Collaboration 101

Those of us who've been using Outlook for nearly 6 years easily forget that to someone who's just installing his or her first Exchange Server, all the collaboration features we take for granted are new, unfamiliar, and sometimes even difficult to find. Therefore, I thought an occasional Commentary on the features built into Outlook to facilitate collaboration, specifically in an Exchange environment, might be useful. I hope that even "old-timers" will benefit from having their memories refreshed.

Perhaps the first collaboration feature that most people notice is that they have access to a Global Address List (GAL). The average user probably doesn't know anything about how data in Active Directory (AD) or the Exchange Server 5.5 GAL becomes visible in Outlook but appreciates the convenience of being able to look up the names and addresses of other people in the organization.

In addition to providing a GAL, Outlook lets users share contacts through public folders. When you create a public folder to hold contact items, users can select the appropriate option on the folder's Properties dialog box to add the folder to their Outlook Address Book. (Outlook 2002 lets you write a script to set the option programmatically.)

Many users discover public folders through the Outlook Folder List, which displays a Public Folders hierarchy separate from the Mailbox tree. You can create a public folder to hold any type of Outlook item and use the Permissions tab on the folder's Properties dialog box to grant varying levels of access to the folder. What might not be obvious is that an Exchange administrator can give a public folder an email address and even display it in the GAL. Users can add a public folder's email address as a message's Bcc recipient to file a copy that everyone with access to the folder can see.

Other built-in collaboration features include voting-button messages, meeting requests, and task requests. By using the Options dialog box to add voting buttons to a message, a user can ask other users a question and Outlook will automatically tabulate the results. Meeting requests let you invite other users to a meeting. Exchange provides a free/busy mechanism to show you when other people are available, so you can select the best meeting time. Many organizations create mailboxes for resources such as conference rooms and audiovisual equipment, so users can book those as part of the meeting request process.

Task requests work quite differently from meeting requests. When you send a task request to another person, you delegate responsibility for that task. If the recipient accepts the task request, you won't be able to directly change the original task stored in your Tasks folder. You must rely on the recipient to send you updates on the progress he or she makes on the task.

You can also delegate authority over your Inbox, Calendar, or other default folders, letting someone else answer your email, watch over your appointments, and otherwise act as you. When you designate someone as a delegate through the Tools, Options, Delegates dialog box, you set permissions on one or more folders and let the delegate send messages on your behalf. Your delegate can open the folders using the File, Open, Personal Folders File command in Outlook 2000 (the Outlook Data File command in Outlook 2002). The Exchange administrator can grant Send As permission to your delegate to let that person use your account to send messages without anyone knowing that a delegate was involved.

This summary of collaboration features just skims the surface. In future installments, I'll explore the detailed settings, common techniques, and likely pitfalls of these features.

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