It's Getting Crowded in Collaboration

By Michael Pastore

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Until just a couple of years ago, the need for solid collaboration tools was obvious and there were few tools on the market that fit the bill. The global economy required people around the world to work together across borders, oceans, and time zones. Business travel was losing its luster before September 2001 because the economy was soft, and traveling in-person to conduct business was neither cheap, flexible, or frankly, very much fun.

Yes, there was a time when e-mail was the collaboration savior. E-mail does provide response flexibility, makes it easy to communicate with multiple people, and it creates a paper trail (for better or worse). It continues to do all of these things very well. But no less an authority than usability guru Jakob Nielsen calls e-mail a "lousy interface for collaboration."

E-mail has indeed lost its luster. In far too many organizations e-mail has become a security nightmare. As far as collaborating on projects, the way e-mail handles attachments is not only inefficient, but it lacks real workflow and version control. Then, of course, there is spam, which has negated almost entirely the convenience of e-mail and made users more likely to miss messages. A Yahoo! Mail survey of nearly 28,000 Internet users revealed that 77 percent found it less aggravating to clean toilets than to wade through the junk messages in their e-mail. Enough said.

The trend in collaboration now is toward workspaces or teamspaces — the names often change, but the idea is the same. They are basically document repositories or file servers where all the content associated with various projects can be saved, discussed, passed around, and approved.

Just this week brought announcements from Open Text and IBM's Lotus that they are introducing new collaboration features for their products.

Open Text, which has been well-known in the content management world for its collaboration features, unveiled expanded collaboration capabilities for its Livelink 9.2 product. They allow customers to design detailed templates for their different types of projects. Customers can assign standard components, content, and structures to Livelink workspaces based on the type of project or team using the workspace. A company can create a workspace template for product launches, for example, and define the structure, content, tasks, deliverables and other materials needed in the workspace.

Open Text also introduced an optional feature called Livelink Companion. With one click, it lets users capture and share information with others, as well as add information to the Livelink repository, by adding a toolbar to the user's Web browser and an application link that sits in the Windows system tray. With Livelink Companion users can send a URL, for example, to colleagues, including a description, comments, and a rating.

Lotus took the wraps off new Lotus Workplace software products that will enable customers to add modular collaborative capabilities to their business applications and corporate portals. IBM Lotus Workplace Messaging 1.1 is a standards-based messaging product that integrates easily with a variety of messaging infrastructures. IBM Lotus Workplace Team Collaboration 1.1 blends synchronous forms of collaboration like instant messaging and Web conferencing with the asynchronous capabilities of team spaces. There's also Lotus Workplace Collaborative Learning, an advanced learning management system that helps streamline the management of an organization's classroom-based and e-learning programs, resources, and course materials.

These are nice features that will likely serve installed customers of both Open Text and Lotus very well. But the most important collaboration news of the past year could not be found in either of these announcements. Nor was it in September's announcement by Vignette that it was acquiring collaboration vendor Intraspect; or Stellent's October announcement that its collaboration module was integrated in its version 7.0; or even Documentum's acquisition of eRoom almost a year ago.

The biggest collaboration news of the year came last month when Microsoft unveiled its new Office Suite. By adding SharePoint Portal Server 2003 to the mix, the new Office lets users organize, aggregate, share, and search information. There's also Microsoft's work with Groove, which extends Office collaboration.

By introducing collaboration tools in their content management offerings, many vendors have been reaching to the desktop, where content is created, edited, discussed, and approved. The desktop is Microsoft's domain. After all, much of the content that is managed by content management applications was created in Office. It's rare you see a demo or screenshot of a content management application that does not show a repository full of Office documents.

That's not to say organizations everywhere are going to ditch whatever collaborative technologies they rely on right now for the new Office. Office will have its own barriers to adoption, not the least of which is that enterprises have been slow to move to Windows XP, which is needed to run the new Office.

The people who go about creating much of the content in the world have never been to keen to jump on many of the features in an application like Microsoft Word, with the conventional wisdom hypothesizing that most people use maybe five percent of the capability. Microsoft World, a word processor, is used most often to do just that — process words. But it can do much more. Given the history, however, there's little reason to believe knowledge workers everywhere will be collaborating their hearts out with the new Office by this time next year.

Content management vendors may have reached a bit far by trying to seize the public's need for efficient collaboration. But if Microsoft doesn't get the world collaborating through Office in a big way, maybe the joke is on all of them.