Integrated Collaboration: Ideal or Reality?

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Integrated collaboration: ideal or reality?



As “collaboration” increasingly becomes a necessary buzzword in every vendor offering, MWD analyst Angela Ashenden looks at the market for collaboration software, and highlights the key issues for organizations looking to implement a collaborative working environment.

Why is collaboration such a hot topic for business?

The need for a collaborative working environment

During the difficult economic conditions in the first half of this decade, many businesses were forced to put all of their effort into streamlining their businesses, finding ways to reduce costs, and to limit their exposure to the economic downturn. However, over the last couple of years, there has been a marked change in organizations’ perspective: while the tight budgets and limited headcounts remain, the focus has shifted towards driving innovation, flexibility and business development, with the goal of strengthening and rejuvenating their businesses. Harnessing the expertise and capabilities of their people by enabling more effective collaboration is seen as a key enabler to achieving this goal.

What does collaboration mean in a business setting?

Collaboration is the act of people working together to achieve a common goal, with shared responsibility, and where all benefit.

In an organizational setting, implementing collaboration is as much about changing ways of working and organizational structures as it is about implementing technology. A technology rollout is only a small part of a collaboration implementation; there are many non-technical issues that demand a far greater investment.

For collaboration to work effectively, traditional hierarchical organizational structures – where managers are relied upon to make all the decisions – must be displaced in order to enable people to take responsibility for their own contribution as part of a team. Collaboration is all about leveraging people’s skills, experience and knowledge, and therefore direct communication across the organization is a vital component.

However, even once these organizational changes are in place, there are many other non-technical issues that could hinder your implementation of a collaborative working environment. Ensuring adoption of the new working practices, identifying how best to govern the use of collaborative techniques and technologies, and understanding how to identify and measure the value generated by collaboration, all require significant consideration.

The role of technology in collaboration

Technology as an enabler

Collaboration is not just about deploying technology, but technology can play a vital role in helping an organization to implement a collaborative working environment. The globalised nature of today’s organizations means that it is rarely possible for a team to be located together in the same room – or even the same geography – and therefore effective collaboration requires the assistance of technology. Current and emerging technologies provide mechanisms to support collaboration, facilitating communication, knowledge sharing, task management, and locating people and resources, for example.

Technology can also play an important role in managing an organization’s information-related risks by ensuring that business information, whether created within or accessible by the collaboration software solution, is secure; that the appropriate access controls are in place; and that only authorised participants are allowed to collaborate. This is particularly important where the collaborative process involves parties working across corporate boundaries, for example, collaboration between business partners, between suppliers and customers, or between government departments and citizens.

While collaborative processes tend to be unstructured in nature, they may be subject to governmental, industry and organizational regulations in just the same way that structured processes are. A key benefit of employing technology to support such collaborative processes is that nothing need be transient; records of activity can be stored and managed, and logged for auditing and reporting purposes in line with corporate governance and compliance policies.

A catalogue of technologies

There are many different technology functions that may be classified as “collaboration software”, as shown in Figure 1 below. Some of these components, described as “Collaborative services”, actively facilitate groups of individuals working together, while others provide vital support capabilities to enable the delivery of a complete collaboration technology solution – we describe these as “Non-collaborative services”. Within Collaborative services, there are two further types of function: communications-centric services, which are messaging and conferencing tools that rely on a communications network, and resource-centric services, which includes tools that support multiple contributors to a resource which is published in a shared environment.

An organization’s collaboration investment need not include all of the components in the diagram, but they should all be considered in the context of a long term strategy. It’s also worth noting that that no one vendor can currently deliver all of them.

Figure 1: MWD collaboration software model

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The collaboration software model combines a broad collection of often independent components; the value comes from the degree of integration between the components and with other systems and software. Source: Ideals and reality: understanding the context for your enterprise collaboration strategy

Integration is the most important consideration

An enterprise-wide collaboration strategy may require a broad range of collaboration-specific and non-collaborative capabilities, and so integration is key. An effective collaboration software solution must support individuals’ working practices, leveraging the organizations’ existing resources while enabling the individual to carry out each task without forcing them to constantly switch between a mass of tools and applications. Tight integration between each of the collaborative software components, as well as the existing applications within the organization, should ensure that individuals are unaware that a particular function belongs to a particular tool; it should simply be available as required. As an example, if a person is reviewing a document in a content management application and needs to discuss an issue with the author(s), they should be able to initiate an instant messaging (IM) chat, or an audio or web conference, and the authors should automatically be notified of the context of the discussion, all without the reviewer leaving the content management application. Similarly, if an individual receives an email relating to a project they are working on, they should be able to share this with colleagues in the team workspace without leaving the email application. Line of business applications should be integrated with the collaboration solution in the same way: for example a sales representative should be able to access collaborative resources relating to a particular customer directly from within their CRM application.

