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Products that enhance the collaborative process

Succeeding in business requires close teamwork and collaboration. Your computing platform should enhance the collaborative process. The email, Instant Messaging (IM), and group calendar features that Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange 2000 Server provide go a long way toward enhancing group productivity. IBM's Lotus Notes and Domino go a step further by adding threaded discussions to improve group communications.

These tools are effective when project workgroups (i.e., teams) are small and when participants are involved in only one project. But as teams increase in size, projects become more complex, and team members become involved in multiple projects, managing the collaborative process and project information becomes difficult.

Several vendors have introduced groupware products that make collaboration easier for teams without creating big headaches for the IT staff. These products include Groove Networks' Groove Workspace Professional Edition 2.5, Microsoft SharePoint Team Services 1.0, BrightWork's Brightwork 2.4 (formerly known as TeamCentral 2.4), Vialect's IntraConnections 3.0 and Intra.Net 4.4.1, and eRoom Technology's Documentum eRoom 6.0. (At press time, Documentum had signed a definitive agreement to acquire eRoom Technology.)

All these groupware products provide digital workspaces for each project. Digital workspaces are essentially separate graphical environments containing all documents, calendars, threaded discussions, and other tools that the group uses. All these products complement Exchange in that they use Exchange's mail services and, in most cases, they let you import and export tasks, contacts, and calendar entries between the group's digital workspace and Outlook. One product even runs on top of Exchange and uses Exchange's Information Store (IS) for all file storage.

In addition to providing common tools such as threaded discussions and group calendars, many of these products provide a variety of other tools. Those tools include

  • application-sharing tools that let participants collaboratively create or edit documents in realtime
  • image viewers
  • connectors to enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM), or other mission-critical applications
  • task lists for each participant
  • polling tools that let team leaders poll all team members
  • portals to digital workspaces at the enterprise level or participant level

A benefit of using a groupware product is that when a participant adds comments to a threaded discussion or changes a group document, meeting schedule, or task list, the product notifies all other participants. In Groove Workspace, a notification flag appears when participants launch the Groove Workspace client; the rest of the products use email to notify participants. The mix of features varies from product to product, but this type of functionality makes these products well worth the money.

All the products have a server component. In all but one product, participants access the digital workspace from their Web browsers. The exception is Groove Workspace; participants access this product's digital workspace from a proprietary client. Although a client-based product permits mobile computing, inviting customers or business partners into the collaboration process is easier with browser-based products. The invitees can simply use their browsers to access the digital workspace rather than having to download and use a proprietary client.

For the browser-based products, you can purchase a perpetual license or let the vendor host the product and subscribe to a monthly service. If you subscribe to a hosted service, the vendor handles all maintenance and upgrades. However, because the shared documents and files reside on the vendor's server (in encrypted form), you have to weigh the convenience against security concerns. In addition, if you want to include your company's logo or use a specific color scheme in the digital workspace, you can't subscribe to a hosted service.

Groove Workspace
As I mentioned earlier, Groove Workspace differs from the other products. Its functionality lies in the client; Groove Workspace's server component simply replicates all shared documents, discussions, and files to each participant's hard disk. Because participants have their own copies of documents, discussions, and other common files, participants with notebooks can easily read, react, and review them anywhere—on a train, in an airport, or in a meeting. Figure 1 shows Groove Workspace's digital workspace.

Groove Workspace provides a feature called Groove Mobile Workspace for Microsoft SharePoint that might make the client attractive to companies that have implemented SharePoint Team Services. Groove Mobile Workspace replicates all shared content on a specific SharePoint Team Services team site to the client's desktop. When a participant amends any of the content in Groove Workspace, the changes are automatically replicated back to the SharePoint server when the client connects to the Internet. This feature can be extremely convenient for traveling executives who work on shared content offline.

Groove Workspace provides a secure IM function, so the server provides presence information to the clients. Groove Workspace also provides an audio-conferencing function. An interesting feature is the ability to take an Outlook email thread and convert it into a threaded discussion—a useful capability when an idea becomes a point of discussion for a large group. Groove Workspace lets participants jointly view Web pages and collaborate on a Microsoft Word document or Microsoft PowerPoint slide presentation in realtime. However, the product doesn't support realtime collaborative editing on other document types. With Groove Workspace, participants can push Outlook Contacts and Calendar entries to a digital workspace but can't move entries in the other direction. Additional Groove Workspace tools include a shared sketchpad and project manager components to track project tasks.

Groove Workspace costs $149 per client and $9995 per relay server. (Each server supports 500 seats.) If you want to install the product behind your firewall, it must be on a machine running Windows 2000 Server. Several optional components are available. To manage the network bandwidth that the replication process consumes, Groove Networks offers Enterprise Management Server ($19,995), which lets administrators limit Groove Workspace's bandwidth allocation. The company also offers Enterprise Integration Server ($9995), which enables participants to view mission-critical data from enterprise applications. The Enterprise Back-up Service add-on ($9995) to the Enterprise Integration Server enables the IT department to centrally back up and restore digital-workspace data stored on participants' PCs.

