Outsourced Teamware Gains Ground

SAN MATEO (04/18/2000) - Everywhere you look, signs point to how dramatically the Internet has redefined human and business relationships. The Web has allowed companies to become more distributed and workforces to become more flexible. Nowhere is this change more apparent than with the new electronic avenues that allow corporate teams to communicate and collaborate, regardless of employees' physical locations. With Web-based teamware, organizations can overcome the boundary of distance and save time and money in the process.

Traditionally, online collaborative efforts have been facilitated with groupware applications, such as Lotus Development Corp. Notes, Novell Inc.

GroupWise, or Microsoft Corp. Exchange. These "fat clients" offer a full-featured, time-tested approach to project and team management.

Unfortunately, IT staffs generally pay for their users' success: Groupware and its requisite infrastructure often require extensive IT support for installation and maintenance. Data backup, staff and user training, and performance issues must also be considered. These issues can bar employees from collaborating online and completing projects on time and under budget.

In an effort to avoid these pitfalls, enterprise-scale companies are turning toward an emerging class of Web-based collaboration services for sharing information via intranets, extranets, and the Internet. Services, such as HotOffice Technologies HotOffice 3.0, IntraActive InTandem 3.6, X-Collaboration Software X-Community.com 2.0, and eRoom Technology eRoom 4.1, have blossomed as viable collaboration tools. Even Lotus has gotten into the act, moving beyond its Domino strategy with QuickPlace 2.0, its teamware offering (see our Product Review of QuickPlace 2.0, Beta 2).

In general, Web-based teamware is best for employees who need to collaborate online from different locations, especially if their project involves threaded discussions and document sharing. Depending on the circumstances, teamware services can allow for collaboration that would be difficult or even impossible with traditional collaboration tools.

Some services, including eRoom 4.1 and QuickPlace 2.0, can be hosted in-house, which usually requires additional hardware and time to set up. But thanks to a growing number of ASPs (application service providers), you can outsource most of these services for less than $20 per user, per month.

The benefits of choosing the ASP route are many. Deployment issues are a nonfactor because the ASP handles maintenance, data backup, and software updates. Services are largely self-regulating, allowing users to perform the bulk of the administrative and management functions, freeing up IT managers to focus on more important tasks, such as keeping the company's e-commerce site running. In addition, user training costs are reduced because services are accessed via familiar, browser-based clients.

Although outsourcing collaboration offers many benefits, don't expect to get all of the functionality of groupware packages such as Domino and Exchange. And despite advances in Internet technology and the use of plug-ins and ActiveX controls, be prepared to sacrifice some power for universal, browser-based accessCore functionsWhether you host internally or outsource to an ASP, all teamware services have four core functions in common: project management through shared calendars, schedules, and task lists; idea management through threaded discussion groups and real-time chat; document management through online storage, routing, and versioning; and universal access through a Web browser.

Compared to single-function tools, such as Microsoft Project, the services' project management features are still rudimentary, generally lacking different ways for teams to look at their project data. Typically all team members can view and update group calendars with event postings, deliverable dates, and project milestones. Some offerings, such as HotOffice 3.0, allow team members to add electronic reminders to their calendar entries. On the other hand, X-Community 2.0 doesn't yet offer group calendaring.

Basic scheduling features are also available, enabling team leaders to book meetings, allocate resources, and assign tasks with deadlines to team members.

But scheduling aficionados may find these features too simplistic. For example, not all of the services we surveyed provide scheduling conflict detection, which may cause users to be double-booked or deadlines to intersect.

Although these teamware services may have scant features now, all of the vendors are committed to further development in these areas. For example, QuickPlace 2.0 will add Gantt charts to its project management mix in its final release.

Threaded discussion groups have been integrated into all but one of these teamware services. Several -- including QuickPlace 2.0, Beta 2; HotOffice 3.0; and eRoom 4.1 -- let team members participate in real-time chat sessions.

