David Tebbutt, Computing

David Tebbutt takes a look at the growing number of collaboration
technologies, from wikis to IP-based telephony, and considers the common fears
of companies that are attracted to the benefits but worry about a loss of

As the term suggests, collaboration is about people first and foremost. If
they see no value in collaborating, they won’t ­ – and they cannot be forced to
do it.

Just about everyone collaborates up to a point. But it is more likely to be
within teams or communities of practice, rather than across the company, with
external organisations or, heaven forefend, the general public.

Each company has to make its own decisions and these, to a large extent, will
be a reflection of the firm’s culture. A rigid command-and-control mentality is
not conducive to the freewheeling Web 2.0 style of collaboration in which people
of common interest find each other through social media and coalesce into
working relationships and friendships.

To some companies, collaborative behaviour is threatening on many levels.
Freeform Dynamics research suggests security, compliance and user distraction
are the most commonly expressed fears.

At the same time, we know the same companies expect substantial growth in
collaboration, both internally and with customers, partners and suppliers. The
principal expected benefit is increased efficiency, although improvements in
innovation show up strongly too. Just 15 per cent of medium-to-large firms
expect neither benefit to materialise.

Participants, meanwhile, want to sustain existing collaboration through
email, audio and videoconferencing. The latter may be enhanced with screen
sharing and whiteboarding.

A lot of these elements are moving to the desktop, either freestanding or
embedded in other applications. For example, Citrix Online’s
is a dedicated application, while
adds online collaboration to mind mapping. Several applications
embed instant messaging, which for many users is the principal function of
Skype, rather than the free IP-based telephony.

Such applications are largely designed for existing collaborators – ­ and you
could say some wikis fall into the same category. People are invited to
participate in a closed wiki, secure from prying eyes, where they can
collaborate on the page, rather than having to rely on email and personal
version controls.

Other wikis are opened up to anyone, or to individuals whose email address
includes an approved domain name. This way, strangers can interpose themselves
into the conversation and gain recognition for the value they bring. It is
perhaps a double-edged sword, but spamming is unlikely to be much of an issue in
a world where an IP address can be tracked easily.

At the further extremity of the collaborative world are blogs and social
networking sites. Corporate bloggers ­ – whether exposed to the outside world or
not ­ – are generally sharing their thoughts and expertise with anyone who cares
to listen. Others can join the conversation by adding comments or writing their
own blog posts and linking to the original.

Users typically subscribe to an RSS or Atom feed if they like the blog.
Subscription keeps users permanently updated and individuals can track many
blogs through a feed reader or portal, which aggregates all the feeds by
category. Users can then skim the headlines at any time, drilling deeper only if
something catches their eye.

Most readers allow users to define blog searches that deliver a feed
containing all new posts that match certain criteria. Such a possibility,
coupled with discovering relevant people through links inside posts, is probably
the most powerful element of social computing.

The wackier, but popular, reaches of social computing include social
networking sites, such as Facebook and mini blogs such as
Twitter. Social networking
sites can be bent to the corporate will by creating closed groups, where people
can only be admitted if they are recommended.

Mini blogs are more of a free for all, in which anyone can jot up to 140
characters on any issue. Individuals can also send direct messages to other

Some users restrict their mini blogs to business topics; most say whatever
comes into their head. Twitter, for example, provides a sense of community
without a great deal of effort or commitment. Such networking is highly social
and people often link to web sites, blogs and announcements that might prove of

As mentioned earlier, security, compliance and time wasting are the main
concerns expressed regarding collaboration software ­ – and none more so than
when the software is being hosted by a third party. While
Facebook or a blogging
platform has the advantage of being able to scale with demand, companies have to
appreciate that they often will not know where potentially confidential
communications are being stored ­ – or to which country’s legal jurisdiction
they are subjected.

Finally, many vendors are pushing unified communications (UC). At heart, UC
is IP-based telephony with many of the already-mentioned collaborative
applications running on top. Presence is a key element and instant messaging
programs generally have icons that show the status of contacts ­ – available,
busy or away.

UC takes presence to a new level and allows users to discover a person’s
location and ensure that all communications, of whatever kind, reach contacts in
the most convenient way, such as mailboxes, mobile phones, homes or offices.

The move to collaborative software is not principally about technology, it is
about people. And the people introducing social applications need to be
sensitive to that reality if the strategy is to prove successful.



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