The art of collaboration

Presence-aware. That's the term collaboration software makers are using to describe all the goodies they are putting in their programs, including instant messaging, Web and audioconferencing, and IP telephony.

Vendors such as Microsoft, IBM/Lotus and Novell are rushing to make not only their traditional collaboration tools presence-aware, but also their productivity tools. For instance, Microsoft is integrating its Live Communications Server 2005 features with Outlook, Word and other applications. IBM/Lotus is doing the same with its Domino and Notes suites.

The goal is to let users instantly communicate with each other without having to leave their core applications. For instance, call center operators can stay within a CRM application and still locate an expert to answer a question for them via IM. Users can call a colleague via IP telephony to discuss edits to a shared document.

This is great innovation, but IT organizations need to be prepared for all that comes with instant communication. They need to educate users on the appropriate use of these tools and help their companies understand infrastructure and resource needs, as well as set policies.

Some things to consider: What are the ramifications for bandwidth, especially when you tie in instant Web videoconferencing and IP telephony calls? Do you have the budget for software licenses and gear to outfit the whole company? How will all this communication be monitored for compliance and auditing purposes? Do you have adequate enterprise storage silos and filtering tools to handle real-time transcripts? If they are to be used for business, then they are held to the same standards of record-keeping as e-mail and other types of business communications.

Before IT groups jump headfirst into the world of presence-aware, they should have a heart-to-heart with business units throughout the organization. Figure out who would benefit from the applications vs. who would be distracted by them. Does data entry need IM capabilities or would that slow them down? Will the salesforce need 24-hour help desk availability to remotely use the tools?

Also, consider the security risks involved in instant communications. You might need to install tools that encrypt messages end to end. If you are in a highly regulated industry, you'll also want to employ software that monitors chat sessions and sends out alerts when something is amiss. Establish policies ahead of time to determine when intellectual property is being compromised and how these policies will be reinforced.

You also need to set up benchmarks to review how the tools are being used. This will prove whether they are boosting or draining productivity. Tweaks to policies and usage will need to be made along the way - it's not an install-once-and-leave-it-alone network.

While software companies would like you to believe that collaboration is for everyone, your company must think long and hard about parameters for these tools. Otherwise, you might create a bigger headache than you bargained for.

Gittlen is a freelance technology editor in Northborough, Mass. She can be reached at

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