As e-collaboration tools mature, they can help you work out a competitive advantage

By James R. Borck, InfoWorld |  Software

HOW MANY DATA sources must one employee access to find and update a project's status? More and more, the answer seems to be, "At least one too many." The increasing need to communicate with distributed workforces and to collaborate across geographical boundaries has caused many organizations to plug the gaps in accessibility with whatever technological bits and pieces have been available.

Most of these makeshift measures have relied heavily on asynchronous tools, such as e-mail or threaded discussion groups to disseminate static files. Recently we've seen the adoption of synchronous methods such as instant messaging and chat.

As the saying goes, it's always the cobbler's children who are last to get shoes. Even our own nationally distributed InfoWorld Test Center grapples with e-mail, instant messaging, and as we affectionately refer to it, "spreadsheet hell" in our collaborative efforts.

Although the Internet has been an important catalyst toward advancing data availability, tools such as e-mail leave much to be desired for successful mass collaboration. To be truly effective, collaboration tools must take advantage of all levels of the organization and workflow process, affording ready data access to employees, whether they are in the next cubical or around the world.

The rapid growth seen in video-and data-conferencing markets is a testament to the cost-saving advantages and to the need for bringing information to people, rather than bringing people to information. And constant improvements in streaming technologies are enabling companies to leverage existing Internet/intranet investments to enhance communication with remote sites.

But there is a difference between communicating and collaborating. Properly deployed, interactive collaboration tools can provide effective, competitive, and cost-saving advantages to an organization by streamlining the interactive processes of project management.

Internet and intranet solutions are providing good electronic collaboration options that can be extended to incorporate outside suppliers and vendors as well. In the past several years, we have seen a rise in EKM (enterprise knowledge management) and EIP (enterprise information portals). The deployments benefit companies through tools to improve information availability in the daily workflow and decision making.

But enterprise portal solutions can be time-consuming and costly to implement. Many organizations don't have the budgetary resources or technical expertise necessary to implement and manage these solutions.

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