CollabraSpace Featured in Workforce Solutions Review Magazine

CollabraSpace was featured in the April/May 2012 issue of Workforce Solutions Review. This magazine  features professional-written editorial content  for HR Technology with focus on the issues that are important for companies to emphasize. Both President/CEO Ray Schwemmer and Chief Technology Officer Rick Havrilla authored the feature of CollabraSpace with an depth discussion of how using collaboration products as a service     that will connect the entire enterprise of a business.

To read the featured article you may click here, or visit the IHRIM Publications website and subscribe to their online and print magazine.

From Prototype to Production

A lot of organizations that we work with want to start off small with a prototype to see how the product works and how users react to it.  This is a great way to start and we are usually quite successful at getting things set up and the users are off and running in a day of two.  The pilot may run for 30, 60, 90, or even 120 days.

Turns out that the prototype is usually the easy part.  Where we see most organizations struggle is how to take what is working for a small segment of the population and rolling it out to the entire organization.

Interestingly, technology is not the problem.  Databases can handle the extra volume, in a virtualized environment extra CPUs and memory can be easily added when necessary, the networks are already in place, single sign on solutions exist, and services can easily be integrated into additional front-end applications.

So why is it so tough to go from a prototype to operational capability?

Many times, the prototype is done within an organization that does not control the corporate IT infrastructure.  Although successful, there must be “buy in” from the corporate IT team.  Without this “buy in” it’s often difficult to get their support to deploy the solution across the enterprise.  Otherwise, you are just bringing them more work to do. Don’t forget that they may have been looking at another solution or may be understaffed to handle the additional resources that your solution requires.  And who is going to fund that?

Even if you have the IT department on board, you still have to convince the other users that this is a worthwhile effort.  They may like the current tool that’s being used, or may have tried another one at home that they like better.  It does not matter if that is realistic for a corporate solution, they know what they want.

Starting with a prototype is a great way to see if the technology works.  You should ensure that you get the IT department on board as soon as possible so they can begin to understand what is required to scale across the enterprise.  Then you have to realize that you still need to work with each user organization to get their buy in.  To help bridge this gap, make sure that you include members in the prototype group that reach as many organizations as possible.  Select the users that actually influence the users in the organization. It’s possible that they may cause risk to the success of your prototype; however, if you can convince them chances are they’ll easily convince their peers. Once you deploy the prototype to the enterprise and  you begin to scale, others will naturally join in -especially in a collaboration capability.  You’ll be amazed at how quickly the system will expand.

Migrating Users to a New Collaboration Environment

People are creatures of habit and it is often difficult to get them to change.  If you have ever tried to introduce an new application into an enterprise IT infrastructure or even a major change to an existing application you know just how hard that can be.

Case in point with collaboration.  Many people we work with already have an existing collaboration tool that they want to upgrade to take advantage of more advanced features or better integration with their infrastructure.  The question then becomes, how do you transition users to a new collaboration tool?

If you control all of the tools in the environment you can integrate the new collaboration capabilities into the user experience and shut down the old system.  Users will automatically move to the new system.  This is the approach that we discussed in our earlier blog Apple Computer’s 25 Billion iTunes Downloads and Your Collaboration Solution.

What if you do not control the entire environment but  want your organization to transition to a new collaboration capability?  Teams are already working in the existing tool and some people may resist moving to the new collaboration space.

One approach is to integrate the collaboration tools together using the one of the standard collaboration protocols such as XMPP or SIMPLE.  Again, this assumes that those controlling the existing collaboration environment are willing to allow your new system to connect with the current system.  If so, then users of your new collaboration software can see and collaborate with users of the current system. Overtime the collaboration capabilities from the new system can be integrated into additional applications and migration from the current system to the new system will begin.

How about if you those controlling the current system are not willing to enable this connectivity?  In that case, you need to select a group of users that can work easily in both collaborative environments or select a group that can work independently on a problem.  Once the group is identified, begin converting them to the new functionality.  They will either need to work completely independent of those in the current tool or they will need to work on both tools to bridge the gap. As this prototype group begins to experience the improved capabilities of the new tool, they can go to the users of the original tool and explain the benefits of switching to the new tool.

