An evolving Web-based work space

For better or worse, e-mail has quietly wormed its way into our daily work lives, becoming the primary tool we use to correspond, share ideas, set up meetings, confirm agreements and exchange documents.

The trouble is that e-mail, though convenient and nearly ubiquitous, is hardly the best application for the many uses to which it's put.

Among its ills: It's a lousy filing system for individuals and even worse for groups; it provides little help making sure that everybody works from the same versions of documents; and it's poorly designed, architecturally speaking, to handle such work, because it chokes networks and clogs up storage resources with countless redundant files.

Now, a growing number of agencies are discovering an alternative in Web-based team collaboration software that was designed in large part to address e-mail's shortcomings.

Although some agencies such as the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Justice Statistics are now putting collaboration software through its paces on smaller projects, others such as the Federal Aviation Administration's Air Traffic Services (ATS) are using it as the backbone for their entire operations, cutting administrative and travel costs and increasing productivity so that projects are completed faster.

A big reason the software is taking off now is that it caters to the regular work routines of its users rather than forcing them to change their work habits. For example, instant messaging and online chat features allow users to communicate spontaneously in real time as project problems arise — the online equivalent of throwing an impromptu meeting.

Like a greatest hits collection of music, products such as eRoom Technology Inc.'s eRoom, Open Text Corp.'s Livelink and SiteScape Inc.'s Enterprise Forum, among others, combine several useful tools in one package.

Among the features offered are document management, project workflow, team scheduling and on-screen shared application work spaces, called whiteboards. The more robust feature set has helped broaden the potential customer base for the software.

"There's a huge opportunity to use team collaborative applications in the government and commercial worlds," said Mark Levitt, research vice president for collaborative computing at IDC, "though what we've seen to date are mostly pockets of users or, in some limited cases, full enterprisewide rollouts."

Managing Performance

Although it is still in the initial stages of its deployment of collaborative software, the FAA's ATS, which builds and maintains air traffic control systems and facilities, plans to roll out the software enterprisewide to all 37,000 ATS employees, according to Rick Ford, chief information officer for ATS in Washington, D.C.

The system is supporting an initiative to transform ATS into what will be called the Air Traffic Organization, an entity created on paper by President Clinton in December 2000 but not yet officially in existence.

ATO will be a performance-based organization, which means that it is supposed to operate more like a private business than a traditional government bureaucracy, with tough performance and accountability standards and monetary incentives for senior executives if they help the organization reach its goals. The designation also implies using technology to help carry out that mission.

That being the case, the builders of ATO put at the top of their shopping list Web-based software that could provide a single platform for team collaboration and project management — primary activities of ATS engineers. With the help of systems integrator Titan Systems Corp., ATS officials selected Open Text's Livelink collaboration software in April 2001 and got the first users on the system just six months later.

ATS employees use only a Web browser and a connection to the office's wide-area network to access the system, called pb-ICE, short for performance-based integrated collaborative environment. Secure Web pages serve as the access points to different projects and all of the system's tools. From there users can:

n Set up and manage projects and use a graphical-based workflow tool to assign tasks to team members, outline the desired process and track progress.

n Exchange, index, store and retrieve project files, while maintaining the information's integrity through file version control features.

n Schedule meetings and notify team members when new information is posted.

n Collaborate from any of ATS' locations via bulletin board-style discussion groups, real-time messaging and whiteboards.

The Web-based architecture enables users to participate in a project without needing specialized software.

"For example, in [ATS], there's a need to have access to facility-level engineering drawings that are produced in CAD/CAM systems," said Allan VanDeventer, vice president of Titan Secure Solutions, a division of Titan Systems. "Those drawings can be rendered in HTML and visible through this tool without having the CAD/CAM software on the desktop."

In the nine months that pb-ICE has been used by about 600 employees, the system is already delivering anticipated benefits, such as less travel and fewer time-consuming meetings, as well as a significant reduction in staff work because project-related information is better organized and far more accessible, Ford said. By providing one place to store all related information and schedules, projects are running more smoothly than before.

"There's much more clarity in who is responsible for what in a given project," Ford said. "Task assignments are clearly understood, so there's not that confusion and murkiness that you often see in project management."

Prices for collaborative software can range from a few thousand dollars up to several hundred thousand dollars for big installations, though they have come down considerably in the past few years, IDC's Levitt said.

ATS spent about $8 million to develop pb-ICE. As part of an outsourcing contract, Titan Systems hosts and maintains all the software, then charges ATS $1,150 per user per year to access the system, a price that will go down as more users are added, Ford said.

Besides the collaborative software, that price also includes several other vendors' software packages, which are tightly integrated and assist with planning programs and tracking financial and team performance measurements, all of which are crucial to ATS' mission to become a performance-based organization.

An Evolving Discussion

The Bureau of Justice Statistics uses team collaboration software in a less encompassing, but no less important, way. Approximately 14 bureau employees are using SiteScape's Enterprise Forum software as they develop a survey that will ask 36,000 businesses nationwide about incidences of computer-related crimes.

Although the collaboration software could easily connect team members in far-flung offices using a secure Internet connection, the primary benefit of the tool for the bureau's Washington, D.C.-based team is the centralized online work space, said Marshall DeBerry, acting chief of the crime measurement and methodologies section at the bureau.

"We use the system to initiate discussion topics and post material for the team to review," DeBerry said. "With the archival features like document storage and the ability to record threaded group discussions, we can also see how a particular topic evolved, which has been very helpful."

DeBerry's office shares the cost and use of the $10,000, 200-user SiteScape license with the Census Bureau, which also uses the software to manage various projects.

Indeed, although the recent addition of integrated, real-time communications features enhances team collaboration products, the whole suite of project management tools is really what makes them valuable.

"It's more than just collaboration for collaboration's sake," VanDeventer said. "It's a toolset with a lot of depth that comes with a recipe for how to do business in a different way. Government used to do a lot of work on paper, then e-mail came along and replaced a lot of that. These tools take it to another level."

***

Case Study: A tactical advantage

Reflecting an industry trend toward greater customization of Web-based team collaboration software, SiteScape Inc. introduced a new version of a product last week tailored for use by Defense Department program management offices.

The Tactical Calendaring, Action-Item and Meeting Management (TCAMM) system was developed with input from the Navy's Tactical Information Technology Integration Program Office (TacIT IPO).

Military program managers can use TCAMM to create a central Web page that serves as a sort of home page of their program's activities. From there they can assign tasks, schedule meetings, track the status of projects and provide a single place where team members can go to access all project-related information such as action items, agendas, presentations and meeting minutes.

"There's a long-term benefit in having all that information in one place," said Peter Gaston, vice president of government solutions at SiteScape. "For example, TCAMM provides what's called the 'decision history,' a record of why things were done a certain way, which can then be used in future projects."

To meet the government's special security requirements, TCAMM supports FIPS 140-1 and X.509 digital certificates. "We designed this solution to leverage DOD public-key infrastructure, which provides higher security and eliminates the need for passwords," said Phillip Butch, program manager, TacIT IPO. Currently, there are more than 1,000 TCAMM users in the Navy.

Besides customizing applications for specific industry uses, collaboration software vendors are creating solutions that support business processes, such as resume tracking and computer help-desk management.

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