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Collaboration done right

Dec 22, 20035 mins
Collaboration SoftwareEnterprise ApplicationsMessaging Apps

Soft benefits such as increased flexibility and productivity are great enough to have turned instant messaging and Web conferencing into enterprise must-haves.

You don’t have to sell Sean O’Connor on the benefits of real-time collaboration tools. Although extremely busy as manager of network operations at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, a Massachusetts university with three campuses, this fall he worked from home – because his wife, nine months pregnant, could have required a ride to the hospital at any minute.

No problem. WPI was wrapping up a pilot release of Nortel’s Multimedia Communication Server 5100. “I set up my IP phone at home, tunneled in [to the corporate network] through a VPN, established my presence – I brought my office to my house,” he says. Sure, O’Connor could have done this five years ago. But he couldn’t have held instant-messaging chats with colleagues or shared control of Microsoft Draw and other applications.

Real-time collaboration tools such as IM and Web conferencing are making serious inroads in corporations even though few businesses can point to quantified results. Rather, what’s selling them on collaboration tools are “soft” benefits such as the increased flexibility O’Connor experienced and greater productivity.

Analysts say that as real-time technologies mature, metrics will quantify their value. And in any case, it might be too late to turn back. “A lot of managers ask if they should allow instant messaging in their company,” says Lou Latham, a Gartner analyst. “I answer, ‘You are already – IM has come in under the radar. So we suggest you put it to work.’ “

From passive to active use

That statement can just as easily apply to Web conferencing services. “We were what I’d call passive WebEx users,” says Terry Grogan, director of operations and technical services at Lancaster General Hospital in Pennsylvania. That’s because software vendor representatives, when called upon with support questions, frequently tried to fix problems through WebEx sessions.

This troubled Grogan for two reasons. First, the support reps sometimes made unauthorized changes to user systems, including changes that affected the hospital’s back-end databases. More significantly to a healthcare company, Grogan lacked any audit and archiving control over the online conferences. This put Lancaster General at risk of violating the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. WebEx’s services offer Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) encryption, but Grogan worried that vendors might not use it by default.

So Grogan implemented Meeting Series, a Web conferencing appliance from Neoteris that stresses security. Meeting Series applies SSL VPN technology to online meetings. Now when vendor support reps propose a Web conference, hospital employees know to launch the session through Meeting Series. “It’s basically identical to WebEx, but I can keep an audit trail,” she says.

If the hospital was frustrated because it was a “passive” WebEx user, some companies are using that vendor’s services very actively and are saving on travel costs as a result.

Professional Service Industries (PSI), a consulting, engineering and testing firm in Orlando, is one such user.

PSI’s complex engineering projects and 150 offices in 40 states made assembling employees for training sessions and meetings an expensive, logistical mess, says David Lukasik, chief learning officer at PSI. The company began using WebEx a year ago, and travel costs plummeted, though the company has not yet quantified the savings. “It’s easier to be at a computer in your office for an hour, rather than spend a couple of days flying somewhere for a three-quarter-day face-to-face meeting,” Lukasik says.

Rules and regs

At Stifel Nicolaus, a St. Louis financial services company, employees have come to rely on IM, says Lee Blackmore, IT director. The firm has about 1,300 employees in 82 branches, and the big revenue-producers – traders and brokers – use IM to communicate with each other, with peers at other companies and often with administrative staff.

As in most businesses, IM use at Stifel Nicolaus had grown willy-nilly, with various offices and departments creating their own “buddy lists” using public IM services. When the compliance department became aware of the heavy IM use, its first instinct was to ban the technology to ensure it would not run afoul of Securities and Exchange Commission rules.

That didn’t go over well. “The traders and brokers screamed that they had a phone in each ear already,” Blackmore says, “and that [IM was] a tool they couldn’t afford to lose.”

So IT bought IMlogic’s IM Manager, management software that tracks and audits IM activity, regardless of IM service in use. Blackmore says it took nine months to sell the compliance department on IM Manager but the pain was worthwhile because traders and brokers cannot do their jobs these days without IM.

IT managers say that they expect users to devise even more ways to use the tools as they grow more familiar with them. For example, PSI’s Lukasik says he can see the company changing the way it approaches business development and marketing by extending WebEx use to clients. And WPI’s O’Connor says online collaboration has the potential to revolutionize the effectiveness of distance learning.

Ulfelder is a freelance writer in Southborough, Mass. He can be reached at .