tools that involve a browser and a PowerPoint presentation, bandwidth is not an issue. However, if VoIP, video or other bandwidth-intensive features are going to be used, bandwidth to remote users might be a problem. "Users are not always on the strongest Internet connection, so voice quality and the application-sharing experience may not be as good as possible," says Gosk. The issue is of particular concern for those connecting with clients or customers outside the corporate environment, where there's less control over how the far-end site is connected. A few systems do offer "gauges" to show if users have a bad connection, but for the most part it's up to the moderator to ensure each participant is having a satisfactory experience.

Open source or commercial: This tip applies more for the Web 2.0 applications that are starting to spring up in corporate environments. Vendors like IBM with its Lotus Quickr offering and Jive Software with Clearspace are starting to develop commercial wiki and blogging applications, but there are many free open source applications, such as TikiWiki and Drupal, that could get the job done. With open source, though, you may have to rely on a community of users for support and not the 800 number of a big corporation. Some of these open source applications may already be in-house and used for different tasks. Drupal, for instance, can be used to power blogs and entire Web sites. It's also got a wiki component. If you have Drupal experts on staff, it may make sense to extend the software to encompass all of your asynchronous collaboration needs. The same can be said for leveraging experts in popular Web development languages such as Perl, Java and Python, since many of the open source options are based on those languages.

Five tips to consider before buying into collaboration

By Jason Meserve

When looking for a new collaboration tool for your employee base, here are a few tips to consider before pulling out the checkbook.

Internal, hosted or hybrid: Using a service provider means no servers to babysit or maintenance to perform. Instant upgrades are available as soon as a new feature is added. Alan Greenberg, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research, says that it's typically easier to use a hosted service.

The benefit of keeping a Web-conferencing application in-house is security, Greenberg says. "Not that having an ASP is not secure, but some companies want to own it, run it themselves and deploy behind a firewall. It makes them feel better."

Compliance with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and other regulations can also factor into the decision to keep the system inside the corporate firewall.

Some services, such as WebEx (recently bought by Cisco) and iLinc, offer a hybrid option. Servers can be kept behind the firewall with an ASP option available for larger conferences or when extra capacity is needed.

Take a test drive – Many Web-conferencing vendors, particularly those offering a hosted service, have trial accounts available to let potential customers test drive the interface and system. Make sure everyone is happy with the interface and capabilities before discussing pricing.

Pricing: Pay a fat price for all you can eat or pay per minute consumed? For light users, per-minute pricing may be the economical model. But for anyone using Web conferencing regularly, Greenberg recommends getting an all-you-can-eat plan paid on a per-seat licensing scheme. When it comes to seat licensing, Wainhouse's rule of thumb to ensure there are enough licenses to go around is to provide every sales and training person with a designated one, with general administration staff sharing a pool of licenses. Also, find out if ALL attendees are required to have a license or just the meeting organizer. Greenberg stresses not to buy just on the lowest price, but to make sure the tool does everything you need it to.

Get users involved: When choosing a vendor or service, be it a Web-conferencing tool or newer Web 2.0 application, get the end users involved early. They're the ones who are going to be using the product, so it's good to get their sign-off early in the process. "Work alongside the end user as IT," says Lewis Shepherd, former senior technology officer and chief for requirements and research at the Defense Intelligence Agency. "IT is not an Ivory Tower. There is always going to be entrepreneurial successes where people can find common cause with early-adopter users that are a little more Web savvy than others."

To VoIP or not to VoIP: Some Web-conferencing applications and services offer VoIP capabilities, meaning conference participants do not need to use their traditional desk telephone for audio reception. Instead, the audio comes through the PC's speaker. For two-way audio communication, an external microphone is required. This can reduce bridge and long-distance charges in some cases, but also can add to the network bandwidth requirements. Those on a less-than-stellar Internet connection could end up with poor voice quality.

GlobalKnowledge's training sessions can run eight hours a day, so having people with phones glued to their ears the entire time is impractical. The company uses iLinc's VoIP option for audio, which gives the added benefit of greater instructor control. "With voice-over-IP, the lecturer can open up a microphone for questions and control what's going on in the conference," says Chris Gosk, vice president of enterprise services and support at GlobalKnowledge. He adds that most his company's clients are IT professionals, so tying up their phone line for that length of time is also not practical.


Collaboration market builds on Web conferencing

New horizons for this space include telepresence and useful corporate wikis, blogs

By Jason Meserve

Collaboration technologies are broadly defined as those that involve two or more people working together in a rich media application or service. Collaboration services alone – which include audio-conferencing, Web-conferencing and video-bridging services – accounted for $1 billion in revenue worldwide in the first quarter of 2007, according to Wainhouse Research, an analyst firm that focuses on Web- and videoconferencing trends and technologies.