Both of these solutions may take more time, but once the transition starts, more users will attract their existing teams and critical mass will eventually bring everyone over to the new tool.

Apple Computer’s 25 Billion iTunes Downloads and Your Collaboration Solution

Apple Computer is about to embark on a major milestone, 25 Billion downloads from the  iTunes Store.  This is just one of many milestones for this iconic company.  And like many of their other milestones, this milestone did not happen overnight.  In fact, it started over a decade ago by identifying their target audience, a user with the original ipod, a Mac computer and the iTunes application.  These were all technologies that the company fully controlled; hence affording them complete control the user experience.  Later the company continued to expand its target audience by supporting MS Windows, adding more content to the store and constantly re-inventing their hardware and software.

Adding a collaboration solution to your environment should not be much different than the Apple’s approach.  Instead of a generic one size fits all approach, identify your target audience within the organization while keeping a keen eye on the applications that support the target audience.  Try to select an application where you control the complete user experience throughout the development process. Once identified, tailor a solution that fits your user’s needs while identifying the common functionality that will serve well for other areas within the organization.  Now work to enhance the application with collaboration capabilities that will serve the users best through ease of use and intuitive functionality.  Launch this targeted application and begin to expand out to the rest of the organization.  As you continue to expand to new organizations and applications, circle back to the existing users and tweak the solution if necessary.  Track lessons learned along the way and apply them to the collaborative solutions delivered throughout your enterprise.

You can fully control the user experience by focusing on embedding collaboration services within applications that you completely control.  This in turn leads to a greater chance of success for applying collaborative capabilities to your organization.  Apple reached 25B downloads with a similar approach – bringing collaboration to 100% of your organization should be your milestone for success.

4 Steps for Eliminating the Barrier to Entry

If using collaboration technology is going to become a truly integral part of your organization, it has to become second nature to your employees. It has to feel as easy and intuitive as any other form of collaboration they engage in on a daily basis, such as using their favorite social networking application to share ideas and pictures with family and friends.  The following  four simple steps can provide a viral collaborative environment:

  1. Streamline Authentication and User’s Profiles: Employees won’t want to use a system if it requires using different log-in IDs and passwords for accessing the system or manually copying their user profile information into the environment. Instead, the collaborative solution must be tightly integrated with the corporate identity management solution. The collaborative solution should access the existing information to obtain user profile information such as the users’ names, phone numbers, locations, skills, and group memberships. Since collaborative capabilities will be embedded into numerous applications, a single sign-on solution should be implemented. This type of solution requires that a user complete the authentication process once for the application, thus eliminating the need to re-authenticate for accessing each service.
  2. Integrate Collaboration with Applications: If 90 percent of your people use one application, if you can incorporate collaboration into that application, then 90 percent of your people will be connected instantly. By taking an inventory of your most-used applications and ranking them according to which get the most use, you can create a good road map for rolling out collaboration. You can start to get a sense of which applications will get the most mileage out of having collaboration integrated into them.
  3. Choose the Appropriate Functionality: Determine which collaborative capabilities should be integrated into which applications—and where in those applications. Many times, the answer is simply to add presence awareness to the most-used web page (the main launch page or the summary page, for example) and web applications. This way, when users come in on Monday morning and log into one of these applications—just as they did on Friday morning—they’ll, be able to see that their colleagues are online and available to collaborate with via the various collaborative capabilities. With the click of a button they can open a chat room or an IM session with one or more of these users.
  4. Maximize Screen Real Estate: Try to avoid using a large section of the screen real estate for collaboration services at the expense of allowing users to do their jobs with an application that is already familiar to them. Just a small section of the screen with a scroll bar that shows a thousand users are currently online or shows your Buddy List will be sufficient to get their attention.

It’s important to realize that you are trying to bring collaboration to the user, not create a collaboration tool. Now that you have everyone connected, you can begin to add additional collaborative capabilities to allow employees to work more efficiently together.

