Implementing A Mobile Collaborative Solution

There’s no denying it – our world is becoming more and more mobile and this is placing more demands on our IT organization. According to Chris Tengwall, CEO of LRW, a company that specializes in secure wireless solutions, “Collaboration makes sense only if you can access people, and today people are on the road.” Deciding how an organization is going to collaborate in a mobile world then becomes a key question. When you consider your enterprise today, you must include mobile devices in your architecture. How are you going to serve your applications securely to your mobile users? Providing services to mobile devices places a significant demand on IT resources.    The following are some guidelines to consider when deploying collaborative technologies to mobile devices.

Screen real estate becomes even more important when you have employees doing work remotely on netbooks, tablets, or smartphones. Only so much space is available on a screen, and even less space on a mobile device, so choosing the collaborative capabilities that are best suited for a particular application, without overloading it, is important.  If adding collaboration capabilities limits the amount of screen real estate for the components of the application required for employees to perform their work, users will leave the collaborative capabilities to perform their work tasks. Instead, the end goal is to marry the collaborative technologies with the applications.

As more users work from secure mobile devices, you need collaboration services that are accessible from both their desktops and their mobile devices. In addition, the user interfaces for the mobile devices must allow users to have collaboration at their fingertips without interfering with the functionality of their other tools. You must ensure that your enterprise applications will work intuitively on the many devices employees use and that they will be able to work from them as if they were in the office.

Finally, the collaborative technology should indicate device and bandwidth limitations.  Although the latest mobile technologies have increased bandwidth, they are still not at the 100 MB or 1GB network speeds at the desktop.  Nor is the processing power of these mobile devices. Because of this, the collaborative technology should report to end users whenever users are using these devices to properly throttle the use of these resources.

Whether you’re using a cell phone, a tablet, or a computer device, collaboration should be an extension of the primary work at hand. It should be readily available, but it should never overshadow the main task. Instead, it should make performing the main task easier for users. By selecting which capabilities are appropriate and where they are appropriate, you can be sure that collaboration will fit into your employees’ daily tasks seamlessly and unobtrusively.

The Importance of Properly Packaging a Collaborative Solution

We lost a true visionary last week –Steve Jobs died at the early age of 56. We have heard some compare Steve to the Thomas Edison of our generation. Only time will tell if this is true.  One thing for certain, like Thomas Edison, Steve Jobs definitely transformed the way that we use technology in our daily lives. Jobs was known for his creativity and the ability to create a new market for his products.  He had an instinct for being able to properly package technology so that it was easy and fun to use.  The products most often didn’t even need a user’s manual to get started. – just push  a button and the device will light up and guide the user through the setup process.  Not only are they easy to use, the products work as expected.  It’s intuitive.

Over the years, we have realized that this packaging holds true for delivering collaborative technologies. If people in an organization want to collaborate but the tools are not easy to use, will they go the extra mile to collaborate or will the barriers still be too high? When people go to the collaboration site and no one is there, will they come back? The key in the corporate environment is to put collaboration literally at the fingertips of employees and to generate mass involvement—which is the only way that collaboration works. Quite often organizations launch a new collaborative environment within their organization with great fan fare only to discover that it doesn’t get much use. Collaboration applications are unlike most applications used within your organization.

A collaboration solution is used throughout the entire organization, whereas only a portion of the organization uses other applications, such as an accounting package.  Because of this, it’s important to understand how to package the collaborative functionality so that it’s easily accessible by all users within the organization. If the collaboration mechanisms are seamlessly integrated into the programs you use on a daily basis, you can share a document or initiate a chat without having to change your focus.  If the collaborative capabilities are packaged properly, users will automatically begin to use them and use them often.  This in turn will drive others to use the capabilities which will lead toward the successful use of collaborative technology in your organization.

Is Your Organization Using All of its Data?

There’s no disputing it – between our computers, netbooks, ipads and smart phones we generate an insurmountable amount of data every day. The items we purchase, the websites we view, the web searches we make and the blogs and articles that we write and view every day generate the bulk of this data.  Most of this information is used to improve search results or to help companies and marketing firms develop better ways to market their goods and services to us.

