Collaborative software addresses a common business problem: how do I get hold of the people I need to work with and exchange information when I can’t just sit down and talk to them? At its most basic, that means being able to find out if someone is available and getting an answer from them straight away, rather than waiting for them to get around to replying to email.
In this section, we first examine various 'ad hoc' approaches to collaboration, based around instant messaging (IM), blogs and wikis, and Exchange/Outlook-based email. We then look at Web-hosted conferencing and groupware solutions that don't require significant in-house IT infrastructure, followed by traditional server-based groupware. Finally, for those who are attracted by free or very low-cost groupware, we consider the various open-source options available.
IM can be an excellent collaboration tool, and many of the more sophisticated solutions include instant messaging functionality. But don’t ignore IM on its own. Even free public IM clients can be useful, although to avoid the problems of running multiple clients it’s best to consider an IM aggregator such as Trillian, which has just reached version 3.1; Trillian also includes IM logging and local 'serverless' messaging for security.
If you want more control, take a look at Jabber instant messaging, which uses the open-source Extensible Messaging and Presence Protocol (XMPP).
Security is a legitimate concern for IM users -- particularly of public IM clients. Fortunately there's a free solution available in the shape of Zone Labs' IMsecure, which defends against buffer-overflow attacks and can encrypt instant messages between IMsecure users. The paid-for IMsecure Pro adds protection from 'spim' (IM spam) and supports a wider range of IM clients, including Trillian.
Blogs & wikis
If you want to build up information and promote discussions, blogs and wikis are simple tools that are cheap or free to run. Again, for security and to ensure you have archives, you'll want a blog system like Movable Type or WordPress that you run rather than relying on public blog sites.
Blogs are good for starting discussions; wikis are good for creating shared documents. Anyone can edit a page on a wiki from their Web browser and it’s easy to create new pages and organise pages into categories. Depending on who's using it, the result is either polished, up-to-date documents or a sprawl of contradictions, omissions and repetitions.
There are dozens of wiki servers available, usually based on Perl, PHP, Java, .NET or ASP, and most of them are open source. TWiki and "="" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">MediaWiki are popular, while Microsoft’s Channel 9 site runs in FlexWiki. Going further, Socialtext Workspace is a commercially hosted system that combines wiki collaboration and blogging, both of which can be updated by email; the enterprise version also includes IM, allowing users to discuss pages they’re working on.
The simplest solution
For small businesses with the most basic IT setup, the shared calendars, to-do lists and address books that you get with Microsoft Exchange, for example, would be the ideal way to improve teamwork. If Exchange is too expensive or too complicated, take a look at the far cheaper and simpler Public ShareFolder for Outlook; this lets several users access the same Outlook PST file as if it was a Public Folder on Exchange.
If your business lacks the budget and/or the expertise to install and maintain your own server infrastructure, there are plenty of Application Service Providers (ASPs) who provide Web-hosted collaboration and groupware tools. A common type of hosted service allows you to hold virtual meetings on-screen. This isn’t just about saving on travel costs; working from your desk means you’ve got access to all your documents and resources, so it’s easier to look up a relevant email or Web page without leaving the meeting. Also, you can often share applications as well as show a presentation.
Hosted services like WebEx, Microsoft's LiveMeeting and Macromedia's (now Adobe's) Breeze charge a monthly subscription that usually allows for an unlimited number of meetings. The cheapest is Citrix's GoToMeeting, which lets you share what’s on your screen and integrates with Outlook for scheduling.
More powerful (and expensive) hosted Web conferencing services like Breeze add video, Voice over IP (VoIP) and IM chat so you don’t have to make a phone call at the same time, plus voting tools (the equivalent of asking for a quick show of hands). You can usually record the entire meeting for reference and everyone gets a copy of what you brainstorm on the shared whiteboard.
Groove offers similar tools, but without a monthly fee; you connect directly from one PC to another (with strong encryption), although a hosted version is available too. The File Sharing Edition of this peer-to-peer system synchronises files in any folder you choose to share; you can also chat with colleagues or share notes and sketches. If you upgrade to the Professional Edition of Groove, you get more powerful meeting tools, ways to manage agendas and document review cycles, plus integration with Microsoft's SharePoint.
Microsoft has recently bought Groove, so these products may well change or integrate with existing solutions such as LiveMeeting.
