Coming together

Although the use of e-mail is commonplace throughout the Middle East, collaboration software is only just begining to come into its own.

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By  Neil Denslow Published  February 25, 2003

I|~||~||~|Personal collaboration is key to any business activity, whether it is colleagues working together on an internal project, or salesmen making pitches to possible clients. However, even companies that have strived to automate document-based collaboration have often made few strides in using IT to better facility personal collaboration beyond e-mail and calendaring.

The use of e-mail is widespread throughout the region, with all but the least IT-savvy organisations heavily reliant on it. Indeed, it has now become so pervasive that many companies grind to a halt if the e-mail server goes offline.

“E-mail is no longer [just] one way of communicating, but the primary means of communicating between people in one organisation and between organisations…. It has become so strategic that e-mail downtime in any large organisation means that a lot people are paralysed,” says Ayman Abousief, senior marketing director, Eastern & Central Europe, MEA, Oracle.

The advantages of e-mail have been quickly shown in Abu Dhabi, where the Chamber of Commerce & Industry has recently rolled out a Lotus Notes based e-mail service for its 30,000 members. As the Chamber has integrated the Web-based e-mail system with its database, visitors to the Chamber’s internet site are quickly able to find and contact companies in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.

Such an approach greatly eases collaboration and finding new partners over the internet. For instance, one Russian company looking for partners in Abu Dhabi was able to find 80 interested businesses and arrange appointments with them in a matter of days, without even telephoning or visiting the Emirate.

“The distance doesn’t matter now,” says Mohamed Kanfash Al Neaimi, assistant director general, IT & Members relations sector, Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry. “If you have a computer connected to the internet, you can just link yourselves directly to anyone.”

Yet, while most organisations in the Middle East have embraced e-mail, fewer have moved beyond this and begun using calendaring tools. “e-mail is the basic structure of communication, but the next level to make your team wiser and more efficient is to share your calendar and schedule,” says Hazem Bayado, technical director, Novell.

Noman Qadir, corporate account manager, Microsoft, estimates that only 50% of local companies are using calendaring tools, even though they are built into all major e-mail packages. “I think companies have experimented with different things in terms of calendaring, but I don’t think we have gone far enough towards using calendaring in a broad way in every organisation,” agrees Abousief.

The advantage of calendaring tools is that they greatly ease the process of arranging an appointment. Instead of needing to consult directly with all the participants at a meeting to arrange a free time, users can automatically look into each others’ calendars. Then, when a time at which everyone is available is found, all the participants can be automatically invited to the meeting via e-mail. If the participants accept, the appointment is then automatically entered into their schedules. Resources, such as meeting rooms, can be booked in a similar way.

As calendaring depends on e-mail, it is only possible once users have become used to e-mail. However, as the two usually use the same programme, users quickly learn how to use it. Al Neaimi expects this progression to quickly happen once users of the Chamber’s Lotus Notes implementation begin to use the Web based e-mail service. “As people get used to it, I think they will use [calendaring,]” he says.

||**||II|~||~||~|However, calendaring, like any other collaboration tool, fails to offer any advantages unless it is used consistently. If an employee doesn’t enter an appointment in their calendar, then they will obviously appear to be free when in fact they are not. As such, there is a need for high level direction to ensure that it is used effectively. “In 95% of cases, the HR director and the IT director have to get together… [but] the most successful implementations are the ones where the CEO are involved,” says Pamela Stanford, director, dynamic workplace solutions, IBM.

Simple rules, such as only paying consultants for time entered in their calendar, or insisting that facilities can only be used if they have been booked online, will force users to adopt the system. “You have to have an internal discipline to ensure that your collaboration system realises the best return on investment (ROI) in the shortest time possible,” says Bayado.

However, it is likely that the greater convenience calendaring offers end users means that they will readily take to it. At Al Tayer Group, it has become a core business application, which is regularly used by the vast majority of employees at all levels of the organisation. “I would dread to think what would happen if we didn’t have it available,” says Evan
Powell, the group’s general manager for IT. “I think we would stop functioning altogether.”

While bigger companies clearly benefit more from collaboration tools, they also offer benefits to smaller organisations as well. “There is a perception in the market that if you get big and need to automate processes, that’s when you need to look at collaboration tools. I think this is a misconception though,” say Qadir.

He suggests that companies as small as 25-30 employees can benefit from collaboration software. Indeed, even if all of a company’s employees work in one room there are still benefits to sharing calendars. “If a person is not at his desk how do you know [where he is]?” asks Debra Logan, senior research analyst, Gartner Group.