The leading collaboration technology in terms of use (after the phone, of course) is Web conferencing, which connects people in real time via their Web browsers and traditional telephony or VoIP connection. Major players in the Web-conferencing space include WebEx (acquired by Cisco in March 2007), Microsoft with Office Live Meeting and Citrix with its GoToMeeting service. There also are many smaller niche players, such as Glance, which offers a simple screen-sharing service for giving a presentation or demonstrating how a piece of software is used, and iLinc, which targets educational organizations and training departments with a Web- and audio-conferencing system that can be used as a service, hosted internally or a combination of the two in a hybrid approach.

In Wainhouse's WebMetrics survey of over 200 users at small and large organizations spanning multiple industries for the first half of 2007, respondents said roughly one-third of the people in their organization were using Web conferencing, with that number expected to grow by 15% by the end of 2008. The majority of people using these services are mainly sharing PowerPoint slides or showing off an application on their desktop, says Alan Greenberg, senior analyst and partner at Wainhouse Research. More interactive features such as whiteboarding tend to fall further down the list of requirements, Greenberg says.

A good sign of the market's maturity is the demise of one of the first collaboration tools: Microsoft NetMeeting. When the company retired the clunky product in 2003, half of the respondents to the WebMetrics survey were still using the software quite a bit, surprising Greenberg and his colleagues. Only recently did NetMeeting disappear off the WebMetrics radar. "It's finally gone away," Greenberg says with a sense of relief.

Web-conferencing systems can be hosted internally or accessed through a service provider on a per-minute or per-seat basis. Currently, about half of respondents to the WebMetrics survey are using hosted services, a number that Greenberg says is trending upward.

Williams Scotsman International, a company that leases mobile and modular spaces such as storage containers and temporary office trailers, is indicative of the trend toward hosted services. The company hosts iLinc's Web-conferencing system internally for its U.S.-based training application but is going with the hosted model for its new European subsidiary, says Ronald Hoogerwarf, senior training specialist at Williams Scotsman. Hoogerwarf says he is suggesting that the U.S. operations move to the hosted service as well, a move that would free up server hardware for other uses, with overall costs remaining relatively flat even with 18,000-plus minutes used each year.

Hoogerwarf says if his company was starting fresh with its Web-conferencing efforts, "I would definitely go with a hosted service because of what I know now." The only caveat to that would be if he were working with tight security restrictions or regulations requiring data to be kept behind a firewall.

A third option for companies looking for flexibility in a Web-conferencing system is to go with a hybrid model that combines internal servers with a service provider. iLinc and Cisco's WebEx both offer collaboration via that model, which allows conferences containing sensitive data to be kept behind the firewall, while larger public conferences can be hosted on more robust external systems. The hosted option can also be used for failover and overflow capacity.

Telepresence makes an entrance
Another collaboration technology gaining some buzz is telepresence, a form of videoconferencing that uses life-size displays to make its conference participants feel as if they were sitting across the room from one another. "For the price tag, a lot of companies don't have the cash for that, but in terms of raising awareness of video communication, telepresence has done that," Greenberg says. Helping the cause is Cisco's push into telepresence along with HP and traditional videoconferencing companies such as Polycom. Cisco offers its single-screen TelePresence 1000 for $79,000 and a multiscreen TelePresence 3000 system for $299,000. HP's Halo system weighs in at $249,000 while Polycom's RealPresence Experience starts at $299,000.

Finally, Web 2.0 applications like blogs and wikis are finding their way into the corporate collaboration discussion as a means of sharing data in an asynchronous manner and as an effort to help capture corporate knowledge. As younger people that have grown up with blogs, wikis and social networks enter the workforce, they expect such tools to be available to them in their jobs.

Big software vendors have been a little slower in rolling out applications to support Web 2.0-ish collaboration, but there are plenty of options (some even free) from smaller vendors and the open source community such as TikiWiki, Drupal, WordPress and SixApart's Moveable Type.

At the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), an analyst lamented on his internal blog that there were not any good Flickr or Picasa-like tools for sharing photographic data across the government's secret networks. So, the analyst downloaded an open source application at home, sucked up all the pictures on his hard drive and shared it across the Internet as an example of what he would like to see available at the DIA.

Lewis Shepherd, who was then senior technology officer and chief for requirements and research at DIA, saw the posting and had his team test out the application. After some minor tweaks to the code and plenty of security vetting, the Gallery application was rolled out 29 days later. "Within two weeks, we had people from 13 different agencies sharing tens of thousands of images across the community," Shepherd says.

The agency is also using Wikipedia services on its secret networks to allow data to be shared among analysts working on intelligence products. The first wikis went up in 2004, and the DIA'S Intelli-pedia service is now used by thousands of analysts every day, Shepherd says.

