State Department tests online collaboration

Forget the diplomatic pouch. Forget about the hassle of traveling to distant locations for a conference.

If you are a State Department employee, your life is about to become simpler with a product called InfoWorkSpace, which is being tested as part of a pilot project this spring before a full rollout later in the fall.

A Web-based collaboration tool, InfoWorkSpace enables workers worldwide to conduct conferences and work on projects without leaving their desks. They can have a private or group conversation, use instant messaging, make a Microsoft Corp. PowerPoint presentation and even draw on whiteboards with a mouse rather than a marker.

"It is designed to be a workplace you go to every day," said Randy Brooks, vice president of government systems for Burlington, Mass.-based Ezenia Inc., which markets InfoWorkSpace.

In fact, think of the product as an office building with floors, conference rooms, cubicles, lockable filing cabinets and even a water cooler where employees gather to chat. Then imagine a computer screen where you can click to the right location and communicate via the Web.

"Anything you can do in a real room, you can do in our room," Brooks said. And the product's versatility extends to the operation in Afghanistan and to war exercises conducted by the military.

State will roll out 45,000 desktops worldwide. It will save the cost of bringing together experts in one location. It will prevent duplication of efforts and ideas because the system operates around-the-clock, and staff in one location will not be hamstrung by the time difference in another, Brooks said. It will end worldwide telephone tag. And on the diplomatic road in the Middle East, Secretary of State Colin Powell will be able to use it to communicate back to his office in the nation's capital.

InfoWorkSpace is already being used by the military and is on the ground in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom. The U.S. Army's XVIII Airborne Corps just completed its "warfighter" exercises using InfoWorkSpace to command and control all its assets in a combat scenario. And the Defense Intelligence Agency is using it to change the way intelligence is collected, analyzed, produced and disseminated.

"It replaces a conference call [and] it's better than video teleconferencing," said George Harris Sr., chief of the Office for Virtual Services at DIA. "We are exchanging ideas and asking for information that normally would take days and weeks. We can get it instantly."

Once a week, Harris holds a virtual staff meeting using InfoWorkSpace, and staffers participate from their desks at locations such as the Pentagon and Bolling Air Force Base in nearby Washington, D.C., without having to buck area traffic jams to get to a meeting. "It saves a tremendous amount of steps," Harris said.

This summer, the U.S. Joint Forces Command plans to use InfoWorkSpace during its military exercises to provide virtual team facilities, conferencing and instant messaging to thousands of desktop participants.

Change is Coming

The program, now being tested in pilot projects in Mexico and India, is part of State's Overseas Presence Interagency Collaboration System, a knowledge management system being built by Accenture, the prime contractor.

The project will take advantage of existing information scattered in various databases but not tied together in a single network. Linking those databases, for example, would offer embassy officials a wealth of information when doing a background check for a visa.

And with InfoWorkSpace, embassy officials will be able to take their background checks even further by contacting other State personnel in virtual time, seeking information and data about a visa application without leaving their chairs or worrying about security.

"There are many collaborative tools on the market. InfoWorkSpace is probably the most integrated package available. It's got just about everything that federal-sector people are looking for," said Buzz Kleemann, chief operating officer of Alpha-Omega Change Engineering LLC, a reseller that handles InfoWorkSpace.

Robert Mahowald, senior research analyst at IDC, said InfoWorkSpace is a good tool for people organized in work teams. "Real-time collaboration makes it a very strong product," he said.

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'Info' info

Ezenia Inc.'s InfoWorkSpace Version 2.5 applications include:

* Voice-over-IP audio and Web video.

* Text chat, both public and private.

* Bulletin board and discussion groups.

* Virtual file cabinets and searchable object storage.

* Collaborative whiteboard and text tools.

* Scheduling capabilities, including browser calendar and Microsoft Corp. Outlook integration.

* Application casting.

* Online administration, with delegated capability to room leaders.

* User contact and user profiles.

Source: Ezenia Inc.

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