Creating a scalable collaboration solution

You don't have to have a big budget to get started in team collaboration. It's easy to move from products that are built into popular operating systems to enterprise-oriented solutions such as SharePoint Portal Server as your business grows--and you can do it without a big learning curve or the need to leave behind a lot of obsolete software.

By Debra Littlejohn Shinder

Today's business organizations, especially those that deal in intellectual property rather than products, are all about teamwork. The members of those teams may be located right down the hall from one another, or as the business grows, they may be spread out over a wide geographic area. To save money as the company hires more employees, some of them may work from home as telecommuters, or teams may need input from workers who are out in the field, at client sites or vendor sites.

As the team becomes more dispersed, the problem is how to keep everyone in touch and make sure that all team members have access to the documents and other resources that the team is working on together. When there are only a few team members and the project is a relatively simple one, members can use e-mail to inform other members of developments and exchange documents as attachments. Real-time communications can be accomplished with popular instant messaging software such as Windows Messenger or Yahoo IM, and files can be exchanged this way, as well.

Team members can track deadlines, meeting dates, appointments, etc. with group calendars or shared calendars, available via programs such as Microsoft Outlook/Exchange Server or through Web services such as Yahoo Calendar or software such as Collabrio'sMyEvents. Audio and video conferencing can be done through modern messaging programs or through NetMeeting (which is built into Windows XP, although many users don't realize it's there since its icon doesn't appear on the programs menu; you can, however, open it by typing conf in the Run box). There are also third party conferencing freeware programs such as Comet Video Phone and low cost conferencing applications such as Polycom PVX PC .

Moving to a Groupware solution

As the business grows, the teams tend to grow in size and the projects tend to grow in complexity. Collaboration becomes even more complex for workers who are members of multiple teams. You need to set up e-mail distribution groups and sort mail pertaining to different projects into different folders, and even with features such as Microsoft Office's change tracking, it can become difficult to keep all the versions of each document straight as it travels between (and is edited by) many group members. In addition, each team member has to deal with several different software programs (an e-mail client, an Instant Messaging client, possibly a calendaring program) depending on what collaborative tasks they want to accomplish at a given time.

At this point, it's time to think about investing in some type of "groupware," or integrated collaboration software. This type of software has been around for a long time; Lotus Notes and Novell's Groupwise were some of the earliest incarnations.

Web-based collaboration has become popular because it can be used from any computer that's connected to the Internet and has the appropriate browser; there is no need to install special client software.

You can subscribe to Web-based conferencing and collaboration services such as WebEx or you can deploy your own Web-based collaboration servers such as Windows SharePoint Services (formerly called SharePoint Team Services) or SharePoint Portal Server.

Microsoft's SharePoint family

Windows SharePoint Services is included as part of the Windows Server 2003 operating system and is great for building team sites for small and medium sized organizations. Members of the team can share documents, calendars, contacts lists, announcements and other information across the Web, without the need to buy and install additional software on either the server or the client machines.

With SharePoint Portal Server, you can go a step further and create enterprise-level portal sites built on the SharePoint technology that integrate with Microsoft Office 2003 and above, and you get added features for navigating large amounts of information.

Users can create and manage their own Web sites without IT department intervention, and you can target content for users based on their job titles or roles. Users can be notified automatically when the documents on their team site are changed, and version control will track the different versions of a document through all its changes and keep copies of all versions in case you need to refer to or roll back to a previous version.

The future of collaboration

As business needs become more sophisticated, so does collaboration software. Microsoft recently acquired Groove, which makes Virtual Office software that provides a very user friendly and secure interface for sharing files, having conversations and conducting virtual meetings. It comes in three editions: File Sharing (a basic collaboration program for sharing files and conversations), Professional (which includes the meetings feature, workspace templates, tracking capabilities and synchronization with SharePoint) and Project (which includes advanced project management features with customizable forms and databases.

Industry watchers have speculated that Microsoft will be integrating the Groove technology into SharePoint and/or the next version of Office, and perhaps making it a part of their new focus on "presence" (the ability of collaborators to easily locate one another online and stay informed about one another's schedules and whereabouts from within applications).

Enterprise-level collaboration technologies such as Microsoft's Live Communications Server can span multiple organizations and integrate with other technologies (such as the public IM service providers) but they're expensive and geared toward very large companies. You don't have to have a big budget, though, to get started in team collaboration, and it's easy to move from products that are built into popular operating systems (such as NetMeeting, Messenger and SharePoint Services) to enterprise-oriented solutions such as SharePoint Portal Server as your business grows into it without a big learning curve or the need to leave behind a lot of obsolete software.

About Deb Shinder

Debra Littlejohn Shinder, MCSE, MVP is a technology consultant, trainer, and writer who has authored a number of books on computer operating systems, networking, and security. Deb is a tech editor, developmental editor, and contributor to over 20 add...

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