Group think

Web 2.0 collaboration tools are connecting with government users


Given the huge variety of options, it is important to plan which features to deploy and what you'll use them for.

1. Will you use collaboration as an all-purpose platform for training, presentations and meetings, or primarily for project teams? Will basic whiteboarding and document sharing be enough, or do you also need a robust videoconferencing system?

2. Decide whether synchronous, or real-time, conferencing will meet your needs, or if you also need an asynchronous option to support participation by employees who prefer to interact later. Some tools are synchronous only. Also, will you need a one-way or a two-way system?

3. Take a test drive to gauge the ease of use, including the variety of communication channels available to users. You want to encourage participation not discourage it with roadblocks.

4. Look for open software that offers direct integration with your other critical data sources and applications, or at least a good application programming interface to write your own.

5. Don't overlook compliance issues. Every collaboration tool should retain adequate records that meet regulations and support audits.

Collaboration tools are nothing new. Unix e-mail, electronic bulletin boards, ARPAnet ' all were early attempts at computer-based collaboration.

But the Web has brought real revolution to collaboration, with instant messaging, Webcams, whiteboarding, joint document editing, group scheduling, interactive Web conferencing and other applications.

At the same time, Web collaboration at most agencies occurs in the shadow of such legacy applications as IBM Lotus Notes, Microsoft Share- Point and Open Text's Livelink. These platforms have gradually been Web-enabled, often impressively, and have been added to or integrated with powerful new collaboration tools.

Defense contractor Northrop Grumman, for example, runs Open Text Livelink ECM over an intranet as its main tool for document management and collaboration, deploying it to a third of its 120,000 employees worldwide. The company turned to Open Text more than a decade ago to centralize management of documents, with the added goal of retaining staff know-how during a period of downsizing, said Scott Shaffar, knowledge management program manager at Northrop Grumman Integrated Systems.

When e-mail became popular and the company started to grow again, it moved videoconferencing from a dedicated system onto Livelink and has since added Livelink's Communities of Practice module.

Open Text has also sought ways to work with and augment SharePoint while competing against it on some fronts. The company offers mechanisms for capturing SharePoint content and archiving it, said Cheryl McKinnon, Open Text's director of collaborative content management.

Open Text is not alone in expanding its collaboration tools. David Coleman, managing director of research firm Collaborative Strategies, said IBM has improved the integration and ease of use of Notes and the former SameTime and QuickPlace conferencing tools, and he likes the company's social-networking service, Lotus Connections. 'In many ways, they're ahead of Microsoft,' Coleman said.

New frontiers

And, of course, nobody has been more aggressive than Microsoft in pushing its technologies into new collaborative frontiers. SharePoint might be the flagship of this effort, but Microsoft has been deploying a number of other Web-based technologies, including instant messaging, Live Office, and Live Mesh.

In addition to the software heavyweights, the Web-based collaboration market is rife with products ' some developed in-house ' that have a lot to offer.

Many of the products are not widely known. The military, for example, uses Ezenia's collaboration suite, InfoWork- Space, in war zones.

IWS was originally for internal networks ' warfighters used it in the first Persian Gulf War in 1991 ' but now runs entirely in a standard browser, said Khoa Nguyen, Ezenia's chief executive officer. 'We put our servers out on the Web, so if you have Web access, you can just go into your browser and use it,' Nguyen said.

Collaboration infrastructure can also play an important role in employee training, said Tyler De Lane, manager of instructional support systems at developer, which put an interactive, Flash-based course on Vyew at the University of Military Intelligence, a joint venture of the Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., and the University of Arizona.

De Lane said Vyew brings a collaborative element to the courseware, allowing students and instructors to work together plotting military operations on maps. 'Initially, we were tasked to develop it ourselves,' he said, but after surveying available products, the project team decided Vyew had the right combination of synchronous (live, real-time) and asynchronous (on-demand) conferencing.

The Army also liked the option of deploying Vyew as a hardened network appliance that meets the Defense Department's Digital Imaging and Communications in Medicine certification.

Web 2.0 eruption

In the past two years, much of the buzz in collaboration tools has centered on adding Web 2.0 features: loosely structured, democratically controlled Web pages such as blogs and wikis, online polling, and personalization features, including MySpace-like personal sites. It all adds up to social networking, and it could revolutionize collaboration in government ' if those in charge will let it.

Henry Hon, Vyew's chief executive officer, sees browser applications as the defining characteristic of Web 2.0 and considers Vyew a good example. 'You want to enable interaction,' he said. 'That's the whole spirit of Web 2.0 ' connecting people, and connecting content to people,' Hon said. 'As long as you have a browser, you're in.'

Few things, for example, proved the viability of wikis for serious government use more than news of the U.S. intelligence community's wiki, Intellipedia.

For all the collaborative advantages of the Web, it is also a double-edged sword as far as security goes. On the one hand, notoriously paranoid government agencies still fear the Web's Wild West culture. On the other hand, purely browser-based collaboration avoids another government no-no: unauthorized downloads. Regardless, to be taken seriously vendors had to demonstrate adequate privacy and security controls, so most software comes with Secure Sockets Layer encryption and multilevel permissions. McKinnon said the benefits of social networking can still be achieved by connecting closed communities and facilitating collaboration within them.

Ready for duty

According to Bobby Caudill, Adobe's solution architect for global government, even the most security-conscious agencies are making conferencing work for them. '[Adobe] Connect has been in the theater in the war zone in the Middle East and Afghanistan,' he said.

Nonetheless, the government has been slow to adopt Web. 2.0 technology. Central Desktop CEO Isaac Garcia said he thinks it's because agencies are still wary of the security risks of hosted software, and many are so committed to SharePoint that they are reluctant to try new software. 'I think that we're very early in the curve,' he said.

Essex is a freelance technology writer.


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