Collaboration Companies Launching IPOs

This past year has seen several IPOs from companies offering collaboration and social networking solutions.  Early last year, LinkedIn went public with an initial value of nearly $9B at the end of its first day of trading.  Last month Jive software, a maker of collaborative software solutions for business, went public with an IPO that that valued them at nearly $900M.  And this week, everyone is anticipating the upcoming Facebook IPO with valuations estimated as high as $100B.

Numerous companies have launched an IPO with great fanfare only to drop drastically weeks or months later. LinkedIn is down about 15% from its first day of trading, while Jive is slightly down.  Some are already asking “Will Facebook be the next Yahoo”.

One thing is certain, the increased interest by investors shows that there is a growing interest in collaboration and social networking technologies in both the consumer as well as the commercial spaces.  What is your organization doing to take advantage of these new technologies?

Collaboration in Widget Frameworks

More and more organizations are delivering mission applications to their users using web technology than ever before.  The ability to deliver rich applications using web 2.0 technologies has certainly helped make this possible. However, we are also seeing interest in using widget frameworks to de-clutter the user desktop experience.  One example of such as framework is Ozone and its associated Marketplace recently referenced in the Information Week article, Everybody Wants an App Store.

The Ozone framework is a combination layout manager and messaging mechanism for hosting widgets within a Web browser. It resembles iGoogle, and uses Shindig, an open source Google gadget (widget) container.  Ozone is being developed by the National Security Agency (NSA) and it is used by numerous other government organizations such as The US Marshals Service, National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA) just to name a few.  NGA is using Ozone as part of their iGEOINT project to provide analysts with capabilities for easy discovery and access of NGA’s Geospatial Intelligence Data, Products and Services.  Another organization is building Ozone widgets that can be easily reconfigured to provide a variety of visual analytics solutions out-of-the-box.

Similar to the Apple App Store, Ozone also contains a marketplace where users can search and view a list of available applications that can easily be added to any desktop.  Once selected, the application is then loaded onto the user’s desktop displayed in the web browser.

So, how does collaboration fit into a widget framework?  Since the idea behind the widget framework is to provide small applications that users can pull from the marketplace, collaboration is a perfect fit whenever the capabilities are broken down  to their smallest units and allowing users to select the capabilities they want such as:

  • Presence Awareness
  • Document Storage and Sharing
  • Instant Messaging
  • Web Presentations
  • Audio-video Conferencing
  • Virtual Whiteboards
  • Blogs and Threaded Discussions
  • Social Networking
  • Alert Streams

Enhancing the marketplace with an integrated suite of collaboration widgets gives users the capability to select widgets from the marketplace they need to be more productive.  Users can then quickly and easily create a custom desktop that combines data, analytics and collaboration.

Collaboration in the Cloud

To take advantage of a cloud service, all a user needs is a web browser and access to the Internet. That’s why cloud services have become particularly popular in a down economy, when small to midsize businesses are wary of spending much-needed resources on software licenses, servers, and the IT personnel to install, configure, and run the hardware and software systems needed to support the company.

Web services have started to evolve in the cloud. Web services can be viewed as a form of SaaS; however, the web services provide APIs that enable developers to exploit functionality over the Internet, rather than delivering full-blown applications. Some examples of web services offered are Google Maps, ADP payroll processing, the US Postal Service, Bloomberg, and even conventional credit card processing.

How does collaboration fit into the cloud, and what should you be looking for if you are providing services in the cloud or consuming cloud services? Instead of standing up an in-house collaboration solution, you now have the option of looking for a service provider that will outsource your collaboration solution for you. The providers take care of hosting the applications, and your subscribers access those applications over the Internet.

However, since the outsourcing firm is hosting the application, you need to be aware that it is most likely also storing all the application data in its data center. In the cloud, you must consider two very important factors with regard to collaboration:

  • Your data may not be controlled by you. The outsourced collaboration is set up very similarly to services offered by Internet collaboration solutions such as Facebook and LinkedIn. The main difference is that many of the outsourced solutions are designed to protect your data better than the popular consumer sites that are not focused on corporate customers. You must still be sure you understand the risks associated with your data being stored in the outsourcing firm’s data center. You need to ensure that the outsourcing firm’s security policies meet your company’s security requirements regarding access controls, data recovery, and so on.
  • You may end up with another collaboration stovepipe. As you look to outsource your collaboration needs, keep in mind that you want a series of services that can integrate into your existing applications. The recent emergence of web services in the cloud offers a possible solution if packaged properly by the service provider.