For geographically dispersed team members, chatting in real time can be an effective technique for maintaining group unity and cohesiveness. We expect that this will soon become a standard feature, instead of a specialized add-on, in most service offerings.

In addition to enabling scheduling, task management, and group discussions, a Web-based teamware service doubles as a filing cabinet. Document management includes file check-in, checkout, and routing. Version control features enable team leaders to keep tabs on which users are modifying which files.

Additionally, some services, including QuickPlace 2.0, X-Community 2.0, and eRoom 4.1, let team members upload files to an online storage area. Built-in viewers enable participants to read documents without having the authoring application installed locally. Support for Microsoft Office 2000 is quickly becoming standard. Also, file and folder security can be implemented to facilitate access to sensitive documents to a few users.

A Web-based, outsourced teamware environment is accessible from any connected workstation, allowing team members to connect from the office, from home, or even while on the road. If Internet access is not available, some of the services, such as QuickPlace, allow users to download an entire project to a local hard disk, work on it off-line, and later resynchronize with the rest of the team.

The great divide

Teamware services fall into one of two categories. HotOffice 3.0 and InTandem 3.6 target organizations that are looking to outsource and establish a corporate intranet. Both products allow the team leader to establish a home page that contains corporate information and links to other sites.

X-Community 2.0, eRoom 4.1, and QuickPlace 2.0, Beta 2, are aimed at companies that want to establish virtual teams on a project-by-project basis. A separate instance of each service is usually established for each project team.

Each of the services we surveyed will help you build a strong remote project team. Outside of pricing considerations, your choice should be driven by the features your project requires. Projects with extensive document-sharing needs should focus on services such as HotOffice 3.0 and eRoom 4.1. If threaded discussion and real-time chat are keys to project success, look for services that offer both, such as QuickPlace 2.0,Beta 2.

For a remote-team approach to be successful, your project must be defined well and be capable of benefiting from the service's features. But if a proper fit can't be found and you have the proper infrastructure, you may be better advised to return to the available in-house options, which still offer stronger communication and collaboration options. As service offerings mature and provide better integration with third-party applications and support for emerging communication standards, expect to see the gap between them and their more traditional counterparts become smaller.

Technology Analyst Todd Coopee (todd_coopee@infoworld.com) covers Internet-based groupware and Web-based collaboration.

Keys to a successful team

Because Web-based teamware services provide minimal technical hurdles, the greatest challenge for project team members lies in managing group dynamics rather than mastering a new technology.

1. Establish rules for use. From the outset, it is important to establish how often team members need to check the electronic work space for content, calender updates, and new discussions. The project manager may have to enforce active participation.

2. Explain the trade-offs. The benefits of reduced travel time and expenses, as well as that of abbreviated project timelines, should be detailed to the team up front, making any potential inconveniences more palatable.

3. Agree on a file organizational structure. Details such as file locations and naming conventions must be agreed on at the beginning to eliminate confusion when the team members begin exchanging information.

4. Choose an online manager. One or two members of the team should be in charge of all of the housekeeping issues, including deleting unneeded documents, enforcing rules, and alerting members to potential problems.

5. Don't forget human interaction. Solicit feedback from team members throughout the duration of the project to determine whether alternative meeting plans, such as telephone calls or videoconferencing, should be made to augment online collaboration.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Web-based teamware services

Business Case: Teamware services create ad hoc virtual teams that consist of members dispersed across the globe for collaboration via the Web. This lets you maximize your company's intellectual assets, while reducing travel time and costs.

Technology Case: Outsourcing collaboration to an ASP reduces the burden on an IT staff to maintain groupware applications. But Web-based teamware services still lack the comprehensive collaboration features of traditional groupware products, so they may be too limiting for some project teams.

Pros:

+ Inexpensive

+ Self-regulating

+ Universal access

+ Reduced training costs

Cons:

- Lacks collaboration features of traditional groupware- Some services require browser plug-ins for features to be fully functional.

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