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

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

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.