Outlining the technologies that make collaboration tick

By Jason Meserve

Collaboration tools take many forms – from synchronous Web- and videoconferencing systems to asynchronous Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis. Here's a quick primer on how each operates.

Web conferencing
For end users, joining a Web conference usually means clicking on a URL, entering a meeting code and dialing into a standard phone bridge. Some systems are using a built-in VoIP connection to replace the telephone audio, so a microphone is required for those that need two-way voice communication.

While a few Web-conferencing providers are standardizing on Adobe Flash or Java for delivering the application to the browser, many still require specialty components to be downloaded and installed into the browser interface before a user can enter the meeting. Users should plan on entering the conference a few minutes ahead of time to ensure that all the necessary components are downloaded and installed.

On the administrative side, things are relatively simple when using a service provider. Just make sure the appropriate users have the right credentials to log into the system. Most of the configuration with a service provider can be done through a browser.

For internal applications, Web-conferencing systems can come in two formats: Software installed on a standard server or an appliance that includes the necessary hardware and software for running conferences. Many appliances have built-in phone bridges for tying together multiple users.

In both cases, the IT staff must monitor the hardware for any failure (such as power supplies and hard drives) and install any necessary software and operation-system upgrades. Most Web-conferencing applications come with Web-based management interfaces for configuring and tweaking settings. Hardware-based systems can also be tied into larger IT management systems like HP's OpenView.

Also, allocating the appropriate amount of bandwidth and ports can be a concern. How many people are going to be connected to the server at one time? How much bandwidth will each user require? A PowerPoint presentation pushed out to a few viewers does not require much bandwidth. But adding a VoIP connection and application sharing across many users, bandwidth at the server is an issue that needs to be watched.

Some providers, such as WebEx, offer a hybrid option that allows customers to run servers internally for most meetings and use the hosted service for failover or overflow traffic.

Videoconferencing and telepresence applications
These are the most complicated of the three types of collaboration tools as well as the most bandwidth-intensive. Group conferences typically require a set-top videoconferencing unit connected via IP to a similar system on the far end. Standards adhered to by most vendors in this market, such as H.323 for IP communication and H.460 for traversing firewalls, make it easy to connect a Polycom system with a Tandberg, for instance, when using standard videoconferencing. For multiparty video calls, a multipoint control unit (MCU) is required to bridge the users together. Many set-top systems contain small MCUs for connecting up to six endpoints, and larger appliance-based systems are available for IT departments wanting to host internally.

Succeeding at telepresence is a little trickier. Telepresence itself is videoconferencing on steroids. Typically, systems are built into special rooms, as they require multiple large (50 inches or more) screens. Cameras are mounted at eye level to give the feeling that participants are looking each other directly in the eye. Many systems use the same IP or ISDN transports as standard videoconferencing, but given their size and capabilities, most customers must buy them in pairs in order to use them to their fullest potential. They're mostly used for intracompany meetings at large, global organizations.

Wikis and blogs
Both of these collaborative tools are typically hosted on a Web server, with some requiring a back-end database for storing entries. Blogging and wiki software can be hosted on a local server or are offered through third-party service providers. For end users, a Web browser is all that is needed. For IT, Web server, server hardware and database skills are essential.

Wikis are essentially Web pages that anyone with access can edit or add information to. The wiki software tracks revisions to each page and gives administrators the tools to roll back changes, if necessary. Simple wikis run on a Web server (such as Apache) with a wiki engine such as TikiWiki installed. The engine takes the input and creates the HTML pages that comprise the wiki. More complex implementations like the Drupal content management system use an underlying database (such as MySQL) for storing content.

Blogs are run in a similar fashion. A Web server is needed as well as an engine for taking input and publishing HTML. Drupal, Moveable Type and WordPress are a few popular blog software offerings.

For both Wikis and blogs, end users enter data and access them through a browser.

Other key components of collaboration include: 

Conceptual search -- is an important technology for use in large-scale wiki or blog systems. It allows queries to be entered as a natural language string with returned results related to the query but not necessarily containing the query's keywords.
Learning Management System (LMS) is a tool for administering and tracking training courses. Simple systems come with some Web-conferencing offerings that target corporate training groups, while others have built-in hooks to more robust, stand-alone LMS.

RSS -- a technology by which companies push specialized streams of data out to knowledge workers. Users can subscribe to a stream using a reader application (stand-alone, a service such as Google Reader or through a companion application to e-mail).

Screen sharing --  an application for letting a remote user see another screen via a Web browser.

Whiteboarding  -- a technology used in Web conferencing that provides the ability to annotate over an image. Typically, these annotations can be saved as part of the conference proceedings.


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