Using a collaboration solution in a cloud environment can help reduce IT costs but you still need to be mindful of the security risks as well as the potential barriers that can prevent access to the collaborative capabilities.

Have You Thought of Outsourcing Your Collaboration Needs?

The shortcoming of outsourcing that you’ll often run into is that a lot of hosting organizations haven’t yet picked up on the possibilities of integrating collaboration horizontally. They still think of it as a standalone tool. They recognize the value of collaboration technology, but they offer it to their customers as an independent collaboration suite. Their subscribers end up with a traditional collaboration tool that isn’t tied into the other applications they subscribe to. Or companies end up using collaboration capabilities from another vendor such as Google, AOL, or Yahoo! so they are not integrated directly with the applications chosen for your organization.

In essence, the customers of outsourcing firms get yet another stovepipe. Whether the software is in-house or outsourced, organizations miss the major benefits of collaboration technology when it’s not integrated horizontally. It fails to go viral because employees don’t have time to open a separate application just to share information or ask each other questions.  They need to be able to collaborate from within the tools that they work in every day.

Only then will you get the true benefit of collaboration in your outsourced IT infrastructure. Thinking of collaboration as a service actually fits very neatly into the data center model. A lot of the applications and suites of products that these data centers are hosting are already SOA enabled services. They take advantage of back-end databases and core authentication services. The hosting companies make money by bundling their offerings in terms of price and features, and collaboration is a horizontal service that they can offer end users. They can host as a bundled set of collaborative capabilities, or—if they provide a web-enabled suite of applications—they can prepackage everything together and offer a complete collaborative suite.

In essence, data centers function in much the same way as large organizations do. Just as large corporations and government agencies integrate collaboration horizontally so that they can better serve their employees, data centers need to integrate collaboration horizontally so that they can better serve their clients. The same basic process is at the core: taking what the organization (or data center, as the case may be) already has and incorporating collaboration into it so that existing applications work better for the end users.

Not only do we suggest that data centers consider adding integrated collaboration to their offerings but we also suggest that organizations that are shopping for outsourcing providers make collaboration a factor in their decision. Organizations should ask their providers, “If I outsource to you, would you be able to help me collaborate—in an integrated, seamless way?”

The Importance of Open Standards

Recently Adobe announced that it is going to drop support for its Flash Player on mobile devices.  Although this was not a complete surprise it still caused uncertainty for developers and organizations delivering content to mobile devices. It turns out that the latest HTML5 standard delivers most, if not all, of the Flash Player capabilities without the need for a special Flash Player mobile application.

This announcement is also a distraction for organizations that selected a collaborative solution based on the Flash Player.  Time and time again organizations suffer when they select solutions that are based on proprietary technologies instead of open standards.  It’s becoming too expensive for companies to develop and support their proprietary solutions whenever a comparable supported standard is available.

If you’re in the market to introduce a collaborative environment or looking to replace your current environment, you should use this announcement as a reminder to choose a product that’s based on industry standards.  When looking at the delivery mechanism for the collaborative solution you should make sure that the delivery is web based for all of your traditional devices.  An app offering is acceptable for a mobile delivery; however, it’s important to confirm that the app is easily and readily acceptable to your entire mobile community.  In addition, for large organizations, it’s possible that the collaborative environments will need to be interconnected with a collaborative environment elsewhere either now or in the future.  For these situations, it’s important that the solution implements either XMPP or SIMPLE so that these environments can interoperate.  And finally, if audio and video is required, the solution should include support for Voice Over IP (VOIP) along with connectivity to a Private Branch eXchange (PBX) to bridge calls to traditional voice communications.

Whether it’s for collaborative technologies or any other software solution, select a product that is based on standards supported by a well known consortium such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF).  By selecting a product that uses a standard you are assured that the product will interoperate with other products and increase the likely-hood that it will be supported in the future. Thus reducing that chance of being caught in a situation similar to those currently delivering Flash content to mobile devices.