How to select collaboration tools

Robb Chapman, an IT specialist at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, discovered how complicated the choice of a collaboration tool can be when he became involved in the CDC’s effort to purchase software that would let researchers work more effectively with universities and state health agencies. The options proved so numerous that the agency hired an outside consultant to sort through all the candidates — an effort that took six months.

“Different vendors had different bundles of functions — discussion boards, Web conferencing, document sharing,” Chapman recalls. “It got quite complicated for us to determine whether we needed a single, integrated product with all of the functions or several best-of-breed products.”

In the not-so-distant past, the options for collaborating with customers and colleagues were fairly limited: e-mail, file transfer protocol (FTP), perhaps a listserv for group discussions. Today, the choices are more numerous — and more difficult to sort out.

Chapman’s sense of confusion about selecting a collaboration product is shared by many IT managers, and for good reason. There are close to 1,000 vendors in the collaboration market, according to David Coleman, managing director of Collaborative Strategies LLC in San Francisco. “There are way too many vendors,” he says. Coleman projects that sales of collaboration software, services and related hardware will reach $40 billion in 2008, with an average annual growth rate of 13 percent.

The products offer a range of features, such as instant messaging, virtual team collaboration rooms, Internet audio and video, screen sharing, wikis for group posting and editing of content, blogs, whiteboards and repositories for accessing common documents. Products may have one or many of these functions bundled together.

To complicate matters further, many large organizations treat collaborative tools as a departmental decision, allowing line-of-business managers to bring in whatever they want. That has led to a proliferation of products within companies, many of them totally unknown to corporate IT. Coleman says most large companies have 10 to 12 collaborative applications.

“It’s been line-of-business adoption, with a manager signing the contracts,” notes Robert Mahowald, an analyst at market research company IDC.

Lower-level employees, on the other hand, tend to stick with e-mail, resisting newer communication tools. “E-mail is often used for collaboration when it shouldn’t be,” notes Coleman. “Often, they just don’t understand that there are better things out there.”

Who Needs It?

The CDC’s role as both a research agency and crisis management leader in the event of a regional or national health emergency makes it an obvious candidate for collaborative technologies. The agency chose SiteScape Inc.’s Enterprise Forum, which allows it to collaborate with outside health agencies and research groups, as well as quickly create a virtual “war room” to deal with a health crisis. With Site

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