Real-time collaboration gets real

Until recently, more than 2,000 employees at SAS, the world’s largest privately-held software company, were using a hodgepodge of consumer instant-messaging tools that lacked enterprise-level security and robust functionality.

The Cary, N.C., company rectified that situation by deploying Microsoft Live Communication Server and Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 clients. Today, more than 3,000 of SAS’s 10,000 employees are using the system, which integrates with various applications so co-workers can collaborate from a spreadsheet, a document or line-of-business system, such as CRM.

Live Communication Server also integrates with videoconferencing, Web conferencing, phone systems, e-mail, calendar, directory programs and public IM systems to create a presence-enabled work environment that’s as close to real-time as you can get.

The impact on the business has been dramatic: “It used to be that something would sit on somebody’s desk for weeks. It just doesn’t happen any more. They move on. They don’t sit on decisions,” says Suzanne Gordon, CIO of SAS. “People know that if they don’t act, the world’s going to move on without them.”

While SAS initially adopted an enterprise instant-messaging application to make IM more secure, the presence aspect of the application is having a major impact on the way the enterprise collaborates, communicates and operates.

“Presence awareness was sort of the icing on the cake that turned out to be one of the killer applications,” says Kevin Angley, who manages the messaging and directory resources group for SAS’s IT organization.

SAS is now “federating” or connecting its real-time collaboration system with those of its business partners and implementing public IM connectivity to link up with partners that lack an enterprise IM system. “Public IM is secure within our borders to their access to the proxy server within their network,” Angley says.

Taking a gamble Another company that has introduced real-time collaboration and presence-aware tools is Procter & Gamble. The Cincinnati company has 60,000 IM users who are transitioning to a more robust, enterprise-oriented system.

But P&G is taking an interesting approach: It’s not forcing collaboration tools on employees; it’s creating demand for them. “We are moving from push to pull. We should not mandate tools, but we should let them be adopted,” says Filippo Passerini, P&G’s CIO and global business services officer.

P&G employees are adopting real-time collaboration because it fits individual work styles and the organization’s collaborative culture. “For collaboration tools to help, they must be completely embedded in the work processes,” Passerini says.

The company has a rich history of collaboration, developing its own e-mail system before commercial systems became available. Like SAS, P&G has adopted Live Communications Server and Office Communicator 2005. Using Communicator, employees can escalate instant messages to Web conferences through Microsoft Office Live Meeting, which P&G uses as a hosted service.

Spontaneous collaboration The shift toward real-time collaboration is nudging organizational cultures to accept more spontaneous interaction. For example, the ability to switch from an IM to a Web conference to a videoconference on the fly is changing conferencing from a scheduled to a seat-of-your-pants type activity.

“Web conferences make more sense in an ad hoc context. Whereas, before they had to be planned out, laid out, uploaded and then the meeting tended to be more of an event and was, of course, scheduled and prearranged,” says Laurie Heltsley, P&G’s director of computers and communications services.

The most significant impact of presence is that it integrates collaboration and communication into people’s work styles. In other words, rather than abandoning work to initiate an interaction, collaborators can connect directly from within applications. “Presence will become, more or less, the focal point of the desktop over time,” Heltsley says. “And there are some indicators that we’re going to drive many more things that used to be off the centre of the desktop to the centre of the desktop via presence. So, for example, video is one of them.”

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