META Report: Value-Based Collaboration Strategies

By CIO Update Staff

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Situation Analysis: Economic pressures and world events have increased business interest in alternative methods for conducting meetings and other types of face-to-face collaboration. Interest in electronic collaboration tools has been fueled by cost-reduction pressures, more restrictive travel policies, the need to reduce business process cycle times, and a desire to define wider options for employee travel.

This trend has been accelerated by the recent terrorist attacks, which have discouraged business travel and created immediate needs - such as meetings for employees impacted by facility closings and flight cancellations. However, the increased interest in electronic collaboration is an ongoing business trend, not a one-time event.


A year ago, many companies were actively considering electronic alternatives to face-to-face meetings. During 2001, many large enterprises have begun to use some collaborative tools (e.g., instant messaging) as a matter of corporate policy and are developing comprehensive plans for implementing other collaborative and e-meeting technologies. In 2002 and for several years thereafter, companies will continue to implement and upgrade collaborative technologies to improve process cycle times, enhance user/team productivity, and cut back on business travel.

During the next three years, we expect Web conferencing to become a standard desktop offering for Global 2000 knowledge workers, driven by greater demand for synchronous collaboration capabilities. Most large companies will exploit a combination of hosted and on-premises Web conferencing services and products.

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Demand for teamware platforms is already booming, driven by recognition of the value of project/workgroup-specific contextual collaboration. This market segment will undergo rapid change during the next several years (for example, integration of teamware with enterprise portals), making collaborative architectures and vendor selection a challenging proposition.

Near term, humble instant messaging (IM) will play a major role. Its value in replacing more expensive voice calls and maintaining contact among employees and with supply chain partners in remote locations is well established. The challenge for IT groups is to wean users from uncontrolled use of public IM systems and move them to enterprise-sponsored/managed infrastructures. We expect IM to eventually become embedded in applications and computer operating systems and develop into a far richer collaboration platform.

To derive maximum value from electronic collaboration technologies, we advise organizations to develop a long-term strategy for using these technologies. Such a strategy should be based on maximizing productivity gains and cost savings from reducing business travel and promoting permanent changes in business processes and employee behaviors.

However, companies must recognize that face-to-face meetings will always be essential for community building and relationships, particularly with clients and partners, and will never be completely replaced. Although many routine administrative tasks can be accomplished electronically, it is difficult to forge new relationships via electronic collaboration and virtual meetings. Rather than replace all face-to-face meetings, collaboration technologies will provide additional interaction mechanisms that enrich existing distance-communication technologies, such as the phone, and may selectively replace a subset of current in-person interactions.

On the other hand, virtual meetings have advantages that will encourage their use in many situations. For instance, they can be recorded and distributed worldwide, enabling many customers or individuals throughout a global organization to hear or view the recording and send their own comments and questions via e-mail.

An effective long-term collaborative strategy will encompass numerous options, including some business travel; simple chat and IM; audioconferencing, both by itself and combined with data-sharing techniques to deliver presentation slides and other related material; one-way canned video that can be delivered to a site during low-network-demand times for training and other purposes; and live, two-way videoconferencing. Each of these options has infrastructure implications, and some - particularly desktop videoconferencing - will not be ready for prime time for a number of years due to bandwidth and other considerations.

As companies move to deploy these collaboration options, they should consider both internal and external hosting options. Although internal hosting is less expensive when collaboration technologies are used extensively, few IT departments currently have the necessary expertise or infrastructure to provide this level of service. Internal hosting options should typically be focused on internal meetings, often involving comparatively few sites that are well established. In these situations, IT groups can make it easy and cost-effective for users to access teleconference facilities provided by companies such as Latitude, and collaboration services such as Lotus Sametime.


In other situations, however, such as a large teleconference or Web event with many participants scattered among 50 or more sites, external hosting is often the easier and more cost-effective alternative. Also, it is sometimes preferable to use outsourcers to provide an external platform for hosting virtual-meeting sessions with trading partners. This is true even for simple IM - it is usually simpler to use a Web-based service, such as Yahoo, for IM rather than trying to establish accounts for such sessions on the corporate network. The key is defining the security and privacy issues related to hosted services. Companies must analyze their needs and develop a balanced model using internal and external hosting.

Some other general rules for virtual meetings include:
- Videoconferences work best with five or fewer people in each room.
- Conferencing works better when most of the traffic is one-way - for example, when someone is making a presentation and looking for feedback - rather than for brainstorming meetings with a great deal of interaction. One reason for this is that most people find it hard to draw on electronic whiteboards using a mouse, so they cannot diagram their ideas.
- Because of the limited bandwidth available, videoconferencing is often used simply for "talking heads," which provides minimal video information. These sessions can often be replaced with audioconferences supplemented with electronic presentation material and, possibly, IM connections to enable participants to pose questions and comments without losing any value.

User Action: To gain the most value from the complex set of collaboration, virtual meeting, and e-learning technologies that are available, organizations should take a systematic approach to prioritizing, selecting, and implementing these offerings. Rather than focusing on a specific product solution, companies should build out a collaborative infrastructure consisting of many products - hosted internally and externally - that address the range of anticipated business needs.

This means examining each business process (for instance, sales automation) to determine where different collaborative technologies can add value - by increasing contact between sales reps and clients or between members of a distributed national/global account team, providing faster response to client needs, increasing employee productivity, or saving travel costs. These advantages must be balanced against the greater value that face-to-face meetings may provide in establishing and maintaining long-term relationships with clients, and in boosting productivity through the social interaction of project teams.

An organization's long-term plan for implementing collaborative technologies should embody a phased approach which recognizes that networks and technologies will improve over time, making technologies such as voice over IP and full videoconferencing (which are currently in their infancy) into practical additions to the collaborative technology mix.

META Group analysts Matt Cain, Elizabeth Sun, Mike Gotta, Herb VanHook, Elizabeth Ussher, William Zachmann, Jerry Murphy, Val Sribar, Jack Gold, Dale Kutnick, and David Cearley contributed to this article.