Yet, while e-mail and calendaring greatly eases communication, there can still be a time lag between a message being sent and a reply being received. As such, companies are beginning to investigate instant messaging (IM) in order to speed interactions between remote employees. This, however, is recent trend globally, as even IT-savvy organisations have tended to dismiss IM as just a consumer application. Such an attitude though, is causing companies to overlook the advantages it can offer.

“There is a great interest in instant messaging, but the problem is people don’t know about the benefits of doing it, especially through a mail server. People know MSN messenger… but they don’t actually know that they could have something of that sort within their own organisation,” says Qadir.

Some business users, however, are now beginning to see the advantages of using IM, and are running pilot projects or deploying enterprise-wide solutions. Al Neaimi, for instance, says that Abu Dhabi Chamber of Commerce & Industry is planning to roll out an IM facility for its members before the end of the year in order “to make interactions more immediate.”

Organisations are considering IM because it allows for cheap and instant communication. While its very nature limits its usefulness to short bursts of conversation, as opposed to longer discussions, it can still offer a clear ROI through reduced phone bills and a drop in e-mail traffic. Garner Group, for instance, reports reductions in infrastructure traffic of up to 40%. In addition to this measurable ROI, IM also offers a number of soft benefits. For instance, using IM will enable employees to see if someone away from their desk without having to waste time phoning them.

||**||III|~||~||~|Although companies can use public IM networks, such as Yahoo! and MSN, collaboration software vendors are offering inhouse solutions as well. These sit behind the firewall, either on the e-mail server or a separate IM server. A dedicated IM server can scale up to 100,000 users, so the hardware costs are not prohibitive.

The most obvious advantage of an inhouse IM system is that it is more secure than a public network. This is because it is both closed off from the internet and enterprise IM packages make more use of encryption. Corporate IM systems also offer companies much greater control over users as well. “The real value of enterprise instant messaging is that you control your directory,” says Jeremy Dies, offerings manager, presence & IM, Lotus Software.

“I’ve registered [on public IM networks] as CEOs in front of them and instant messaged them as themselves. It’s an acceptable risk when you are chatting with your friends and family, but if you’re executing a business transaction… that risk becomes untenable,” he adds.

Enterprise IM also offers greater flexibility, as it can be built into other applications. Instead of having a single buddy list, IM links can be built into web pages, corporate directories, or anywhere else an employee’s name appears. This then means that a chat can be instantly started with just a click, instead of having to search for a username in another application.

Alongside messaging, the other advantage of IM is that it offers presence awareness. This means that the network knows where every logged on employee is, and users can quickly see if someone is busy or not, whether they are using a PC in the next room or another country. “The messaging piece [of IM] is valuable, but the real value of instant messaging is presence awareness — the ability to see that somebody is online,” says Dies.

This advantage extends even further if users have presence awareness integrated with mobile devices. In this way, other users are quickly able to contact the person without having to ring colleagues to find out where they are. “When a user is online via their desktop they are likely to receive other methods of communications, such as e-mail or the office phone. However, when they are mobile, almost by definition, they probably don’t have their PC on and clearly they are not in their office,” says Dies.

Al Tayer has piloted the use of IM, and Powell has given it a cautious welcome. “I think there are tremendous benefits that can be had, especially as we have a lot of remote locations,” he says.

However, the company has yet to commit to rolling it out across the enterprise, primarily because of problems with using IM through Microsoft Exchange. These issues are likely to be resolved with the next version of Exchange though, as IM will then be run in separate environment. “We’ll probably get more serious with a pilot on Exchange 2003… I’m looking forward to that, but at this stage I’m not pushing it [IM] too seriously,” Powell says.

Alongside the technical issues, the pilot has also highlighted other problems that have dented Powell’s enthusiasm for IM. The main difficulty was overuse, with employees using IM at the wrong time in the wrong way. For instance, users who couldn’t contact someone on the telephone as their line was busy would then try IM instead of waiting. “You would [also] get two people sitting 10 minutes away from each other chatting on instant messenger,” Powell adds.

“It [IM] can be a problematic technology if you don’t adopt things like asking if someone is available,” admits Sherry Walden, VP strategic accounts & alliances, FaceTime Communications.

However, these issues tend to fade away as employees get more experience of using IM and work out when to use it and when not to. The presence awareness will signal whether someone is available, and then the user can decided whether to communicate by IM, telephone or even sharing a screen, for instance.

“We view presence awareness as the lowest common dominator. From there, you can launch into a variety of different interactions with that person depending on what’s appropriate,” says Dies. “[And,] as people become more and more comfortable with IM, they get better at
it,” he adds.

However, no matter how effective users get at using collaboration, there will always be a need for direct human interaction, as it remains the faster and clearest form of communication. “Collaboration [software] has its use, and it’s extremely effective, we’ve just got to be careful we don’t substitute normal human interaction with computer collaboration,” says Powell.||**||

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