Some organizations are looking at how to use these large quantities of data to make better decisions or alert the public. WellPoint and IBM announced an agreement to put Watson to work in Health Care.  Watson is IBM’s computing system that rivals a human’s ability to answer question.  For this initiative, Watson will pour through millions of healthcare related data to help physicians identify the most likely diagnosis and treatment options in complex cases. In addition, this past weekend the Wall Street Journal contained an article entitled Decoding our Chatter which focused on analyzing data from Twitter and other social media sites. Twitter texts are as timely as a pulse beat and, taken together, automatically compile the raw material of social history. The Twitter analysis indicated that the Tweets about the Virginia earthquake reached New York before the tremors.  This information is a treasure chest of information for researchers interested in compiling the raw material of social history.

How can we make better use of these large quantities of data within our organizations to make better decisions? What if we had these social networking tools within our work environment and added the data from these tools to our corporate knowledge base?  This would allow the various social networking exchanges to be captured and searched – after all, if is often the case that the most valuable knowledge is distributed in various bits and pieces across the workforce.  Adding these workplace social networking communications to the corporate data set would provide a greater chance for the information to be available to the company at large.

The better organizations get at mining their knowledge bases to extract relevant information, the more competitive they will be. One of the keys is to start thinking of your collaborative interactions as part of your knowledge base.

Securing Against Today’s Threats

Whether you’re working in the public or private sector, you can’t get too deep into a discussion about IT without eventually asking, “What about security?”

Organizations often use firewalls and network security techniques to ensure that people who have no affiliation with your organization aren’t able to penetrate your network and poke around in the IT infrastructure. However a most recent Wall Street Journal article indicates that it’s no longer enough to secure your infrastructure.  The idea of using a firewall to perform border control is no longer enough to protect your network.  Instead of hackers attacking the network they are launching sophisticated attacks at your employees.  Some of these attacks are geared towards using information gained from social networking applications that your employees may be using to effectively collaborate.

Ideally, companies want their employees to be able to collaborate freely without worrying about security issues. Therefore, every organization has to strike the right balance between being able to work together effectively to solve problems and being able to ensure that information doesn’t fall into the wrong hands, whether those hands belong to someone external to the company or someone within the company. Collaboration technology can greatly enhance the process of exchanging information across organizations. This exchanging of information often causes concern about breaches in security, but when implemented properly, collaboration environments can foster enterprise-wide collaboration without compromising security.

Instead of looking toward external applications to provide these rich collaborative environments, organizations should provide these rich social networking applications under their control.  This allows the organization to fully control the security of the collaborative capabilities while promoting collaboration within the workforce.

Organizations should integrate the collaborative environment to the corporate authentication and authorization services.  By connecting the collaborative environment to the corporate authentication service users gain a level of confidence that they are conversing with another person identified by the system. This helps to build a level of trust, which is a necessary component for a collaborative environment to go viral in your organization.

Next, the collaborative environment needs to be integrated with the corporate policy server. When completed, the same corporate group policy implementation also applies to the virtual environment –thus eliminating mistakes of not properly replicating policy permissions. This in itself goes a long way to building trust that the information within the virtual environment is being properly controlled. In the virtual environment, authorization determines who has access to virtual spaces and to the various features of the collaborative environment.

Protecting information internally is as serious a matter as protecting it externally. Establishing a familiar authorization scheme helps ensure trust among users as well as between user and server, thus spurring collaboration. Although this means that you have a greater ability to compartmentalize information, don’t forget that the very purpose of collaboration technology is to foster the sharing of information as freely but securely as possible. With security an even greater concern today, the balance between encouraging people to collaborate and ensuring that information can travel safely is increasingly important.

Integrating Collaborative Services

We have seen organizations begin to look at collaboration as a series of services instead of a stand-alone capability.  What do these organizations need to do to deliver collaboration to the users? It is actually as simple as figuring out which web-based applications you want to add collaboration to and what collaboration services to add. The trick is to choose the applications and arrange the services to allow for the critical mass necessary to have the collaborative environment go viral. Here are some basic steps that work well:

  • Eliminate the barrier to entry for the user community by tightly integrating with your corporate identity management solution.
  • Take an inventory of the web applications most widely used by your organization.
  • Decide which collaborative capabilities should be integrated into the most used applications.  Choosing the most used applications will get you the critical mass necessary to have the collaborative environment go viral quickly.
  • Work with your super-users to incorporate collaboration at a deeper level to improve the user experience.
  • Work with individual users to determine how the collaborative capabilities they need can best fit into their specific web applications.
  • Achieve advanced integration using available APIs.