From an implementation perspective, most organizations will already have some collaboration components in place, such as email, IM, content management and enterprise search. While there may be an opportunity to replace some of these components, the majority are likely to have been significant investments for the organization which it is not ready to throw away. As a result, any new collaboration software needs to plug into such components, substituting its own equivalent capabilities with those of the existing software, in order to ensure that there is no duplication of capabilities, or worse, the creation of another silo of information.

A fragmented, confused market

Platforms versus mini-suites

The market for collaboration software is extremely broad and diverse, with many different software vendors offering as many different collections of components, all referred to as collaboration. At one end of the spectrum, there are a number of independent players offering best-of-breed products (SixApart, Socialtext, Traction Software), while at the other end are the software giants (IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP) with their ever-growing suites of components. In the middle, however, there are several groups of vendors offering “mini” suites; collections of components which often largely come from one particular group in the model outlined above: communications-centric collaborative services or resource-centric collaborative services. For example, telecoms software vendors such as Avaya, Cisco and Nortel offer communications-centric collaboration suites focused around web conferencing, IP telephony and messaging, and vendors from the enterprise content management (ECM) arena offer collaborative software which leverages their content management capabilities, typically focused around team workspaces.

Neither of these approaches is better than the other: the suite approach offers the benefit of reducing the number of vendors the organization has to deal with; a best-of-breed or mini-suite approach offers greater flexibility and less dependency on a single supplier. However, it is the ease with which these different offerings can be implemented together and integrated to deliver a seamless experience which should influence your final selection.

Integration and standards immaturity

Not surprisingly, collaboration software suites tend to offer greater degrees of integration across the collaboration components themselves, although this is not necessarily the case when it comes to supporting integration with third party collaboration tools. Integration with business applications is often possible, with some additional effort, through the use of software development kits, but the ability to seamlessly swap out one component of the suite for a third party alternative is less well supported. In some cases this can be done, but often at the expense of important, integrated services, for example presence, that should be exploited across the suite components.

The greatest obstacle to implementing a seamless collaborative environment is the limited availability, maturity and use of standards to support the integration, interoperability, and sharing of data between the various services. The breadth of technology components in the collaboration model heightens this barrier since it requires far greater interoperability and integration flexibility and thus an equally broad range of standards.

Some technology areas, particularly those which more readily stand alone, or which have attracted higher levels of adoption, are already supported by standards, with others under development. Due to its maturity and broad adoption, email technologies are most advanced when it comes to support of standards for interoperability and data exchange. There is largely an absence of integration standards for the touch points between the major categories of collaborative capabilities within the model in Figure 1, for example between communications-centric and resource-centric collaborative services, and this may go some way to explaining why mini-suites tend to be concentrated within the groupings of services outlined in the model above.

The net result of this lack of standards is that integration of services can require you to carry out significant amounts of custom coding, even where open protocols and API’s are used. Where they are not, the collaboration software simply introduces a new collection of stovepipes.

What does this mean for you?

You need technology to implement collaboration in today’s distributed business environment, but simply implementing collaboration technology will not guarantee successful collaborative working practices. There are many non-technical factors – such as creating new organizational structures, ensuring adoption, and governing collaboration activities – that must be taken into consideration as part of any collaboration strategy.

The collaboration software market is made up of many vendors offering products of various breadth and focus, all under the “collaboration” banner. Despite – and perhaps because of – the fragmented nature of the market, integration is inadequately addressed by the vendor community, and there remains a stark lack of standards to help customers identify open solutions that will integrate into their existing IT environment. With this in mind, features and functionality should be just one part of your software requirements; you should also look for vendors with published APIs and formalised partner strategies, and those which can demonstrate manageable integration within existing client sites.

About the Author

Angela Ashenden is a Principal Analyst at Macehiter Ward-Dutton, a specialist IT advisory firm which focuses exclusively on issues concerning IT-business alignment – including IT architecture, integration, management, organisation and culture. Angela is a highly accomplished and experienced IT industry analyst and public speaker. With experience in many areas around collaboration and information management, she has advised clients on technology and management issues relating to collaboration, enterprise content management, portals, workflow, enterprise search and e-learning. Angela regularly presents at conferences and seminars on information management technology and markets, as well as writing for journals and trade publications on various topics.

More by Angela Ashenden

About Macehiter Ward-Dutton

Macehiter Ward-Dutton is a specialist IT advisory firm which combines industry research and analysis with tailored consulting services, and is focused exclusively on issues surrounding IT-business alignment.

The company was formed in February 2005 by two top-level analysts formerly of Ovum: Neil Ward-Dutton and Neil Macehiter.