Coming together

Effective collaboration is now one of the most important areas for many regional enterprises to focus on, and yet significant numbers are still using ad-hoc methods. ACN looks at some of the latest dedicated collaboration systems on the market.

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By  Eliot Beer Published  April 5, 2008

Effective collaboration is now one of the most important areas for many regional enterprises to focus on, and yet significant numbers are still using ad-hoc methods. ACN looks at some of the latest dedicated collaboration systems on the market.

The Nightmare Of The Lost e-mail is a scenario that is bitterly familiar to most business people around the world: that vital communiqué, which contained an attachment with the latest revised specifications of a new product, or the detailed notes from a recent meeting - and so on and so on.

Thanks to the rise of electronic communications, enterprises are used to flinging important documents and information around at speed.

But with a slip of a finger at the wrong moment - or, more disastrously, with a system failure or security issue - an individual can see months or years of accumulated data wiped out, and no guaranteed way to recover it, especially if said data was urgent.

Hence the rise of dedicated collaboration systems - software or platforms that allow groups of people to interact in a controlled fashion. This not only removes the worries of ad-hoc communication methods such as e-mail, but makes it easier for managers to keep track of a project, or to take control if necessary, should team members drop out, for example.

Most of the big enterprise software players now offer some form of collaboration system, but these are now in competition with the growing number of niche tools on the market - and, more significantly, freely-available options from companies such as Google, with its editable-online offering Google Docs.

Here, ACN rounds up a few of the available systems, and looks at some of their critical features. It should be noted, these are not product reviews, and the descriptions below are based on information provided by the vendors concerned - no endorsement of the below products should be implied.

If you have had experience of any of the offerings here - or any other collaboration systems - ACN would like to hear from you: write to acn@itp.com with your stories.

IBM Lotus

IBM's range of office and productivity systems has fallen out of favour in recent years (decades), thanks to the dominance of Microsoft's Office suite, but Big Blue is biting back. IBM® Lotus® Sametime® Standard software - to give it its official name - is part of the vendor's unified collaboration and communication (UC²TM) platform, and is aimed squarely at the large enterprise market.

According to IBM, Sametime offers "integrated, enterprise instant messaging, VOIP, video chats, and web conferencing capabilities with the security features required for business use" - a fairly comprehensive list of features when looked at one way, but also a set of capabilities that could be easily replicated - often for free - by programs such as Google Talk or Microsoft's range of Messenger offerings.

IBM's big advantage - as with other similar enterprise offerings - is first the ability to offer all these functions in one package, which also includes oversight tools such as policy capabilities, making the lives of users and IT departments easier.

The second advantage is a guarantee of service - the risk of IBM's offering failing at a crucial moment is significantly less than its freely available IM competitors.

This year is set to see an evolution of Sametime, as it gets a number of significant updates. Currently on the cards for a mid-2008 release are enduring chat rooms designed to let users communicate in groups easily, as well as a "Skilltap" function which will apparently allow employees to get expert advice, "even from people you don't know" according to IBM.

Later in the year Sametime will also see unified telephony functions which will allow organisations to manage disparate telephony environments, such as office phones and mobiles.

IBM Lotus Sametime is a bread and butter collaboration offering aimed at general use, and while it won't deliver highly specialised facilities, it will give large enterprises core communication tools.

IFS/Project Delivery

IFS is a new arrival to the Middle East market, and pitches enterprise software offerings on the basis of their open standards. IFS claims this approach allows IFS software to integrate with other systems, giving organisations the best of both worlds.

IFS/Project Delivery (we're not sure what the slash means either) claims to help enterprises manage a project - specifically in the manufacturing sector - throughout its whole lifecycle, allowing the various involved parties to come together and bring whatever applicable information is necessary to the table - the vendor says enterprises can "tear down the walls between your engineering, manufacturing, and service departments".

The software gives firms the ability to itemise every aspect of a project, down to the individual parts and their specifications, and then offers integrated document management tools to deal with any applicable paperwork associated with the designs.

This should give an enterprise a single point of reference for the whole project, and cut down the confusion created by disparate groups of employees working on the project.

Having presented a reasonably compelling pitch for the back end, IFS has gone on to offer the capability of putting its systems on mobile devices such as PDAs and smart phones.

IFS's mobile software is Java-based, so the list of compatible devices will be lengthy - but in case enterprises want a hardware-inclusive offering, the vendor also offers its own mobile devices, sourced from companies such as Symbol.

IFS has also teamed up with IBM to beef up its mobile offerings, giving "online when available" capabilities that allow the software to be used even without a network or internet connection.

For manufacturing or industrial projects, especially in environments which could benefit from mobile device functionality, IFS's offerings may be worth a look.

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