Web collaboration tools are some of the most exhilarating workplace advancements in recent years. Before these tools were created, field personnel would travel to centralized locations to collaborate with their coworkers. By using Web collaboration tools, mobile workers can now interact and hold meetings in real time without the delays, inconvenience, and expense of pulling everyone together. These tools can boost productivity and lower travel costs.
Web collaboration tools are a technological merger of two of the oldest and most commonly used distance collaboration tools: the telephone conference call and written correspondence. While teleconferencing is still common, anyone who has spent time sitting in a conference room struggling to hear a garbled telephone call knows teleconferencing is imperfect collaboration at best. Even the voice-enabled chat applications suffer from the same walkie-talkie syndrome, exacerbated by Internet traffic.
One of the more sought after collaboration tools, videoconferencing, has successfully migrated to the Web. Web-based videoconferencing software has undergone radical change and improvement and is now possible for a modest investment in equipment and software. For example, Microsofts NetMeeting client is a free videoconferencing tool that runs on most Windows-based machines. NetMeeting can be used in both audio and video modes, and videoconferencing hardware can be purchased for as little as $50 per workstation. Also, shared whiteboards are growing in popularity and provide a reasonable simulation of live collaboration. Whiteboard software provides an electronic drawing and document presentation environment that enables users to make real-time presentations over the Web. Whiteboards can be used either for one-on-one conversation or for presentation to larger groups. Many whiteboard-enabled applications allow groups to share and edit word processing, spreadsheet, or presentation software content in real time.
Virtual meeting room functionality is another valuable feature available in groupware collaboration products, including HotOffice Technologies HotOffice and TeamWave Softwares Workplace. In a virtual meeting room, you can set up electronic work spaces for one-on-one interaction and communication.
Chat or instant messaging (IM) tools were already in wide use by millions of Internet users before the development of groupware tools. IM tools provide the benefit of being fast and providing instant and complete transcripts of a meeting. IM tools can be a part of a groupware solution (such as Lotus Sametime) or a standalone application (such as ICQ, AOL, and Microsofts instant message clients).
The enhanced communication available through these tools is particularly conducive to consulting or customer support organizations and is used by Andersen Consulting, Motorola, and Ameritech Corp., among others.
Collaboration technology provides many benefits, chief among them being cost efficiency. For an insignificant investment (or often for free), collaboration tools can be installed on multiple client machines and made available to many key people in an organization. The software and hardware are readily available: Lotus Sametime, ICQ, Microsofts NetMeeting, for example. There is no shortage of products advertised in trade magazines and on the Web. Collaboration tools can also open up marketing and operational opportunities that create competitive advantages.
There are some drawbacks to the collaborative technology. Regardless of how sophisticated the tool, nothing replaces interpersonal relationships. Total reliance on collaboration technologies can depersonalize the workplace and alienate customers or clients. Care should be taken to balance the use of technology with live human contact. Web collaboration tools can also add a level of complexity to IT infrastructure and create security issues. Security measures and practices must be reviewed to ensure that no holes are created or widened by the use of collaboration tools.
Industry analysts predict ever-increasing popularity for these tools, evidenced by the addition of file sharing functionality to AOLs IM and the availability of voice chat with Microsofts IM. Web collaboration tools will be an invaluable part of the 21st century office.