In many ways, computers make collaboration more awkward than we want. Go into any meeting carrying a piece of paper and, barring language problems, you know that other people in the room can read it, mark it up, pass it around and file it away.
Life isn't nearly so simple with electronic documents. It's considerably harder to mark up a Web page or to use the same filing system for e-mail and other documents -- and even if you can do those things, your systems may not work well or be readily accessible to other applications, whether located on your PC or on someone else's.
Even though there are many collaboration and document-sharing applications on the market, it's still true that for the most part, the way we share files is to e-mail them back and forth as attachments. While this has been surprisingly productive for many people, it's a long way from collaboration.
In fact, this isn't significantly different from the "sneakernet" days of hand-carrying floppy disks from one desk to another.
Network not enough
Even though networked computers allow high-speed communications and the fast and easy exchange of data and documents, it's still remarkably difficult for a group of users to work together on a project from separate computers. Doing so requires all involved parties to install a variety of programs and utilities on their PCs.
All that started to change back in 1989, when Ray Ozzie at Lotus Development brought forth Notes, the first program that attempted to integrate a number of communication, scheduling and database-driven activities into a single software package that was designed from the start to live on a network.
In the years since, many other companies have attempted to produce and market collaboration software, using very different models and approaches. But no one has yet reached the goal of seamless, transparent, hassle-free collaboration between groups.
Collaboration can be done formally, from the top down, through established procedures and processes, or it can be done informally, from the bottom up, as communities and project teams collaborate in an ad hoc way.
Some large organizations may be concerned about the proliferation of project-based collaboration software, and they are likely to want a cohesive plan for supporting (such as, managing and controlling) collaboration across the enterprise.
Collaboration tool kit
Collaboration software generally involves several types of tools in three categories: Electronic communication tools facilitate information sharing by enabling people to send one another messages, files, data or documents. They include the following:
- Instant messaging
- Fax machines
- Voice mail
- Web publishing Electronic conferencing tools enable a more interactive way of sharing information. The most common forms of electronic conferencing are teleconferences and videoconferences, but new technologies are emerging.
- Data conferencing lets networked PCs share and view a common whiteboard, and each user can add to the board during discussions.
- Electronic meeting systems generally involve conference rooms equipped with large-screen digital projectors linked to multiple PCs.
- Discussion forums and chat rooms facilitate and manage online text messages. Collaborative management tools simplify the management of group activities.
- Electronic group calendars make it easier to schedule events and meetings with multiple people, and they can automate reminders and alarms for group members.
- Workflow systems help manage tasks and documents.
- Project management systems help schedule, track and chart the steps in a project.
- Knowledge and content management systems make it possible to collect, organize, manage and share information in a variety of formats.