Real-Time Collaboration Takes Real Work

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The excitement around collaboration tools is building in the IT community. However, experts warn that companies should start preparing now for the nuances of real-time communications.

From compliance to security to infrastructure considerations, IT groups have a lot to think about when it comes to rolling out collaboration tools, such as instant messaging, audio and video conferencing, and document sharing.

''The basic security is pretty good -- collaborative tools have encryption and access controls,'' says Mark Levitt, vice president of collaborative computing at IDC Research in Framingham, Mass. ''But they don't do content filtering very well.''

Beth Cannon, chief security officer at banking firm Thomas Weisel Partners in San Francisco, agrees. Her company's sales force and trading group -- about 450 users in total -- depend on instant messaging programs, including AOL, Yahoo and MSN Messenger, to interact with customers.

''Our customers would rather not have to call or fill up their e-mail in-box with back-and-forth communications,'' Cannon says. ''Instant messaging provides a much quicker trade of information.''

But Cannon must archive and secure those rapid interactions in accordance with the finance industry's strict compliance rules. She layers a suite of management, monitoring and auditing tools from FaceTime over the myriad IM applications.

She says the monitoring tools work in conjunction with the company's e-mail archive policies to parse through transcripts, looking for keywords. If any problems are found, the information is quarantined and the company's compliance officer is notified. ''Within 30 minutes, the compliance officer can address the issue with the user,'' Cannon says.

For the system to work efficiently, Cannon says IT managers must warn employees about the hazards of instant messaging -- much like they do about appropriate e-mail usage. At Thomas Weisel, the employee handbook clearly spells out the firm's instant messaging usage policy, explaining that users are monitored on a real-time basis and that transcripts are logged for auditing purposes.

Francis deSouza, CEO of IMlogic in Waltham, Mass., says real-time collaboration tools require another layer of infrastructure. ''In many cases, the existing infrastructure companies have is not built for real-time communications,'' he says. For instance, it's okay for e-mail to be stored and combed through by the IT group at a later date. But with instant communications, there are discussions you're going to want to stop right away because they create immediate risk, he notes.

Developing sound policies around the use of collaborative tools is critical.

''A lot more thinking and planning needs to go into effective collaboration networks than people think,'' he says. ''You need to determine who gets archived and who doesn't... who can communicate with each other and who can't.''

For example, a consulting firm would not want two consultants with competing clients to be able to communicate with one another -- it could be seen as a conflict. ''You need to respect those boundaries,'' he says.

IMlogic's deSouza says IT groups also should be wary of worms that could come over the instant messaging transom. ''You want to make sure that collaboration isn't opening up another vector for malware to come into the company.''

Florent Buiron, CRM team leader at Steelcase International in Strasbourg, France, says he relies on heavy encryption for real-time collaboration tools. ''Encryption of all the data is by default so no one can tamper with it,'' he says. Buiron employs a mix of audio conferencing, video conferencing, and voice over IP, as well as project, meeting and document sharing via the Groove Virtual Office platform.

Today, he has 150 users worldwide employing Groove's collaborative tools. However, he says he expects that number to grow soon to 1,000 as he continues to roll out the tools to more users. Buiron says the distributed nature of Steelcase's teams makes real-time collaboration a must. ''We've got people working Brazil, Europe and Asia who all need these tools.''

Buiron says Steelcase International has fully embraced collaborative computing and a diverse cross-section of the company's employees work with the tools on a daily basis. A sampling of some of the worldwide project groups employing the platform are: a team working to implement an SAP ERP system in Germany; a team focused on the localization of Web sites; a team looking at new real estate projects for the company; a team managing CRM projects; the internal marketing and communications departments, and the financial teams.

Buiron says the groups use collaborative tools for project management, file sharing, versioning of documents, and meeting management. He adds that Steelcase International also offers the tools to outside project members, including consultants and partners.

But, like Cannon and deSouza, Buiron stresses the need for strict and enforceable policies. ''If you don't have the processes defined and the security in place, you may have a very good tool, but it could be used in a manner that's risky.''

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