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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.


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