It might sound like this step-by-step approach will take more time than standing up a single vertical solution, but in actuality, collaborative services should be able to be stood up and running in a relatively short period of time. You already know that your existing web applications function well for you and meet users’ needs. With collaborative services, you’re merely enhancing the functionality and since you can pace yourself and prioritize applications, you can more or less get started overnight. Because you’re starting with what you already have and with what already works, the process is actually far simpler than starting from scratch.

Workplace Communications Favoring Real-Time Tools

In a recent article on Information Today, a survey developed by Robert Half Technology found that more than half (54%) of chief information officers (CIOs) interviewed recently said real-time workplace communication tools will surpass traditional email in popularity within the next 5 years.  According to Robert Half Technologies, this shift will benefit the workforce through speed, convenience and social networking. What should CIOs consider when looking for real-time workplace communication tools to ensure that their use goes “viral”?

If your organization is like most, you have access to collaborative technologies but technology isn’t used to it’s potential.  The most common reason that collaboration technology rarely seems to get much use in most organizations is because most business and government leaders think of collaboration technology as a product instead of a service. Collaboration technology doesn’t have the same characteristics as a specialized application, such as an accounting application. It’s something else entirely. What would happen if we thought of collaboration technology as fitting into an organization horizontally rather than vertically.

For example, organizations use an authentication service such as Microsoft Active Directory to manage entities and relationships within a network and provide information security for user access to network-based resources. Other applications on your system can connect to the authentication service using Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), and the service does the authentication and provides authorization information for the entire application or various features of the application. It provides one location for managing user information for authentication and authorization. The IT department manages user information in one location and the end user experiences a single user name and password to access network resources. With a single service, chaos is replaced by ease of use.

The Active Directory service works horizontally across the entire organization. Whether a user is launching a human resource application, an accounting application, a sales application, an engineering application, or anything else, the authentication service is integrated so that the user’s unique log-in works across all applications.

If you buy a new accounting program, it solves a very specific problem for the Accounting department alone. It fits vertically into the architecture of your organization so that it affects only that one specific problem without influencing other parts of the organization. It doesn’t interact horizontally with the HR software or the sales software—or anything else, for that matter. And that’s probably a good thing in that context. It doesn’t need to interact with other pieces of the puzzle; it just needs to do its singular job well by serving the needs of the CFO and the accounting staff. Conversely, the singular job of collaboration software is to interact well. So why have we gotten accustomed to accepting it as a vertical puzzle piece that plugs into the architecture without touching anything else? When you think it over, that doesn’t actually make much sense.

Imagine collaboration as a horizontal software application, connecting all those independent applications. Imagine collaboration performing the same way authentication services function. The same service is embedded in your HR application, in your accounting application, in your sales application, and so on. Now these applications can function in conjunction with one another. More importantly, employees using these separate applications can interact with one another.

Bringing Collaboration to Your Organization

What does it take to integrate collaboration and social networking capabilities into your existing applications? If you are like most organizations, your enterprise architectures consist of components from many different vendors. When a problem arose, you researched solutions and decide that Oracle, for example, provides the best option for your particular needs. But perhaps the last time a new problem arose, Microsoft had the best solution for you. And perhaps next time around, it will be another vendor or possibly an open-source solution. Through time, your IT architecture becomes an amalgam of many different interlacing components. Eventually, as an organization grows large enough and the architecture becomes complex enough, leaders cannot simply ask, “What is the right solution for this particular problem?” They have to tack on a caveat: “What is the right solution for this particular problem that will integrate smoothly with my existing architecture?” In other words, how will the new component fit when the organization is using Oracle here and Microsoft there and a little IBM in between?

