If you could bottle “collaboration” and sell it as a health tonic, the bottle’s label would probably read: “Take two spoonfuls before every project, and at the first sign of a flair-up, to relieve all your ailments and keep them from coming back.”

But gaining the benefits of collaboration isn’t as easy as taking a swig of tonic. If it were, there probably wouldn’t be a number of collaboration products created by or used in the IT industry, such as Microsoft’s SharePoint or SameTime by Lotus. A similar product, the eRoom Digital Workplace, offered by eRoom Technology, Inc., can help IT managers by promoting collaboration among team members and by organizing and streamlining project processes. This article will explore some of eRoom’s capabilities and explain how two eRoom customers use the technology.

Not your run-of-the-mill e-mail
An “e-room” is a virtual location where documents, specs, and other types of communication can be displayed for anyone permitted to enter the room.

“All the documents that…we would want to share via e-mail, we would put up in eRoom instead and just have everybody come and view them when they need to,” said Jeff Anderson, the senior manager of e-business with Otis Elevator Co., a wholly-owned subsidiary of United Technologies Corporation.

At first glance, the eRoom Digital Workplace resembles a standard e-mail application.

Figure A
A typical eRoom page

The categories on the left in Figure A above mimic the folders you would find in a standard Windows-based e-mail application. Likewise, the middle section contains messages and communications, similar to an inbox.

Here, the difference between e-mail and the eRoom application is that users can open, modify, and save changes to any document in the workroom. (With e-mail, a user has to save a document on his machine or a network, open the document, make changes, save the document again and send it back via e-mail.)

For example, if you sent a proposal to 10 people through e-mail and asked for feedback, you might receive 10 separate documents, or at least 10 different e-mails. You can collect the information from the responses manually, but this process is tedious. Also, if 10 documents are e-mailed directly to you, no member can view the feedback from the others. When this occurs, the team really isn’t collaborating on the proposal.

In an eRoom Digital Workplace, you don’t use e-mail to send the proposal or receive feedback. You drag the proposal document from your desktop into a workroom.

After it’s in a workroom, you can send an e-mail alert to each team member, asking them to look at it and offer feedback either directly in the document or through a bulletin board.

Figure B
Any participant can leave messages in a workroom bulletin board.

The example in Figure B displays comments under the heading, Development Schedules, but the Bulletin Board can be used to start discussions in any topic.

Another of eRoom’s advantage over e-mail is that at a project’s end, each document, spec, production schedule, etc., can be archived in the workroom, allowing you to search through them anytime during a project or after it’s finished.

You can collect the same communications in an e-mail folder and save it, but if your e-mail crashes during a project, all of the data could be lost. Also, unless you’re included on every e-mail string, it’s unlikely you can track communications between other team members.

How customers use eRoom
Otis Elevators needed a collaboration solution with a global reach because the major company sells its products in over 200 countries. For example, the organization made the elevators that lift tourists to the top of the Eiffel Tower and the glass elevator in Toronto’s CN Tower. The organization also maintains manufacturing facilities and runs engineering and testing centers in many countries.

Anderson said eRoom’s Web-based technology fit the bill because it allows Otis employees to enter workrooms from any Internet browser.

Anderson said the workrooms help Otis handle two internal situations. First, users cannot send large e-mail attachments to overseas users. “Our links in our internal network to our overseas facilities were just being gobbled up by these huge e-mails we were sending,” said Anderson. Large documents are placed in a workroom instead. Otis Elevators also uses eRoom’s hosted solution, eRoom.net, which keeps large files off of the organization’s servers.

The time difference between satellite offices is a hurdle for employees, especially when employees halfway around the world must collaborate. For example, it’s difficult for an IT team in Asia to be working when the IT team in New York is. The workrooms offer a place where one team can review project ideas without a long series of e-mail strings. For example, if the team in Asia changes your proposal, an e-mail to alert you about the change will be in your Inbox when you arrive for work. Likewise, if you reject the change, the manager in Asia will have a similar e-mail waiting for him.

Bob Wooley of Ketchum Public Relations said his organization uses eRoom because it does not require users to have specific applications to enter and view items in a workroom. “Our organization uses it primarily for communicating with clients…coming to us and communicating with different computers. [With] eRoom,…alot of the items…don’t need any specific application to open and read information,” he said.

While Ketchum Public Relations typically uses the workrooms to communicate with clients, Wooley said that they found an IT use for the technology. “If I want to communicate a question to (members of the) IT staff located in several geographical places, I send them all an e-mail with a lot of information and ask them all to respond,” he said.

“(This) decreases the amount of e-mail that has to go out and circulate everywhere,” he said.

How do you communicate with remote offices

Using a virtual collaboration tool like eRoom is just one way to work with IT teams in remote locations. Tell us about your strategies and you might win $50. We’ll pick two winners from the responses we receive.