Collaboration Software Gets 'Portalized'

By David Haskin

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Several years ago, collaboration software was a technology flavor of the month and analysts predicted widespread adoption. Ironically, while that adoption never occurred, collaborative software is becoming a staple in many enterprises.

"It certainly didn't become ubiquitous on its own," acknowledged Lance Shaw, a product manager for Documentum, Inc., which recently acquired eRoom collaboration software.

However, enterprise portal vendors are now building collaborative software into their products, which is increasing its adoption. That was the case for Sharp Microelectronics of the Americas.

"There are tons of applications for the collaboration software," said Bruce Elgort, manager of MIS-Strategic Business Operations. Pockets of employees used collaboration software several years ago, but now that it is part of his company's Web portal, it is spreading rapidly, he said.

"You can give it to, say, marketing people as a tool where they can make the right information easy to gather, manage and disseminate. They can do that quickly and not involve our Web team or any programmers."

In other words, rather than fading into obscurity, collaboration software is becoming an IT manager's dream. It is included with software the enterprise deploys anyway, it improves productivity and it requires relatively little effort on the part of the IT shops.

Evolving Software

For a relatively new category, collaboration software has evolved rapidly. In initially, it provided discreet virtual workspaces in which workgroups could efficiently exchange and co-create files, share other information and hold threaded discussions.

Document management, and specifically the ability to track multiple versions of documents, has always been at the core of collaboration software. Even in the beginning, that made it attractive to groups creating large documents such as technical specifications, user manuals or software applications. Initially, the software was server-based, but it some vendors also offered it as a hosted solution, which expanded its utility.

"That way, an advertising agency could interact with clients," said Simon Hayward, a Gartner Fellow for Gartner, Inc. "Or at IT-oriented companies, consultants and clients could work together."

Next, vendors added real-time capabilities.

"Instant messaging and chat became the 'in' thing," Hayward said. "Plus, other real-time stuff took off like Web conferencing, like WebEx." As a result, collaboration vendors started adding the real-time applications to their products, he noted.

While the software was becoming more useful to more types of workgroups, it remained a niche category. "Everybody accepted collaboration software it as desirable, but it wasn't something that enterprises would put money on the table for," Hayward said.

Now At a Portal Near You

That lack of success led portal vendors to incorporate collaboration software into their wares. IBM, for instance, added the Lotus Quickplace collaboration application into the WebSphere portal. A number of other portal vendors followed suit.

Adding collaboration to portals not only makes it widely available within enterprises but it also enhances the use of portals.

"It makes sense to put collaboration in the portal," said Gartner's Hayward. "Adding content and document management and collaboration support makes the portal a destination as far as end users are concerned. Plus, it makes it easier to get to back-end data to those applications."

It also lessens the load on IT shops, Hayward said.

"Companies were finding themselves doing three projects: portals, content management and collaboration," Hayward said. "What I'm seeing is that, more and more, (IT) people are saying, why should I do three projects? Why not just do one?"

Sharp Microelectronics' Elgort agreed, noting that that, now that collaboration is part of the portal, it's easier for his shop to manage.

"We have all these discreet little islands of collaboration, but with a single sign-on mechanism," he said. "The portal allows us to take the pieces we already have and use them together. From a management perspective, everybody goes to the same front door" Specifically, collaboration and enterprise-level instant messaging, which his company also uses, share the same LDAP directory as the portal.

"Some companies have dozens of directories," Elgort said. "Portals allow you to start aggregating all those directories. It's much, much easier now than when the collaboration software was a standalone application."

For end users, the directory consolidation makes it easier to use various applications together. For instance, a user can easily see who in his or her collaboration team is available for an instant messaging session.

Plus, Elgort said his company can now phase out both its extranet and intranet. "They're being portalized," he said.

The Future

Another potential benefit of integrating collaboration software into a portal is the relative simplicity of delivering back-end data to collaborators. That means, for instance, that a widely dispersed sales team can easily work with customer relationship management data in real time.

However, by all accounts, that level of integration isn't happening widely yet.

"We don't access back end data yet (in the collaboration application)," Elgort acknowledged. "But it's good to know we could if we wanted to."

Another area in which collaboration software could evolve is toward tighter links to project management software. So far, collaboration software has only rudimentary project management capabilities, such as the ability to keep a group calendar.

"We're seeing demand for bringing together project management capabilities to track tasks, milestones and dependencies," noted Documentum's Shaw.

And, of course, the tendency to integrate collaboration software dovetails with other IT trends. "Customers expect to go to fewer vendors to get more product," Shaw said.

While there are few return-on-investment studies for collaboration software, the benefits are obvious, which also should encourage its continuing adoption.

"I'm sure there's positive ROI," Sharp's Elgort said, acknowledging his company hasn't run a formal study. "We can close deals quicker because we've made the process fluid in terms of getting answers to questions. That's what's important."

The increasing ubiquity also means that use of collaboration software can spread virally, as vendors initially envisioned.

"What we've found with collaboration is that, when one application is successful, it proliferates throughout a company," Shaw said.