Just like being there

At some point, you're not just working'you're working with somebody else. The ideal is for your colleagues to be wherever you are whenever you need them, with access to all the materials and resources you all need for the task at hand. Unfortunately, reality doesn't always permit this. Your colleagues may be in another room, another building, or another city. Their work hours may only partly overlap yours. And you can't show them what you mean over the phone. In today's government, where information sharing is crucial, this can be a challenge.

Across borders'or walls

Collaboration tools may be the answer. These are software platforms specifically created to help people work together, whether they're in another country or another cubicle. Collaboration tools can save expenses for an agency by reducing unnecessary travel. They can also increase efficiency, because workers can 'get together' as needed to complete tasks. In addition, the quality of work stands to improve based on the greater availability of experts and their skills.

One category of collaboration tools involves real-time meetings. Especially useful for agencies with multiple locations, these may include live video, voice or text chat. Many online meeting tools record the proceedings for later playback. Most operate via the Web, so participants may only require a browser to take part.

If workers don't have to participate at the same time, a threaded discussion may be more appropriate. Discussion groups and file sharing are common in online workgroup tools. Like e-mail, these programs are often asynchronous, meaning the collaboration takes place when people are online, but they can also work offline on shared projects.

Whether you need an online meeting tool or an asynchronous workgroup platform, collaboration software often shares several features. Instant messaging allows one worker to rapidly contact another worker through text, usually as a pop-up window on the monitor. So-called presence detection shows you on-screen whether a colleague is available online.

Sometimes you don't actually need a colleague as much as you need their work or materials. Document sharing lets multiple workers use the same files, keeping track of who does what, and when. This can be just right for co-writing a presentation or report with distant colleagues. More complex tools perform workflow functions, automatically routing documents from one person to another for review, revision or approval. Just keeping materials in a centralized location'sometimes called a team space'can simplify many agency tasks.

Naturally, many collaboration tools overlap with other solutions your agency may already have in place, such as e-mail, room scheduling, project planning and groupware. Part of the challenge of successfully integrating collaboration tools is deciding which applications to keep or replace.

Another challenge is ensuring that collaboration platforms can handle the data formats your agency uses. For example, a threaded discussion may require only text. But can you also attach a picture or a spreadsheet? If integration with existing applications is necessary, careful planning may be required to guarantee that files work the way everyone expects.

Security is a significant concern. Most collaboration involves exchanging information with distant locations. You must make sure that confidential data cannot be intercepted or altered en route. Many programs offer strong encryption. In addition, authentication'ensuring the person at the other end is who he's supposed to be'is often a major part of implementing a secure collaboration suite.

Since the goal of collaboration tools is to simplify work, you don't want the solution itself to be a chore. Installation and configuration should be easy. Users should be able to grasp how to use the tool without much training. The program may come with pre-built applications or templates to get you up and running faster.

Surprisingly, one of the greatest challenges to successful implementation of collaboration software isn't technical; it's psychological. People are used to working a certain way. They're comfortable with the phone, or e-mail or travel. You must find ways to make the transition to collaboration tools worthwhile. Make workers an integral part of the selection process. Explain how collaboration tools will simplify their work. But when the time comes to pull the plug on the old method, don't hesitate: Make it a clean break, so workers have no choice but to move forward.

When planning a collaboration solution, try to imagine your agency's needs a few years down the road. Maybe all you need now is a document sharing system, but it might eventually be nice to add comments to those documents and then to discuss the comments. It's far easier to put these features into service at the beginning than to add them later.

Edmund X. DeJesus is a freelance technical writer in Norwood, Mass. E-mail him at [email protected].

Collaboration Software

Company Product Primary use(s) Features Prices
bf.collaboration Inc.

Vienna, Va.

(703) 627-2633

bf.collaborationWorkgroup collaborationDocument management; workflow/approval; search; calendars; discussion forums; Web-based instant messaging; encryption; presence detection$2,200 for site; $3,500 for enterprise
Citrix Online LLC

Santa Barbara, Calif.

(805) 690-2961

GoToMeeting CorporateOnline meetings/ presentationsNo preinstallation or configuration required; collaborate with team members, share information, conduct training sessions; 128-bit AES encryption$468 per year
CollabraSpace Inc.

Annapolis, Md.

(410) 224-4343

Text chat, whiteboard, document and file sharing; presence awareness, audio-video paging, desktop sharing; Web-based administration; J2EE security$75,000 per CPU
EMC Corp.

Pleasanton, Calif.

