All together now

For all the promise of the Internet, there have been few options for widely dispersed offices trying to collaborate on a project. Many federal agencies with faraway field offices or those that work with university and business partners rely on e-mail, phones and fax machines to bridge the geographic divide solutions that are limiting and frustrating.

"I've been in meetings where people are supposed to be discussing the same identical budget, and we've got three spreadsheets that don't match, so we spend hours trying to reconcile who's got the right one," said Ron Simmons, knowledge officer for the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of the Chief Scientist for Human Factors.

The potential solution: a new breed of rapidly maturing Web-based software products that provide virtual meeting spaces and project-management tools for thousands of collaborators. The FAA has joined other agencies in trying the software.

"These new tools allow everybody to work off the same sheet of music, and that not only saves my little organization a lot of money, but we work more efficiently, and sharing information like this really builds trust among workers," said Simmons, who has 300 people in 11 working groups using Web-based collaboration tools, including those provided by eRoom Technology Inc.

Although there seems to be a need for Web-based collaboration tools, the demand hasn't been reflected in the marketplace, where potential buyers may be intimidated by prices for collaborative software that can reach six figures.

A Web-based collaboration tool is in many ways a kind of global groupware. Groupware such as Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes was, in fact, the first product category designed to help groups of employees work together more effectively and efficiently. But groupware has three disadvantages:

  • It works best only on projects internal to an organization.
  • It requires client software that is expensive, high-maintenance and complicated.
  • It places the implementation and maintenance burden on the IT department.

Web-based tools, on the other hand, only require that project team members know how to use a Web browser. That means workers in remote locations and outside an organization can easily participate in projects and have control over the creation and management of the virtual project space.

"It's true 'anywhere, anytime' collaboration," said Matt Cain, vice president of Web and Collaboration Strategies at META Group Inc., an IT research company based in Stamford, Conn. "All users have to be able to do is connect to the Web."

In addition, Web-based collaboration software, which is quickly increasing in functionality and scalability, adds a new dimension to teamwork. Now project groups can move beyond store-and-forward tools, such as e-mail, threaded discussions and document attachments, to such real-time features as audio and videoconferencing, application and data sharing, and live chats.

"These static and real-time capabilities are really beginning to merge so that what we're building is not just teamware or project collaboration capabilities, but a new digital workplace where people in extended enterprise-type environments can actually get their work done," said Francois Gos-sieaux, vice president and chief marketing officer for eRoom Technology.

The company's latest release gives project members an online work space and tools that include a Web-based database of project processes, a team calendar and instant alerts to project changes and activity.

Such real-time capabilities are catching the attention of agencies with time-sensitive communication needs. The Navy, for example, has implemented Lotus Sametime, an out-of-the-box, Web-based collaboration tool.

Sametime, like Lotus Notes, works with the Domino server, a technology widely used in the Navy. The new system allows people on different ships to communicate and collaborate. It currently has 5,000 users, which could grow to 50,000 users by 2002.

Lt. Cmdr. Michael Houston, Collaboration at Sea project manager for the Navy Network Centric Innovation Center in San Diego, said that Sametime not only supplements and builds on radio communications, but also fills a gap in collaborative capability. End users can now find subject matter experts, chat in real time and work together on documents and applications.

"This is not your America Online Instant Messenger type of thing where one buddy talks to another about how things are going," Houston said. "It is, in fact, integrated directly into our daily operations and has been a real leap forward for us in our ability to communicate with each other." Houston said he is talking to officials working on the Navy Marine Corps Intranet about using Web-based collaboration tools.

But agencies considering using these products face a number of confusing choices. Cain said some of the tools that offer the richest functionality still require client software. And many Web-based collaboration vendors offer their products almost exclusively through an application service provider model.

Indeed, many argue that the new category of products actually lends itself to renting rather than buying. "Organizations face less complexity, see a faster time to benefit and a lower total cost if you do a true [total cost of ownership] analysis," said Mike Kilgore, vice president of sales and marketing for OmniSpace Technologies Inc., an application service provider that offers Web-collaboration solutions.

The FAA's Simmons suggests that agencies resist the urge to rush into this new market. "It's still a cutting-edge concept, and many agencies that I've talked to don't really know what their true requirements are as yet," he said. "So my advice would be to purchase a product on a very small scale to get an idea of what's possible and to help you start defining what you really want."

Hayes is a freelance writer based in Stuarts Draft, Va. She can be reached at hbhayes@cfw.com.

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