Causing collaboration

Teaming up looks tantalizing on paper but when it comes to executing the strategy the reality can be somewhat murkier and that's where collaborative systems come in

Tags: IBM Middle EastIDC Middle East and AfricaUnited Arab EmiratesValue Partners
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Causing collaboration RAJAN: The definition of enterprise collaboration goes through a wide spectrum of technologies.
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By  Nathan Statz Published  August 29, 2009 Arabian Computer News Logo

Teaming up looks tantalizing on paper but when it comes to executing the strategy the reality can be somewhat murkier and that's where collaborative systems come in.

Much to the chagrin of team leaders and business managers, individuals are all different and making the multitudes of personalities work together can be as tiresome as herding cats. Unlike the poor specimens tasked with moving felines along, the modern day enterprise has an arsenal of collaboration tools at its disposal to help get things cracking, not to mention the biggest asset in fostering teamwork - people like to talk.

The term itself can cause confusion, as collaboration is the act of people working together on something as a team. Leading on from this is the next logical step that collaboration systems can be anything that an enterprise uses that empowers people to work together, which is what they are. Though for each and every organisation this will be something a little different.

"It goes through a wide spectrum of technologies - right from the instant messenger you might use to the video conferencing and interactive collaboration systems that exist in some of the larger companies. The entire spectrum of technologies that are involved and some of the web 2.0 technologies that are available," says Ranjit Rajan, senior research manager for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa at IDC.

Collaboration systems are a familiar sight for Ghassan Sadallah, head of academic computing services at the University of Sharjah, as both students and staff rely on the technology. Sadallah believes that it was the need to have information in one place that can be accessed, shared and linked, that gave rise to the need for collaborative systems.

"In recent years the need for such systems is becoming really important because most employees of foundations and institutes are based on electronic systems now. Before they used multiple systems for achieving different goals, for instance human resources, finance - or course management in our case for example. Calendars, emails, any of these things, so it used to be like a different system unrelated to each other and recently these things started to become a headache," he says.

"In the beginning it was really nice to make a different system, to make processes go faster, to make work easier, but the problem was when these systems started to increase and become fundamental in each institute or foundation, the need came here to have a centralised place that can join the information or the workflow available on these different systems in one place," adds Sadallah.

Education has been a hotbed for collaboration for some time, particularly with the potential benefits for both the institution's attendees and tenured staff. Sadallah explains that there are two sides at the university level, with the need for interaction between students and staff as well as with each other.

"If we concentrate on just faculty members with students, these tools really make the interaction between these two sides and in the end it will simplify the information or knowledge transfer to the students and teachers," continues Sadallah.

The efficiency of the process is improved by students interacting with each other, where Sadallah explains that elements like blogs, wikis and discussion boards come into play.

With these tools in place, students are able to ask questions that are clearly visible to other university members, which will often mean the students will help answer each other's questions before the lecturers even see the discussion thread.

This effectively allows the student base to form a pool of knowledge that acts as a resource to help each other and collaborate together and thereby improve the efficiency of the education system while doing so - though it is probably in the best interest of the institution not to point this out to their students.

"This is a new way that wasn't there before and wasn't easy in the classroom. Especially when you don't have the time to give a question and answer session," claims Sadallah.

"Calendar for example made it very easy for the students to track what is going on - when is my exams? When is the end of Semester? It even alerts them either by sms or email, so it really organises the students. Again, this wasn't there before," he says.

The main driving force behind the adoption of collaboration in the education sphere wasn't just efficiency improvements, Sadallah explains that the quality assurance for the industry is very important these days, so the systems make it easier for committees and the organisations that study how the university is going.

That isn't to say that the realm of blackboards, chalk and procrastinating students is the only vertical involved in collaboration. Indeed the technology has become industry-agnostic as enterprises hop on board the efficiency train and almost every enterprise in the Middle East is using at least using one collaboration system of some description.

"Most organisations in the Middle East use IT for collaboration in one way or the other. I can't imagine an organisation in the Middle East today that doesn't have email," says Bashar Kilani, manager of IBM's software business in the Middle East, Egypt and Pakistan.

According to Kilani, there are a large number of organisations that have an intranet, a portal and an extranet and they would have basic information-sharing technologies: "You will find that their users and the employees already chat and use same-time connectivity technology. You will probably also see that organisations in the Middle East today have some kind of directory that enables you to know who's working where and who is connected to which organisation and which country."

"I think the private sector is probably going to be leading a little bit more here, cost drivers are very important and you feel the pinch quicker in the private sector," continues Kilani. "It also very much depends on the efficiency and the effectiveness of the workforce that you're looking at getting the productivity out of."

The Middle Eastern difference

The technology sphere in the Middle East tilts on a slightly different axis to the rest of the world, but this can be a major advantage in the collaboration space as the pitfalls of a new system have been exposed and solved before the region adopts it.

"Although the MENA region is a little bit slower to take-up these types of collaborative tools than the USA and Western Europe, we believe there is a good and cheap curve in terms of adoption. One of the key reasons for that is if you look at the types of users and demographics of the Middle East versus Europe or the USA [where] you still have a tradition with the vast majority of baby boomers or people in their 40s," says Emmanuel Durou, senior engagement manager at the consultancy firm Value Partners.

"If you compare this to what is happening in MENA where you have much younger demographics and consequently the workforce is much younger, these are the typical age group and type of population that are used to collaborative tools because they've been introduced very early on with web 2.0 and they have been used for their own personal use in social communities," he says.

According to Durou, although the take-up of collaborative tools has been comparatively slower in the Middle East, the trend at the moment is towards fast adoption of the technology in the region. The comparison with more established markets in other continents is a common one for the countries lining the shores of the Arabian Gulf, though that is not necessarily a bad thing.

"Organisations out here are very much moving how they did in Europe and the Americas maybe three or four years ago. To understand that you now have to work in partnership, and there are a lot of organisations that are now working together on projects in the Middle East," claims Ian Johnson, sales manager at IFS Middle East.

"Certainly what we see in the market is that organisations are now looking for solutions for software - or for organisations - that can enable collaboration across multiple organisations or down the customer supplier route," he adds.

One of the most common sights in the collaborative space is Microsoft's Sharepoint offering, which is seeing basic adoption levels in the Middle East on par with those elsewhere, according to Shahab Ahmed, information workers business group lead at Microsoft Gulf.

"There are some companies in the Middle East who are leading, but there are others trailing when it comes to moving from basic collaboration from the internet to an intranet kind of thing to more transaction capability," continues Ahmed.

"I think companies in the Middle East are learning from their partners and peers in the USA and Western Europe where they are actually doing a lot of these self-service capabilities on the intranet, especially in this environment where all companies are looking at reducing excess costs from their operations," he adds.

Ask the analyst

Do CIOs have concerns about collaboration technologies?
Yes of course, there are quite a few concerns. One is that some of the really effective enterprise collaborative systems are expensive. That expense, those costs, are prohibitive for some CIOs, so really collaborative systems are still quite expensive.

The second thing is when you use web 2.0 technologies; a large number of these programs are generally available programs or technologies which can probably make problems for security.

The flow of data through these programs is not necessarily monitored and therefore, while you get this increase in productivity and innovation and more collaboration, at the same time you have the data flow that is probably not properly monitored. There is a chance that consequently data might leak through programs or the various technologies.

Ranjit Rajan is the senior research manager for the Middle East, Turkey and Africa at IDC.

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