Groove Networks offers a less-expensive client version ($49) called Groove Workspace Standard Edition 2.5. However, this version lacks some of the features found in the professional edition. For example, you can't publish Groove Workspace's calendar entries to Outlook's Calendar or use the Groove Mobile Workspace.

SharePoint Team Services
SharePoint Team Services comes with Microsoft FrontPage 2002 ($169 new or $89.95 to upgrade) and the Microsoft Office XP Developer suite ($799 new or $549 to upgrade). Microsoft bCentral offers SharePoint Team Services as a hosted service ($39.95 per month for 20 users and a 100MB space allotment, or $399 per year for 20 users and a 100MB space allotment). If you opt to install the product behind your firewall, it must be on a machine running Win2K Server. You can integrate digital workspaces into an enterprise portal created with SharePoint Portal Server 2001.

SharePoint Team Services lets team members use a Web browser to access their digital workspace, which the product refers to as a team site. Figure 2 shows a team site home page. The team leader can use a Web browser to perform basic customization of that site. The team leader simply needs to select the appropriate collaboration tools from the product's Create page and title the team's resources. If the team leader wants to further customize the team site with the company logo and color scheme, he or she can use FrontPage 2002.

If team members have Office XP, they can save files directly to their team site's document library rather than having to first save the document to their hard disk, then move the files to the Web site's document library, as they would have to do with the other products I cover here. The tight integration with Office XP also lets team members move lists that reside in Microsoft Excel 2002 directly into a SharePoint list from within the Excel application. When a team member makes changes to a document within a document library, SharePoint Team Services sends an email message about the change to other team members who subscribe to the document. Team members can choose to be notified of these changes immediately or at any time interval they select. Team members can also pull calendar entries and contacts from Outlook 2002 into the team calendar, although SharePoint Team Services doesn't have the ability to send these entries in the other direction. With Outlook 2000, bringing calendar entries into the team calendar is a less-convenient two-step process.

At press time, I learned that Microsoft intends to release SharePoint Team Services 2.0 in mid-2003. Microsoft will integrate it into the next version of SharePoint Portal Server and make it available as a download for Windows Server 2003. SharePoint Team Services 2.0 requires Windows 2003 to run; it won't run on Win2K.

SharePoint Team Services 2.0 will offer tighter integration with the next version of Office. For example, SharePoint Team Services 2.0 will let team members collaborate on an Office document in the team's document library from within Office. With version 1.0, participants can achieve this collaboration only by using Microsoft NetMeeting's or Windows Messenger's application-sharing feature. Version 2.0 will also feature a presence capability.

BrightWork is a full-featured collaboration product with a digital workspace that's strikingly similar to Outlook's UI. Although participants access BrightWork through their Web browser, BrightWork runs on top of Exchange (or SharePoint Portal Server) and stores participants' files in Exchange's IS. The product is available through a perpetual license ($5000 per server and $200 per user) if you prefer to keep all corporate data behind your firewall. (If you install the product behind your firewall, it must be on a machine running Win2K Server.) Alternatively, you can subscribe (starting at $100 per user per month) to its hosted equivalent, BrightWork Online, through Cable & Wireless.

BrightWork lets the team leader customize the appearance of the team space to meet the project's needs. For example, the team leader can select the tools needed for the digital workspace and label database lists. BrightWork provides preconfigured templates for some common project implementations; the team leader can modify these templates or define new templates. The team leader can even define the workflow process. For example, the team leader can arrange to have the marketing team members forward their finalized marketing brochure to the engineering team members, as Figure 3 shows. The engineering team members then either approve the brochure and forward it to the legal team members or send the brochure back to marketing with suggested changes.

You can design a workspace portal for each participant. The workspace portal provides a quick update of each item in the digital workspace so that the participant can tell at a glance whether tasks have been added, what project elements are due today, and so forth. Because the portal feature is based on Microsoft's digital-dashboard specification, a portal window can show up-to-the-minute information from other applications that conform to the standard, such as Microsoft Project. Team members can even pull information from an application that conforms to the digital-dashboard specification into a BrightWork tool.

As with many of the other products, BrightWork tightly integrates with Outlook. You can import and export entries between digital workspaces and Outlook. BrightWork has a good set of asynchronous-collaboration tools, including polling, common document storage, threaded discussions, group calendars, and a database for constructing lists. BrightWork doesn't have synchronous-collaboration tools, such as IM and realtime document writing and editing. However, it can feature NetMeeting and Windows Messenger within the workspace portal, so team members can see who is online and engage other members just as easily as if BrightWork had IM built directly into it.

