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.

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