Working on the Web

Web-based collaboration conjures up images of productive workers in mangers' minds. They imagine teams pulling together to get a project done right, on time and on budget. They visualize workers from different departments, even different agencies, seamlessly sharing information and exchanging ideas. They can even see the collaboration extending to outside entities such as private contractors and consultants who partner with the agency's own people. Sounds great, right?

Certainly the tools for Web collaboration are readily available. "The emergence of the Web has made it much easier for people to share information," said Carol Baroudi, principal of Baroudi Bloor, a research firm.

Online portals, shared online workspaces, e-mail, instant messaging, bulletin boards, discussion threads and groupware are available to facilitate Web-based collaboration using nothing more complicated than a standard Web browser.

Yet Web collaboration continues to present serious obstacles. Making those happy images a reality even after an agency has acquired and implemented the technology is a challenge, making it difficult, if not impossible, to get the desired payback.

"You can implement all the technology you want, but you can't make people collaborate," said Judith Hurwitz, president of Hurwitz and Associates, an IT research firm. If your people won't participate or participate only grudgingly, the payback will be slow to arrive, if ever.

The obstacles to achieving the desired results from Web collaboration are as centered on people issues, such as sharing, adoption and training, as they are on technical ones, such as scalability and security. Fortunately, agency officials have now had enough experience with collaboration for proven best practices to emerge, lessons that can help others overcome obstacles and avoid major pitfalls.

Sharing culture

"Is your agency a sharing culture?" That's one of the first questions Baroudi asks when she initiates a Web collaboration planning session with a client. If it is not already a sharing culture — an environment where people feel free to share information and appreciate the benefits of sharing information — then officials should wait to deploy collaboration tools after they build the right culture. Without a willingness to share, you won't achieve any meaningful collaboration, consultants say.

The first step to creating a sharing environment is "to build the case for sharing information by showing how sharing improves your processes," said Randy Gravlin, president and chief executive officer of Business Innovation Inc., an IT services firm. He often recommends that administrators at small-scale workshops build consensus around collaboration before deploying any technology.

A team from business software developer Appian Corp. addressed the culture issue immediately when company officials started to deploy the Army Knowledge Online (AKO) portal.

"We had to set up rules of behavior, rules about what's appropriate," said Michael Beckley, Appian's co-founder and vice president of product strategy. "Then we had to police usage." If someone was misbehaving online, usually a phone call reminding him or her of proper etiquette was sufficient.

In any large organization, however, some users refuse to share. "A lot of people lurk in the background," Beckley said.

Closely related to the issue of creating a sharing culture is the problem of resistance to adoption. This comes down to the resistance to change. A collaboration system dramatically changes the way workers do their jobs, so resistance shouldn't be surprising.

The solution involves a combination of carrots and sticks, leadership by example, and involving users in project development early by soliciting their input. For example, the AKO team encouraged leaders to begin posting material on the portal. Once people know they will get something in return, they are more motivated to participate.

When officials at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) built the agency's collaboration portal, they assumed they would encounter resistance.

"We take a bottoms-up and top-down approach to resistance," said Michele Weslander, deputy technology executive at NGA. "From the bottom up, we sent out people who act as facilitators and pitch the benefits within the different operations groups."

The top-down approach focuses on the serious resisters. "We have our director put pressure on them," she said. "He has made it clear that collaboration is a primary goal."

Training day

One of the attractions of Web-based collaboration is the browser interface. Today, nearly everybody knows how to use a browser and navigate a Web page. But you still need to train users if you want to ensure rapid adoption and widespread usage.

Jon Conwell, IT project manager for the Huntington District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in West Virginia, said the organization's collaboration tool from Groove Networks Inc. is easy to use.

But even with a simple collaboration tool, "we would spend about an hour setting up a user and walking [him or her] through the system," he said. If and when corps managers decide to increase the deployment to a large group, however, "we would have to consider some kind of more formal training," Conwell said.

