What to look for

Collaboration tools integrate a wide variety of functions, which are often described using specialist terminology. If you're evaluating collaboration solutions for your business, this section will identify and explain the key features.

Collaboration tools integrate a wide variety of functions, which are often described using specialist terminology. If you're evaluating collaboration solutions for your business, this section will identify and explain the key features.

Administration tools
Effective collaboration needs to be easily manageable. This is especially important if collaboration is more informal, where it helps if the tools can be administered by their users rather than centrally. This allows you to add or change user accounts and rights as soon as new members join a team (and delete or lock them when they leave), rather than waiting for a busy central administration team. However, system managers need to have adequate management information so they can proactively manage server resources and ensure that documents are secure.

Application sharing
Instead of just letting other people in an online meeting see what you’re doing in an application, application sharing lets them work in the application themselves; you decide who can take control, and you explicitly choose to share individual applications. You don’t need to have the application on more than one machine because the Web conferencing service sends your commands back and updates what you see on-screen.

Business intelligence integration
Business intelligence tools allow you to see just how your business is running, delivering key metrics right to your desktop. Collaboration tools that can integrate these metrics show the team just how they are performing, as well as providing the information they need to make the right decision at the right time without having to swap to a different application.

Business process integration
Collaboration tools don’t need to be a separate process from the rest of your work. You can make them part of the business process, using them to help make decisions as a team where required. Collaboration tools that use Web services for integration can link to your line-of-business applications, effectively making your business systems part of the team.

Compliance management
Businesses need to comply with more and more regulations every year. Although local regulations have a considerable impact, if your business is working internationally you will need to comply with regulations from the countries you trade in. It’s easier to code compliance rules into your collaboration system than to leave it to people to remember what they can and can’t do: some content management systems offer content-based retention schemes as part of their information lifecycle management role.

Whether you’re using a server-based, Web-based or peer-to-peer collaboration system, you need to connect up to exchange information. But if you’re not in a live meeting you don’t need to be connected all the time, as long as the collaboration software synchronises the information to your local system. That way, you can work whether you’re connected or disconnected. If you have multiple collaboration servers (as with Lotus Notes), these databases also need to be synchronised with each other so that you get the same information whichever server you connect to; that’s known as 'replication'.

Document libraries/repositories/assets
To make collaboration tools more than the equivalent of chatting in the corridor, you need asset management. Documents that a team uses need to be at hand, and work-in-progress needs to be available for collaborative editing. An effective collaboration tool will offer versioning, keeping older versions of files available -- that gives you a history of changes and shows how people create documents. Stored files can include images, video and audio as well as common document formats, and in some cases the same tools include rights management to protect content.

If you’re working with customers, suppliers or partners, not everyone you need to collaborate with will be on your company network. Rather than giving them accounts on your network or waiting for them to do the same on their network, federated servers allow you to authenticate their existing authorised users on your network, giving them access to the resources you want them to work with.

Hosted services
Hosted Web conferencing services mean you don’t need your own server to hold online meetings; instead you use a Web browser to connect to the conference site and take part in the meeting. Often you connect to a private network, but the connection to the conferencing site is across the public Internet. Some services let you put a voice server on your network to keep audio conferencing local and private; others offer a server that you run to host meetings locally (and avoid monthly fees), while connecting to the service to allow users who are not on your network to join the meeting.

Knowledge management
Collaboration is all about sharing information, but many businesses also want to ensure that they capture the information that comes up in meetings and discussions to store alongside the knowledge that’s in the documents, resources and skills within the company. This storing, structuring, searching and distributing is known as 'knowledge management' and it covers finding the people who know things, as well as finding information that’s already captured in a document. As long as your collaboration software stores meetings and discussions, you’re capturing the knowledge; however, you may need more formal ways of extracting it. Collaboration tools are also useful for capturing informal knowledge by getting people to discuss projects and experiences even when they’re not working together on a specific project.