IntraConnections and Intra.Net
Vialect recently acquired IntraConnections from Inclusion Technologies. Vialect also acquired another groupware product, Intra.Net. IntraConnections offers a broad array of collaboration tools and customization options, whereas Intra.Net provides a basic set of collaboration tools. Both products store the digital workspaces' common files on a central server. IntraConnections comes with an open-source database called Post SQL. Intra.Net requires you to supply a Microsoft SQL Server or Oracle database.

Participants access both IntraConnections and Intra.Net through a Web browser. You can customize both products' digital workspaces with your logo and color scheme. IntraConnections even lets you define whether the digital workspaces' calendars display 7-day weeks or just business weekdays, as Figure 4 shows. If you want only certain participants to view some project documents, IntraConnections lets you create a second document library in the digital workspaces and put access controls in place so that only those participants can access the library and view those documents.

IntraConnections comes with more than 30 collaboration tools, including IM, to-do lists, contact lists, image viewers, collaborative Web browsers, group calendars, and a database for tracking product parts or other project elements. Vialect will develop additional custom collaboration tools for an additional fee.

According to the vendor, IntraConnections' high cost—$150,000 plus $60 per user per year for a perpetual license—is due to the product's comprehensiveness and ability to support millions of users. The hosted prices aren't as prohibitive: They start at $300 per user per year for as many as 25 users and drop to $250 per user per year for 251 to 500 users. Intra.Net isn't as costly as IntraConnections. The cost of Intra.Net's perpetual license is $3893 for as many as 20 users and $22,583 for 251 to 500 users. Intra.Net's hosted prices are $15 per user per month for as many as 50 users and $8 per user per month for 201 to 500 users.

Although Intra.Net doesn't have as many collaboration tools as IntraConnections, Intra.Net's tools are substantial and robust. Like IntraConnections, Intra.Net lets group members import and export entries between digital workspaces and Outlook. In addition, Intra.Net's digital workspaces provide threaded discussions, image viewers, and document libraries with version control. Although participants can't use Intra.Net (or IntraConnections) to collaboratively edit applications' documents (e.g., Word documents) in realtime, Intra.Net provides IntraEditor. Participants can use IntraEditor to collaboratively develop or edit HTML documents for intranet sites. Participants don't need any HTML programming skills. One Intra.Net feature even lets the team leader provide an overview of the project on the digital workspace's home page. One feature that Intra.Net lacks is an IM component, but you can obtain that capability through Exchange 2000 if needed.

Although Intra.Net lacks the ability to create a portal to the digital workspaces, senior executives can view the status of each team. To configure that capability, you select which parts of each digital workspace you want to include in a What's New section on the company's Intra.Net home page. IntraConnections doesn't include a portal to the digital workspaces either, but Vialect can develop a portal for an extra charge.

Documentum eRoom
Like most of the products I've discussed, Documentum eRoom provides a rich set of collaboration tools that participants access through a Web browser. The product offers common groupware features, such as threaded discussions and import and export capabilities between Outlook and digital workspaces. The product also features version and access control for group documents, public and private chat areas, a shared sketchpad, polling capability, and a database for storing information. This product even features realtime collaborative writing and editing of all types of documents. Team members simply drag the file to the appropriate tool. Team members can group related items, such as a product photograph and an associated discussion thread or Word document. They can also search the entire digital workspace for notes, photos, threaded discussions, or other items that match a certain criterion.

With Documentum eRoom, you have broad customization options, including changing the color scheme and branding. The company makes connectors that let participants view CAD files and Microsoft Project data, but these connectors cost extra. The product comes with an API that lets participants view data from enterprise applications, but you have to write code that accesses and interacts with the enterprise applications or pay an extra fee for the company to write the code.

You can purchase a perpetual license for Documentum eRoom ($16,995 per server and $249 per user; volume discounts are available). You can also subscribe to its hosted equivalent, Documentum ($199 per month). The perpetually licensed product automatically delivers email notifications to all participants whenever one user updates or changes any of the workspace contents, but this feature isn't available on the hosted product. However, both products let the team leader create a portal for the workspace, which lets all participants get a quick update of the workspace content changes when they launch the product. As Figure 5 shows, the portal feature gathers the status of the participant's task assignments from each project workspace he or she is involved in and presents the information neatly on one screen. Because the portal feature is based on Microsoft's digital-dashboard specification, team members can view data from other applications that support the standard.

Effective Project Management
Groove Workspace, SharePoint Team Services, BrightWork, IntraConnections, Intra.Net, and Documentum eRoom all provide compelling features that let teams work together more effectively. These groupware products are especially helpful for large projects, in which a project's complexity or the number of team members can make project management a real chore. Even if your projects are small, the ability to extend your team processes to business partners and customers can make the investment worthwhile, especially since subscriptions to the hosted versions won't break the bank or require IT involvement.

Contact the Vendors

BrightWork * 617-357-9000 *


eRoom Technology * 617-497-6300 *

Groove Networks * 978-720-2000 *


Vialect * 519-252-8109 or 888-662-2040

Microsoft * 425-882-8080 *
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