In the loop

The best collaboration comes in integrated packages

President James Madison and his colleagues certainly could have used instant messaging. England had already ended its trade embargo against the U.S. shortly before Congress declared war in 1812; the message just didn't get across the Atlantic fast enough. Then, three years later, the Battle of New Orleans took place after the peace treaty was signed.

Today's military doesn't have that problem, as collaboration tools and platforms bring real-time coordination. Col. William Randall, deputy commander of the Air Force's 951st Electronic Systems Group at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., oversees the development of Mission Planning Systems.

MPS is a myriad of software packages flight crews use before a mission to plot their course, select their weaponry and determine how best to employ those weapons.

Developing these systems requires coordination not just within the Air Force, but with outside contractors. To speed coordination among all the parties, the Electronic Systems Group used Microsoft SharePoint to create a portal called Mission Planning Central, which is used by 4,500 staff members'military and contractors'at more than 300 locations.

'The bottom line is, everything is faster,' Randall said. 'We have increased the throughput of the organization, its ability to respond'and responsiveness is critical to success.'

Collaboration software is nothing new.

E-mail, discussion lists, teleconferences and the like have been around for more than a decade. Today's packages bring together all these features, and offer the ability to integrate them with other enterprise software packages.

'One of the really important changes is the ability to start using the real-time collaboration solution as a platform,' said Adam Gartenberg, IBM Corp.'s offering manager for real-time collaboration. 'You can start including applications, or writing applications, in the real-time platform.'

To achieve this, the newest release of IBM's collaboration suite, Sametime 7.5, is built on the open-source Eclipse development framework, allowing customers or third parties to write extensions for custom applications right in the platform.

For instance, a program manager could add links in a messaging client to a database, so users can run a query for information needed during an IM chat without having to separately log into the database.

Get it together

In Randall's case, a key requirement was the ability to integrate with existing identity management software.

The Air Force did have an existing enterprise portal maintained by Lockheed Martin Corp., but mission planning itself was using about 20 different Web sites. To find relevant information, the user not only had to search a Web site but know which site to search.

Now, these are all consolidated into Mission Planning Central, saving about $500,000 that was going to support all these separate sites. Further simplifying matters, MPC is set up so the users don't even need to log into MPC. All they need to do is log into the Air Force portal, and they are granted the appropriate level of access to MPC.

For example, an F-15 pilot would have access to mission planning software for
F-15s, and a contractor would have restricted access to data relating to its particular contract. Mission Planning Central has proven so successful that it is becoming a joint services platform and is expanding to other areas of the federal government.

'What we have pioneered at Mission Planning will be standardized on the Air Force portal for anybody to build collaboration Web sites,' said Randall. 'As we build applications in SharePoint, or anybody else builds applications in SharePoint, those will be exposed and made available within the Air Force or any other federal agency.'

In selecting an enterprise collaboration platform, there is a full smorgasbord of tools to choose from, ranging from instant messaging to virtual classrooms.

Choose to use

Jessica Lipnack, CEO of NetAge Inc. of West Newton, Mass., and co-author of Virtual Teams (Wiley, 2000) cautions against putting too much emphasis on the technology features. 'Most bells and whistles are never used, but there is a lot of overhead connected with learning the technologies,' she said.

Mike Gotta, principal analyst for Burton Group of Midvale, Utah, advises that organizations take a close look at what they are trying to do with the collaboration software and then create user case scenarios for all the participants. Are you doing project management, research, intelligence gathering or knowledge sharing? Who will use the system? Office employee? Mobile worker? Business partner?

In this way, agencies are finding a variety of ways to meet their specific collaboration needs. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Environmental Compliance Office, for example, uses the e/pop-hosted webconferencing services from WiredRed Software of San Diego to help develop geographic information software that will track NOAA's assets. Project manager Will Freeman said that the videoconferencing portion is of limited use because they don't have enough bandwidth in their offices, but the desktop sharing is extremely useful.

'One of our GIS scriptwriters is out in Seattle, and we work together every day on this project,' he said. Before using e/pop, this required that the scriptwriter send over new files daily so Freeman could load them on his own desktop and take a look at them. But no longer. 'Having webconferencing, he can show me his updates without me going into the system. It saves time for seeing what the latest development was on the system.'

Remote training

The National Institute of Corrections holds virtual meetings with its project managers, which has traditionally been a difficult task given the problems with conducting remote training sessions.

Last year, it trained about 65,000 people at correctional institutions worldwide using a mix of Web-based courses, instructor-led courses and satellite broadcast sessions. A year ago, it started using WebEx from WebEx Communications Inc. of Santa Clara, Calif., for both its internal meetings and its remote training. NIC selected WebEx because it integrated with the agency's learning management platform, Learn.com, and it has proven much more successful than the earlier phone conferences.

'We used it with a group of wardens from the Federal Bureau of Prisons, and all we got was praise,' said Chester Whitfield, NIC's chief of communications and publications in Washington.

Security when collaborating is a major concern at the Energy Department. It uses Via3, from Viack Corp. of Scottsdale, Ariz., to coordinate the activities of staff within the Office of the CIO who interface with the users at DOE's offices. With Via3, all files and all video and audio communications are encrypted, and the data is stored at a guarded facility.

'There were a number of concurrent efforts going on looking at desktop collaboration products,' said Doug Way, DOE's Via3 site administrator. 'As time went on, all the others would drop out of contention because of security issues.'

Looking for the suite spot

When it comes to collaboration, agencies should go with a suite rather than having to support a bunch of different tools, said Bill Bruck, lead solutions architect for Q2Learning LLC in Falls Church, Va., and author of several books, including Taming the Information Tsunami (Microsoft Press, 2002).

Bruck uses a 2x2 matrix to categorize collaboration tools. Is the tool designed for one-to-one or group communication? The other dimension is whether the tool is synchronous (allowing communication to occur in real time) or asynchronous (staggered out over time).

A phone call is an example of a one-to-one synchronous communication, and a Web conference is a group synchronous communication. E-mail is one-to-one asynchronous, and discussion threads are group asynchronous.

Bruck advises using a mix of all four types of tools, with an emphasis on asynchronous tools. 'The bottom line is that we don't need more meetings, we need to collaborate effectively between the meetings,' he said. 'That is where the work is done.'

But while it is ideal to have a single vendor, it is not always possible to find a product that meets all one's needs.

'Most people have multivendor environments,' said Jessica Lipnack, CEO of NetAge Inc. of West Newton, Mass., and co-author of Virtual Teams (Wiley, 2000). 'It is very rare to find a single-vendor shop, and some have a real potpourri.'

In doing an RFP, therefore, one should make provisions for multiple vendors.

'You should segment the RFP into a communication section that would deal with e-mail, IM, RSS and another section that deals with collaborative workspaces, forums and wikis,' said Gotta. 'There is no one tool that does it all.'

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