Mixed feelings about collaboration

I’ve always had mixed feelings about collaboration tools.

On one hand, the technical capabilities have always seemed fascinating. Even in the early days when about all they could do was let people share a screen, that was impressive for the time. Now, co-editing documents while carrying on videoconferences or chats, adding people to conferences wherever they are – the demos are fun.

But on the other hand, it always seemed that the tools belonged more in the fantasy world of technology demos, where Bob pushes a button and conferences in Carol on her cellphone in a taxi on the way to the airport to resolve in 10 seconds that burning question about a big contract, than in the real world where Bob is hunched is front of his desk trying to catch up with his e-mail and Carol, even if Bob wanted to talk to her about the big contract, isn’t available because she forgot to pack her charger and the cellphone battery died two days ago.

Technical glitches aside, look at your to-do list and your calendar. How often do they say “collaborate”? Mine don’t. Sure, they say things like “call so-and-so” or “meeting with x and y.” And they say a lot of things like “finish column” and “book hotel room.” Point is, few of these activities are explicitly about collaboration.

So, while attending IBM’s recent Lotusphere conference in Orlando, while many demos were interesting, there was still that nagging doubt about how relevant all this collaboration technology is to the real world.

That’s why I was glad to hear Doug Heintzman, IBM Lotus’ chief strategist (and a fellow Canadian), observe that collaboration tools are not an application category.

Instead, he argued, collaboration is something that needs to be built into many applications.

Collaboration tools tend to be aimed at knowledge workers in G7 countries, says Heintzman, but “most workers in most countries are actually boundary or task workers, and they don’t spend their day staring at an in-box or a calendar.”

He’s right. What we’re talking about – and while Heintzman didn’t use the term, a couple of other Lotus people did during the conference – is communications-enabled business processes. A few companies – one example is Avaya – are throwing that term around as a kind of extension of unified communications.

What we’re talking about is that Bob is filling out a form to, say, purchase some equipment, and he needs Carol’s approval. So he clicks a button in the corner of the form to open a live dialogue with Carol – could be text chat, could be voice, could even be on-screen video. He explains to her what he needs, she asks him a question or two, she approves the request from her desktop, or maybe even her phone, and the process continues.

Of course, there’s still the possible problem that Carol is unreachable. One way around that may be that built into the application is a list of people authorized to approve the request.

Lotus talked a lot at Lotusphere about integrating collaboration tools with applications. The feedback I heard from partners, customers and analysts was that while Lotusphere brought no earth-shaking announcements, Lotus is moving in the right direction with this. Certainly the idea that collaboration is part of many things we do, not an activity that stands alone, is right on.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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