A complex architecture is not necessarily a detriment for an organization. Organizations must have a wide array of options when it comes to problem solving, and this naturally means that they’re going to end up with many different types of solutions. A complex architecture is often an optimized architecture. So the fact that your architecture might consist of many different kinds of applications, tools, hardware, and so on is a positive thing. However, this type of architecture can lead to disconnected systems and in some cases a duplication of functionality.

Since having a complex architecture is inevitable, you have to continually ask yourself, “What’s the best way to piece all this together?” Today, most organizations have adopted a service-oriented architecture (SOA) in a virtualized environment for building IT infrastructure. The services in a service-oriented architecture perform a defined set of work that is useful for one or more applications within the organization. As systems have gotten larger and more complex, SOA has enabled large organizations to decompose large software systems into common services. Each service then has a predefined interface through which other services can access its capabilities. This allows the organization to have a series of services that are reusable and can be used by other solutions as they become necessary. Core services, such as identity management and authentication, then become the foundation of an SOA environment. An SOA not only eliminates the cost of duplicate services but also allows the sharing of information across various applications.

With the wide spread adoption of server virtualization in data centers, it is now even easier to launch a new service in the enterprise. What once required obtaining a dedicated server or identifying an existing server to host a service can now be easily accomplished by creating a virtualized server on existing hardware. This flexibility allows IT staff to easily launch and test the viability of new services within a timely manner creating a more agile environment for hosting and testing new services.

If your collaboration solution consists of a series of services, they can be easily combined together to provide additional capability.  In addition, by integrating these capabilities into various enterprise applications, you eliminate the barriers to entry for your users.  This provides a robust easy to use environment for users to utilize collaborative capabilities without the traditional barriers to entry.  By looking at collaboration as a series of SOA services, we now have the ability to integrate these services across the organization – similar to the way core authentication service works.

Has Collaboration Gone Viral in Your Organization?

Forward-thinking leaders understand that collaboration is crucial for any organization that wants to be productive, adaptable, and creative. Collaboration allows employees to connect with colleagues, share information and ideas, discover who else in the organization is working on the same issues, and increase productivity. People solve problems they wouldn’t otherwise have solved, get work done quicker than ever before, and feel connected because they are working together toward a common goal.

Why, then, is it sometimes so difficult to make the leap from knowing that a higher level of collaboration would be good for your organization to actually implementing it? What tools does your organization need to help facilitate collaboration, and how do you ensure that your personnel will use those tools? Why do many organizations struggle to provide their employees with collaboration tools that can gain the critical mass necessary for collaboration to “go viral”?

If people in an organization want to collaborate but the tools are not easy to use, will they go the extra mile to collaborate or will the barriers still be too high? When people go to the collaboration site and no one is there, will they come back? Would you continue to go to Facebook if nobody else was online? The key in the corporate environment is to put collaboration literally at the fingertips of employees and to generate mass involvement—which is the only way that collaboration works.

You need to eliminate any barriers to entry by integrating the collaboration tools directly into the programs and tools that employees are already using every day.If, as you’re working, you have to pause and redirect your train of thought away from the material you’re working on and onto the collaboration tool you need to use to share your work, chances are you’ll opt to skip collaborating. But if the collaboration mechanisms are seamlessly integrated into the programs you use on a daily basis, you can share a document or initiate a chat without having to change your focus.

The philosophy of many organizations is “If you build it, they will come.” In this approach the organization has a vision to implement a new collaborative environment that includes all of the tools necessary to collaborate effectively.  The new environment is launched with great fanfare.  At first users use the environment but over time its use dwindles.  The barrier to entry is too great or users must consciously leave their existing applications to collaborate.

How often has your organization taken this approach?  Occasionally, that approach has worked; Facebook is probably the best example of this type of success in the consumer space.  But a lot of dead companies lie in Facebook’s shadow, as well as a lot of failed projects within organizations. Just like Zuckerberg, they built environments, interfaces, and platforms—but no one came. As you’ll hear from any CIO who has tried unsuccessfully to get employees to use a new collaboration suite, simply standing up an environment and hoping people will show up is a huge gamble. Rather than “If you build it, they will come,” the philosophy should be “If you integrate it, they will use it.”