When you get really big, like the AKO portal, "you can never do enough training," said Col. Timothy Fong, director of the Army's chief technology office. Officials built as much self-help and online training into the Web portal as possible. Additionally, specially trained people were assigned to units using AKO to provide help. With a continually changing population of users and new functionality regularly added, training must be ongoing.

Technical issues

In addition to the people challenges, Web collaboration poses some significant technical ones. Given the Web's ubiquitous, global nature, scalability is the foremost technical challenge to every government agency.

"The first mistake people make is to not think about the size," Beckley said. AKO encompasses 1.7 million users, 800,000 virtual workspaces for collaboration and 70 terabytes of storage. It must serve users coming from widely different networks running myriad operating systems and platforms. From Day One, Beckley's team built the portal on top of an infrastructure including EMC Corp. storage and an application server framework running Java 2 Platform, Enterprise Edition that could scale to whatever size was required.

Even for smaller organizations, scalability is an issue. Officials in Canton, Ga., deployed Oracle Corp.'s collaboration suite when they embarked on their initial collaboration effort.

"When sizing the system at the start, we looked five years down the road," said Bryan Tidd, the city's director of technology. "We wanted something that had enterprise features and clustering options." Although the system currently serves about 80 users, Tidd expects that number to grow to 1,000. And as one of the fastest growing counties in the country, he said he foresees the city's population quadrupling in size within a decade. That calls for scalability.

Security has become central to every system, but even more so with collaboration, where the goal is widespread information sharing. The primary security mechanisms are central directory-based access controls built around user authentication and authorization, encryption, and change control. Additionally, agencies must still deploy conventional firewalls and intrusion-detection systems.

For security, officials at Pennsylvania's Department of Transportation set up five collaboration environments to separate the widely deployed production environment from the development, testing, upgrade and training environments. They also classify and group users based on their roles in a central directory of 6,500 registered users and almost 3,000 registered external business partners, said Douglas Tobin, chief of the Engineering Computing Management Division at the department's Bureau of Design. It also uses capabilities like electronic signatures.

Other agencies follow similar approaches. AKO officials classify users into groups and assign access levels to each group. State Department officials use Groove products to ensure secure collaboration on sensitive Iraq transition initiatives even when connecting via the Internet.

"Groove gives us the security we need, protecting the information over the Internet and on the desktop," said Glen Johnson, director of Iraq Transition Management at the State Department. The company, also used by the Army Corps of Engineers, sets up a secure peer-to-peer tunnel through which you can create secure virtual workspaces and control who is invited to join, Conwell said.

Beyond the obstacles described above, officials must wrestle with communication, change management, ongoing maintenance and enhancements. You must proactively manage a Web collaboration environment if it is to continue to deliver the desired benefits.

Ultimately the goal "is to institutionalize [the collaboration environment] to the entire organization," said AKO's Fong. At that point, you have truly established the foundation for a collaborative, information-sharing culture.

Radding is a freelance journalist based in Newton, Mass. He can be reached at alan@radding.net.

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Web collaboration best practices

Design the system from the start to scale big.

Implement features incrementally; don't do everything at once.

Solicit input from users early in the process.

Evangelize use of the system.

Enlist top managers both as champions and highly visible users of the system.

Make it intuitively simple to use, but plan for training.

Pay attention to security.

Cultivate a sharing culture before deployment.

Thinking big

When Web collaboration works, word quickly spreads and others want to participate. Scalability entails more processing power, network bandwidth and storage. To prepare for this change, you will want to:

* Create a scalable architecture including storage-area networks, high-speed network links and multiprocessor servers that can operate alone or in multiserver clusters.

* Build on open, standards-based, platform-independent technologies.

* Use a centralized, standards-compliant directory for rules- and role-based access control, user profiles, authentication, and authorization.

* Provide high-speed links and broadband connections to servers and clients.

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