Working together at a distance

Once upon a time, team members sat within shouting distance of each other. It was simple to pop your head over the top of your cubicle or wander down the hall to ask a colleague a question about a project.

No more. In today’s increasingly virtual world, teammates may be hundreds or thousands of miles apart, located in several time zones, in several countries. Yet they’re still expected to collaborate as though they were cheek-by-jowl in the same office.

And with the increasingly digital state of “paperwork,” even those who do share a location also need to share files. In fact, Gartner predicts that by 2010, 70 per cent of the population in developed nations will spend 10 times longer per day interacting with people in the electronic world than in the physical one. Working together on a presentation may mean editing a PowerPoint document or jointly creating a proposal where all participants need access to common versions of a file.

But how? E-mailing huge documents is a perfect way to incur the wrath of both network and e-mail administrators. Shared file space on a server doesn’t allow for versioning, and it’s all too easy for one user to inadvertently destroy someone else’s work. Exchanging paper copies for markup leaves someone stuck with a nasty (and potentially error-prone) data entry job.

Collaborative workspaces allow teams to work together electronically while protecting shared documents. They provide a central e-location for teams to get together and pool their project files, and offer various other communication tools such as instant messaging and electronic whiteboards.

This is a hot market, with many products to choose from. Here are a few to consider.

As always, prices are in Canadian dollars, converted from U.S. if required at the current Bank of Canada rate (1.1680). Per-seat prices are at the lowest tier, and quantity discounts may be available.

Groove Virtual Office
Price per user: File Sharing version $81, Pro version $209, Project version $267
Trial: 60 days, Professional Version only

Groove Networks, although a fully-owned subsidiary of Microsoft for the past year, continues to offer its Virtual Office as an independent product. Virtual Office comes in several flavours. The basic File Sharing version offers shared files, discussion, calendar, sketch, Web links, pictures, notepad, integration with Microsoft Office Outlook and Microsoft Office, and folder synchronization. The Pro version adds virtual meetings, integration with Microsoft SharePoint, simple task management, custom forms and enhanced document review. The Project version adds project management tools and integration with Microsoft Office Project. Users are permitted to use their licence on up to five devices.

Data resides in an encrypted workspace on the user’s PC (there is no Macintosh version), and changes are synchronized to other team members as they happen. Should a user be offline when making changes, these are synched at the next connection; pending changes from other team members are held on a Relay Server until the user reconnects. The Relay Server also handles situations where users are separated by firewalls.

But Groove is primarily a peer-to-peer network. It provides presence indication, and allows users to directly interact in their secure workspaces. When a user shares a folder in Groove, it replicates the folder to the recipient’s PC; no one else actually has access to the user’s computer. Configurable alerts let others in the team know of changes.

Enterprise servers (and hosted services) are available to manage accounts and security, perform backups and generally provide enterprise-class management.

EMC Documentum eRoom 7.3
Price per user: $321.20 for a perpetual licence
Trial: Free 30 days

Documentum eRoom not only provides project workspaces, it offers managers a summary of the state of each via a cross-project dashboard. With the help of the add-on server-side eRoom Project Viewer, users can open Microsoft Project files without needing individual copies of the software. eRoom users can also open applications on their computers from within their workspace and the completed file will be saved to that eRoom. Version tracking and approval processes ensure that shared document integrity is maintained — no surprise, since Documentum’s claim to fame is in robust, enterprise-class document management.

IBM Lotus Quickplace
Price per user: $67.59 annually, including maintenance
Trial: Free 45 day hosted trial

Part of the IBM Lotus Domino family, QuickPlace is positioned as a self-service workspace expressly designed for team collaboration. Users can create their own team workspaces just using a browser, receiving access to document sharing (with revision tracking and Microsoft Office integration), a team calendar that integrates with Microsoft Outlook or Lotus Notes and a discussion forum. Mobile users can gain offline access thanks to the ability to replicate the workspace to a local drive. Both local and server versions are encrypted. Users can authenticate themselves through an LDAP directory. With the addition of Lotus Sametime, users get instant messaging and presence awareness.

Microsoft Sharepoint services
Price: Free
Trial: Free 30 day hosted trial

Microsoft’s SharePoint Services comes bundled with Windows Server 2003 R2, or can be downloaded at no charge. Its browser-based interface is almost infinitely customizable using existing templates, additional templates available for download, or through custom work with FrontPage 2003. Sites can be built as team workspaces with document libraries, calendars and task lists, or simply as Web sites. Since the underlying technology is ASP .Net, developers can create whatever is required using the .Net Framework included with Windows Server 2003. SharePoint does, however, require SQL Server 2000, which makes “free” considerably less so.

OpenText LiveLink ECM
Price per user: $1,168 for the first 100 users
Trial: No

Livelink’s collaboration module provides team workspaces with threaded discussions, project calendars, task lists, virtual meeting rooms and documents and folders. Like Documentum, Livelink’s heritage is in document management, and it shows. The collaboration module ties into that strength. Workspaces can be viewed hierarchically, and clicking on an item will trigger an integrated viewer so in most cases an external application need not be launched. Project management tools are extensive, and include a handy dashboard so team leaders can monitor progress. Both leaders and members can configure alerts to let them know about new or overdue tasks. Searchable threaded discussions record dialogues among team members, and users can even configure alerts to notify them of new topics or replies to existing messages.

Your existing infrastructure may be the deciding factor
With the exception of Groove, which is a peer-to-peer solution, each of these products requires at least one server — and Groove needs one too in some circumstances. This means that they can be pricey to deploy in-house.

However, hosted versions are available to take up the slack until an organization can cost-justify its own collaboration servers.

Choosing a product depends in large part on user needs and existing infrastructure. For example, in an IBM shop with Notes or Domino installed, QuickPlace is a no-brainer since it can take advantage of the other products, and Documentum users might want to interact with their repositories, a task eRoom can perform.

Similarly, Livelink customers are the best home for its module.

Microsoft server customers already have SharePoint Services, so barring other considerations, would want to look at it first.

These are big products, for big organizations; smaller organizations may want to consider Groove, which requires much less infrastructure and management.

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