High-end services like Salesforce.com deliver a wide range of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tools tailored for different kinds of businesses. If you need more customisation than the off-the-shelf service provides, the sForce open Web services API allows developers to write code that links existing applications to Salesforce.com, while the Studio platform lets you customise the Salesforce.com interface.
Traditional server-based groupware tools often concentrate on workflow, which succeeds best where a strict set of steps need to be carried out by specific people (or their deputies) to complete a specific task. This works well for processes where you need to get approval along the way -- like document approvals (managing the production of sales proposals, for example), and HR forms (booking your holiday dates, for example). It can be difficult to implement workflow if your organisation doesn’t have a strict hierarchy, and there are better ways to simply distribute information.
You’ll find workflow-driven groupware functions in many applications. Many companies buy IBM Lotus Notes as an email and calendaring service, but it also gives you process- and workflow-driven groupware. You can design complex forms and distribute them across the company, with embedded scripts that manage the content and Domino server scripts that control how forms are processed and approved. The Domino/Notes platform’s integrated encryption and replication services also mean that remote users have access to the same workflows as colleagues in the office.
Moving to the world of intranets and extranets, IBM's Workplace Services Express is specifically targeted at small businesses, delivering an out-of-the-box collaboration environment that installs on a single server. Built on Java, Workplace Services Express delivers customisable workspaces for individuals and project teams, integrating with office productivity applications and providing access to email, calendar and address book information, plus instant messaging.
Another SME-focussed IBM product, WebSphere Portal Express, connects people across a whole company, as well as supporting smaller teams. It provides document management capabilities and an integrated database out of the box, while development tools allow you to build and customise an application, linking it into your business systems, processes and workflows. Team collaboration features such as instant messaging are provided as an option.
If it isn’t immediately obvious whether a portal will help you collaborate, application server vendor BEA offers a portal assessment service to help define your collaboration requirements, and consolidate any existing portals and applications into a single platform.
If you’re using Microsoft's Exchange Server with Outlook, you can quickly add basic workflows using Outlook’s form tools. There’s a collaboration SDK for Exchange for building more complex applications and linking to tools such as the InfoPath XML form application and BizTalk process orchestration server that let you set up workflows to route forms to the correct destination.
The free Windows SharePoint Services in Windows Server 2003 and Windows Small Business Server 2003 combines custom lists with notifications so you know when there’s new information. If you use it with a Microsoft Exchange email server, it can host email attachments and meeting agendas so that everyone automatically gets the up-to-date version even if you make changes after you mail the documents round. The paid-for SharePoint Portal Server adds portal features and role-based groups that change what each person sees on the site, but the collaboration tools are much the same.
Novell's Groupwise is not as widely used as either Microsoft's Exchange or IBM/Lotus's Domino. However, it has plenty of functionality, integrating email, instant messaging and scheduling, plus task, contact and document management. The Groupwise server runs on Windows and Linux, as well as Novell's NetWare and Open Enterprise Server, while the client is available for Windows, Linux, Mac OS or via the Web.
Choosing open source for your groupware server doesn’t mean abandoning your existing servers and software. With Open-Xchange (the engine behind Novell's SUSE LINUX Openexchange Server), you can share email, contacts, calendar appointments and tasks, threaded discussions and documents from a mix of software, including Outlook.
OpenGroupware.org offers a similar mix (shared contacts and calendars plus project and document management), and is designed to work with the OpenOffice.org productivity software. Alternatively you can use the Evolution client to connect to existing Exchange workflow solutions.
Open source collaboration and groupware tools are becoming more common. One of the key drivers has been the development of open Web service standards. Although these are still relatively new, they have sparked off several projects, including the Mozilla Foundation’s Sunbird calendaring client, and Mitch Kapor’s Chandler project. Open collaboration standards should eventually enable users on Linux, Unix, Mac OS and Windows -- and even Symbian and Blackberry mobile devices -- to collaborate without having to jump through compatibility hoops.
The best known open source groupware tools are currently more replacements for Exchange than meeting and collaboration services. Shared folders, calendars and contacts are an excellent first step to help people work together, but the richer tools in commercial services offer a lot more. Ultimately, the software you choose must match your business needs, and fit in with your business's culture. Everyone needs to see benefits from using a new system if it's to prove useful enough to make a difference.