Web collaboration tools aim to help enterprises

In the days before the Internet became the centerpiece of the corporate survival kit, business project lines were drawn neatly in accordance with geography and enterprise borders. The emergence of the Internet and e-business smashed a wrecking ball through corporate departmental walls and geographic boundaries, offering a virtual medium for the complex and technology-intensive interaction required for collaboration and project development.

The enterprise trend of increased outsourcing, coupled with shortened product development cycles, has created the need for an easy-to-use collaborative work environment outside the corporate firewall, according to Francois Gossieaux, chief marketing officer at digital workplace software vendor eRoom Technology Inc., based in Cambridge, Mass.

“With the increasing externalization of business processes, efforts that used to be done fully in-house, such as product development and manufacturing, are now spanning multiple enterprises,” Gossieaux says. “There is a new type of workplace that needs to be created for this fast-paced and multiple-enterprise environment.”

Traditionally simple collaborative efforts such as brainstorming and project development and tracking are difficult to replicate in scattered work environments where it is not possible to call an in-person meeting or walk a file over to the next office, says Daniel Rasmus, vice-president of Giga Information Group Inc. in Aliso Viejo, Calif.

“The issue is how [to] get people to work together, to provide a common space where they can share knowledge, documents, and project tasks,” Rasmus says. “A shared work space lets you keep track of who is doing what and where the documents are related to the project. Collaboration is one of the key components.”

Leveraging the Web for collaboration rather than using tools within the firewall enables more spontaneous communications among companies, he adds.

In addition, collaboration tools help foster e-business relationships, according to eRoom’s Gossieaux.

“E-business is all about partnerships, and partnerships are all about relationships, not just transactions. [Web collaboration] lets people from different companies work together as opposed to conducting specific transactions – sending a [purchase order], sending a drawing, or a check,” Gossieaux says.

Touting the potential to strengthen communications among organizations and their clients and partners, several vendors recently unveiled Web-based collaboration tools with features designed to address the specific needs of distributed project teams.

eRoom announced Version 5.0 of its Web-based collaboration application, which leverages the Web to create geographically distributed teams that can easily meet and work together on time-sensitive business projects.

Enhancements to the product include a new team calendar for tracking project deadlines, meetings and events. Additionally, a notification feature within the calendar can alert team members to scheduling and other project changes as they occur, eRoom officials say. eRoom 5.0 also features a customizable database for tracking issues, creating contact lists and approving documents.

Andover, Mass.-based Practicity Inc. rolled out an updated version of its collaboration software designed for the professional services industry. Practicity 4.0 helps facilitate interactions among IT and management consulting organizations and clients.

The Windows NT-based software allows professional services companies to create on-line communities organized by client, project, practice and interest. A role-based security feature lets an organization’s clients use a Web browser to contribute to content, including documents and discussion threads. Rather than displaying limited information within a document, Practicity 4.0 is designed to capture the entire interaction of participants within the Web-based community, accommodating rules such as business roles or different levels of participation and access, company officials say.

Added features to Version 4.0 include an item notation capability, which allows users to create and track comments about community documents and content. According to Practicity officials, this feature allows organizations to learn about the process behind the projects in order to develop and revamp business practices.

Intraspect Software Inc., another vendor addressing the professional services space, in October took the wraps off a suite of collaborative applications dubbed c-Apps, designed to create an electronic work space for communities of employees, customers and partners. c-Apps includes the packaged suites targeting professional services automation, CRM (customer relationship management), and supply-chain management, according to officials at the Brisbane, Calif.-based company.