Integrated Collaboration: Ideal or Reality?
By Angela Ashenden, Principal Analyst, Macehiter Ward-Dutton
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Integrated collaboration: ideal or reality?
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.