(925) 600-6800

Documentum eRoom
Workgroup collaborationBrowser-accessible workspaces, project planning, file sharing, multithreaded discussions, team calendars, sitewide search, FIPS-compliant security; integrates with OfficeContact vendor
FileNet Corp.

Costa Mesa, Calif.

(714) 327-4800

Team Collaboration ManagerWorkgroup collaborationCollaboration tools, discussion forums, live meetings, interactive polls, information sharing; based on FileNet P8 content management platform$55,000 and up
GroupSystems Corp.

Broomfield, Colo.

(303) 468-8680

GroupSystems IIOnline meetingsVirtual meetings, documentation of action items, instant messaging, brainstorming tools, surveys and polls, automatic meeting report generation$7,800 annual subscription per 10 seats
IBM Corp.

Armonk, N.Y.

(800) 426-4968

Services 2.5
Workgroup collaborationCollaborative environment with instant messaging, presence awareness, shared team spaces, Web conferencing, document management, e-mail, calendaring, scheduling
$90,000 per CPU
Linktivity Inc.

Tucson, Ariz.

(520) 670-7100

WebDemoOnline meetingsVideo conferencing, voice and text chat, annotation tools, remote control, file transfer, document management, application sharing, polling and quizzing, record and playback$959 to $2,159 for three concurrent users
Macromedia Inc.

San Francisco

(415) 832-2000

Breeze 5 GovernmentOnline meetings/ presentationsWeb conferencing, collaborative meetings, presentations, content management, shared screens, whiteboards, data sharing; synchronous and asynchronous operationContact vendor
Microsoft Corp.

Redmond, Wash.

(800) 642-7676

Live Meeting 2005Online meetings/ presentationsWeb and audio conferencing, Office XP integration, application sharing, document viewing, annotation, online chat, polls, whiteboard, intranet portal support$75 per seat
NextPage Inc.

Draper, Utah

(801) 748-4400

NextPage 1.5Document collaborationDocument and e-mail tracking, graphical document comparison tools, version history, status alerts; works with Office and other programs$250 per user per year
Open Text Corp.

Waterloo, Ontario

(519) 888-7111

Livelink TouchpointWorkgroup collaborationContent/application sharing, whiteboards, discussion threads, blogs, virtual meetings, instant messaging, data encryption$100 per user
Oracle Corp.

Redwood Shores, Calif.

(800) 672-2531

Collaboration SuiteWorkgroup collaborationRuns on Oracle platform; e-mail, voice mail, fax, calendaring, scheduling, file and document management, Web conferencing, instant messaging, presence detection, threaded discussions$45 to $60 per user
SiteScape Inc.

Maynard, Mass.

(978) 450-2200

SiteScape ForumWorkgroup collaborationAutomated workflows, document management, threaded discussions, calendar sharing, e-mail notification, instant messaging, presence detection, voice and web conferencing; PKI-enabled, role-based security and access$120 per license, $12,000 server fee plus $28,438 for 50 concurrent users
Viack Corp.

Scottsdale, Ariz.

(866) 265-8060

VIA3 Assured Collaboration ServiceOnline meetings/ presentationsMultipoint video, audio and instant messaging; presence detection, whiteboards, presentation sharing, file storage, Office/Outlook integration, AES encryption$89 per seat license per month
Vignette Corp.

Austin, Texas

(888) 608-9900

Business WorkspacesKnowledge managementAd-hoc workspaces, subscriptions/notifications, project status tracking, search, portal/desktop integration, threaded discussions, integrated calendars/dashboards$300 per user
WebEx Communications Inc.

Santa Clara, Calif.

(408) 435-7000

Meeting CenterOnline meetings/ presentationsBrowser-based; audio, video and Web conferencing; application, presentations and document sharing; online annotation/editing; Office integration$75 per seat
WiredRed Software

San Diego

(858) 715-0970

e/pop Web Conferencing Online meetings/ presentationsVoice over IP and multiparty video conferencing; record/playback, application and document sharing, remote control, hosted or server-based$3,000 for five concurrent users

The lowdown

  • Who needs collaboration tools? Any agency whose employees must work together, even if they'or their materials'are separated by distance or time.

  • What is the most important consideration when selecting collaboration tools? Deciding how they are going to replace or coexist with existing applications.

  • What security concerns are there with collaboration tools? Ensuring that information transmitted to a different location is secure; authenticating users on either end of an exchange.

  • Who should be involved in the selection of collaboration tools? Every worker who will need to use the tool. Getting buy-in from users is vital for successful implementation.

  • What benefits can you expect from collaboration tools? Reduced costs from eliminating unneeded travel; more efficient completion of tasks; higher-quality results; and assignments done faster.


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