Named, shared and concurrent users
You don't have to get a licence for everyone in your company who's likely to use a Web conferencing service if they're not all going to be in the meetings at once. Although licences for specific, named users are often cheaper than those that allow anyone to use the service (as long as you don't have more shared or concurrent users than licences), it's cheaper to buy ten of the more expensive licences than 50 of the cheaper licences if only ten people are ever going to be in a meeting at any one time. Some services also offer per-user per-minute and pay-as-you-go pricing, which means you can choose between more meetings and more participants for the same cost.

This can be as simple as seeing if someone is available to answer an instant message. More sophisticated presence information shows when colleagues are in a meeting and when they’ll be free, or gives preferred contact details. So if the best way to reach them is on their mobile phone, you’ll get the number to call them on instead of an email address that won’t reach them until next week.

On Web conferencing services, presentation isn’t restricted to PowerPoint. Usually you can choose to show a single application like PowerPoint, or your PC desktop, so you can display spreadsheets, Web pages or any other information that’s relevant to the meeting. Participants can chat with the presenter, or each other, during the presentation. Some services show the presenter information about the participants, including who wants to ask questions.

Recording meetings
If you’re running a training session that you want to repeat, or a team member can’t make the meeting, or you want to keep a record to refer back to, you can record online meetings. Some services record everything, others let you choose whether you want just the presentation, or voice conversations and chat as well. Just because you can record a meeting with a Web conferencing service doesn’t mean you can publish it with the same service; the ability to publish saved meetings is often part of a more advanced package.

Rights management & document security
Just because you’re making documents available for colleagues to view and work on doesn’t mean you want everyone to have access to them. Keeping documents in a secure place doesn’t help if someone copies them to a notebook to work on at home, or shares them in an online meeting. Rights management stores the access rights in the document so you can only open, copy, edit, print or forward a document to which you have rights; whoever you send the document to has to have access rights as well. You can lock a document but allow annotations, expire documents automatically when they’re out of date and keep track of who’s worked on which document, and when.

Scheduling/shared calendar
If you want to get the right people in a meeting, or make sure you don’t schedule a sales call when half the team is visiting another customer, a shared calendar makes it much easier. It’s the digital equivalent of a wall calendar, but you can schedule repeated meetings, deliver invitations and reminders by email and attach useful information in advance. Some Web conferencing services integrate with Outlook to let you schedule online meetings just like real-world meetings.

Good search tools are vital for collaboration software; if you can’t find the document, discussion or whatever it was you were collaborating on, you won’t get much further with it. You'll need an indexing system that can look inside line-of-business applications such as document management systems, as well as file shares, folders and Web links. Adaptive indexers prioritise the most critical, used or important information. A good search ranking system will use metadata and dictionary information to give you more relevant results than a plain text search.

Although collaboration is about team members working together, the information they are using will often be confidential or subject to regulatory requirements. Security features, including access control lists, prevent unauthorised access, keeping corporate Chinese walls in place and stopping information from leaking to competitors. It’s also important to keep an audit trail, so you can see who has accessed (and changed) which document, and when.

Synchronous collaboration is when you get everyone together at the same time -- whether that’s in a virtual meeting, or sending documents through a workflow where you expect reactions almost immediately. Asynchronous collaboration includes discussion boards, document libraries and shared folders, playback of recorded meetings and any other system that shares information at whatever time is convenient for everyone involved.

Like a physical whiteboard, this is an area where anyone in a meeting can write or draw and everyone can see it. You can also cut and paste information from other applications and annotate them, so it’s a good way to share a PowerPoint slide, a chart or even a Web page that you want to analyse as a team.

Most of the tasks and procedures inside a business involve sending information -- often forms -- from one person to another and either waiting for responses or approval, or working on the task together. Workflow automates this, with rules for each step to make sure the right people fill in the necessary information in the correct form and send that on to the right place. Workflow analysis tools help you document the processes and rules involved; workflow engines store the processes and rules and route the information to the right people according to the rules. Depending on the business and the rules, workflow can be very rigid or more flexible.

In a Web conference you have a range of tools, from private chat with other attendees to different pens for drawing on the whiteboard. The workspace is where you access these; some Web conferencing systems let you arrange the tools on-screen the way you want, or minimise those you don’t need; others are less flexible, providing a fixed interface.