Thursday, August 13, 2009

Collaboration at work = Web Meetings?

Of all the collaborative "stuff" out there, what do real working people need?

I was interested to attend a meeting recently in which a grassroots user group had formed a pilot and done its own research on the subject of electronic collaboration. They knew they wanted it but they didn't know what their focus should be. So they tried a little of everything and concluded that THE MOST NEEDED AND USED COLLABORATIVE TOOLS WERE ONLINE MEETINGS.

For web meetings, they liked Adobe Connect and Elluminate. I'd throw IBM\Lotus Sametime in there too. The first two are external services. The latter, an internally hosted client\server system that allows an organization to offer its own online meetings -- internally and/or externally. The features are very similar in all of these things.

They premised their pilot on the notion that the following things were VERY important:

- interaction with business partners outside the organization (i.e. a solution that's only available to internal staff would not cut it),
- intuitive (didn't want to sit through training--well, who does?) and
- FAST - they were tired of waiting around for the technology department to "provide" them with an appropriate solution.

And the following things were NOT important:

- full technical support (if it's intuitive, they should be able to figure it out themselves, right?),
- integration with existing systems (i.e. they didn't care if they had to remember another password for a separate system and they didn't care if it wasn't "built in" to an existing system for ease of use), and
- security (hmm!)

There were other conclusions, but these struck me the hardest. And honestly, the solutions they chose at the end didn't matter so much, since almost any service offers the same features. It's the needs\don't needs that are revealing here.

External business partners are crucial. If you think that your company collaborates only within its own staff, you're dead wrong. Almost every arm of a normal company has fingers shaking hands with folks outside it: purchasing, shipping, marketing, HR, etc. The solution you provide to staff needs to be extensible enough to encompass the people they deal with on a daily basis.

Now that almost all computer users are trained to understand graphical user interfaces from Mac\Windows, we expect certain features in certain places. Any software usability team knows that you have to build for these expectations -- and they do! You want to select multiple things on a web page? Control click! We all know this from Windows and we apply it to every screen we see. We've learned what's "intuitive" and we depend on it now. Fortunately, now that WE are trained, software developers CAN write "intuitive" software and we DON'T need techie geeks to interpret it for us anymore (mostly). So this is do-able.

Fast is key. No IT group is going to get you a solution "fast." Their raison d' etre is to anticipate every single business requirement and then add their own to provide a solution that solves world hunger. It can't be done, but nobody in IT has the balls to say "if you want it fast, I can solve 80% of your needs but I'm going to blow off the 20% that are too hard." No IT manager will admit that it's the 20% the customer probably doesn't even need that is going to tie up the delivery. So public services seems the way to go, right? Maybe. Public services give you what they give and you can take it or leave it. They make no promises about feature requests, support, or security. But give this to a corporate user and how long will you have to wait before someone's calling the Helpdesk asking for help, a data restore, or feature complaint about this service they don't even offer? People want the IT department to support ALL IT EVERYWHERE. So you might as well make the IT department put it on their list of services -- just do this -- if you want it fast, hand over a document saying (a) you will pay for it and (b) you absolve the IT department of any and all liability for what you will do. That allows them to focus on the 80%, not the 20%, which is going to get you your solution a LOT faster!

As I said, tech support is a consideration. You don't want it? Sure, when it's working! But when it's not? Be real - you're going to call SOMEbody.

What do we mean by integration? That's a puzzle. Do you really want online meeting "hooks" appearing in Microsoft Word? Email? Or is it OK if, when you want to meet someone online, that you have to manually click the meeting link and open that software specifically? I think it's probably ok. After all, we haven't HAD all this integration til recently anyway. Are we so lazy that every feature has to be spoonfed to us in our email? True, we spend more time in email than in any other office software application, but we ARE capable of using other apps and it won't kill us to minimize Lotus Notes or Outlook for a little while. Would you like to have your computer logon (Windows Active Directory password for most of us) passed to the web meeting app? Sure, why not? But if I have to look up that password from time to time, it really doesn't hamper my work.

Don't need security? Really? The problem here is that people want results first and fast. Security is a great "extra" but we don't know what it means, technically. And we definitely don't know how it applies to us as users. Most of us have the experience, however, that "security" means "it's gonna take a long time to approve" whatever it is you're proposing. Security = layers of bureaucracy more than "my data was not leaked to the press." IT orgs need to cut the BS associated with security and make it a part of daily life. They also need to market the benefits of security in ways that real people see the benefits.

IT departments need to do a better job of competing with publicly available services. Absolutely. Problem is, those services are focused only on that business and IT departments have to cover the whole spectrum. There's no way an IT department can do all that AND be financially reasonable - they are overhead units, remember. The trick is to identify anything that MUST be secure and supported and give that to the IT department. Then give business that doesn't need to be secure to an off-the-shelf service.

Know Thyself.

It's the only way you're going to get what you want!


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