This month, it's all about the "C", as in "collaboration." I've talked about collaboration before; it's one of those big, fuzzy words you hang from the technology rearview mirror, and it dangles there doing not much of anything. But in real life, there are a number of areas where collaboration tools can really help businesses (especially small ones), and I'll address those areas.
A significant percentage of the collaboration tools are small, relatively standalone products that help in your day-to-day business by furnishing such functionality as instant messaging or the ability to share folders in Outlook. And while these tools provide important capabilities for business users, they don't provide the hooks where programmers get to sink their teeth into the meat of collaboration. Yes, it's nice to be able to send an email or look up a contact, but the real business ROI comes from being able to seamlessly integrate your back-end business functions with your collaborative processes.
In this article, I won't go into a big comparison of the features and functions of various collaboration options. Instead, I want to focus on a slightly different topic: education. Rather than a feature-by-feature breakdown, I'll instead try to show you how you can get your own information and make your own choices. To do that, I'm going to compare the primary options from each of the big players: IBM and Microsoft.
What Am I Comparing?
At the simplest level, I am comparing the two collaboration suites from IBM and Microsoft. In this corner, wearing the blue IBM trunks, is the tag team of Lotus Sametime and QuickPlace. In the opposite corner, wearing the bright green dollar sign of Microsoft, is the contender, SharePoint and its partner Live Communications.
Just to be clear, let's first take a look at the Lotus duo: Sametime and QuickPlace. These venerable tools are the standard for collaborative tool suites; Lotus essentially created the genre with these applications. QuickPlace is designed to allow non-technical users (which is really just marketing speak for non-programmers) to create virtual "workplaces" where team members can share documents, plan, assign tasks, schedule on a shared calendar—all the stuff that's required in a collaborative environment. Sametime adds the features that comprise the industry buzzword of "presence awareness," which takes what you and I might call instant messaging (and what our kids call IMing or
On the other side of the ring is Microsoft's SharePoint. Starting out life as an extension of FrontPage (Microsoft's original Web site development tool), SharePoint has grown into a reasonable competitor for QuickPlace, and the new version slated for 2007 release has promised dozens of new features. In the meantime, Live Communications started out as Windows Messenger and has morphed into a corporate communications behemoth, with conferencing and whiteboard and all the other features you expect from a collaboration tool, all seasoned with the distinct Microsoft flavor of taking advantage of Active Directory and tight bonding to the Office suite.
Note that I'm not trying to sell you either option here, nor to even provide a features-based comparison for you to use to help in your decision. No, that's not the point of this particular article. Instead, I want to go a different route and focus on the integration of these tools into your applications.
What's So Important About Integration Anyway?
I'm glad you asked! Seriously, though, integration (and specifically application integration) may not be important to you. For example, if all you need is the capability to get people together on a video or audio conference and maybe work together on a document and finally to plan the next round of tasks (something like a board meeting), then you're probably fine with what you'll get from any package (including a wide variety of open-source packages).
But a whole additional group of benefits appears when you start to integrate these collaboration packages into your external business processes. Here's a simple scenario: Marty, the order fulfillment specialist, sees a late order. (Author's Note: No! No! Not though a dashboard! Please don't get me started on dashboards!) Marty takes a look at the order, but it is not immediately apparent why it hasn't been shipped. He clicks on the salesperson in the order (Toni), and a balloon pops up to say whether Toni is in the office. She is, so Marty starts a call with her. Upon discussing the situation, they realize they need to getting the shipping department involved, and so they conference in the shipping department. Shipping explains that they just found out that the delivery address on the order is invalid and needs to be changed. At this point, they conference in the customer. They explain the situation, the customer gives them the new information, which is immediately entered into the order and reprinted for the shipping department, and away everything goes.
This is just one of dozens of ways you can integrate your vendors and customers into your business processes. But in order to do that, you need to be able to integrate your collaboration tools into your business systems. Somehow, the salesperson number on the order has to be translated into a phone number, and that phone number has to be connected. It may even be one more layer than that; the salesperson may link to some sort of entity ID that can be fed into your collaboration software. You'll also have to be able to add other people to the call programmatically. As you can see, there will be a number of areas where you'll need APIs into the collaboration system and documentation as to how to use them.
What Sort of Education Is Available?
This is what I've done for you. I've gone out and scoured the Internet for information, study guides, documentation of all kinds on these two tool suites. I've also called both Microsoft and IBM asking how to get started. And this is what I've found.
Online Tutorials and Documents
Tutorials are not exactly the strong suit of IBM's education offerings, but I'm impressed by the "roadmaps" that are available. You can find education of all types, although this is still a work in process and occasionally links are missing or invalid. Also, many of the courses are not cheap or easy; a typical IBM course is a three-day, instructor-led course for about $2000 or a self-paced, "e-learning" course for about $1000. The catalog is a bit out of date as well; I happened to look at WebSphere training and saw several offerings for VisualAge for Java.
Online documentation is a different story. IBM has a ton of information available on QuickPlace and Sametime, including nearly two dozen Redbooks/Redpapers. In fact, IBM has an entire QuickPlace library. Not only that, there's a separate page devoted to QuickPlace on i5/OS, as well as one for Sametime on i5/OS (interestingly enough, I didn't find a general Sametime library, but you can start at the i5/OS library and find all the documentation you need). According to IBM, the i5/OS-specific versions will be going away and all information will be platform-independent. We can only wait and see how well that goes. I keep trying to get enough time to install Lotus products, and I just never can.
Microsoft has a pretty extensive library of SharePoint tutorials. For example, start at this initial tutorial and note the list of additional tutorials on the right side of the page. Be warned, though, that this is for Microsoft SharePoint Services, which is only the free component of SharePoint and really doesn't cover the stuff that makes SharePoint competitive with QuickPlace. SharePoint Services is more for putting up Web sites that people can share, sort of in the same spirit as wikis or blogs. Microsoft also has an entire site devoted to e-learning, with a wide variety of topics, many of which are free (and even the for-fee entries seem to be from $29 to $99).
Lotus has a vibrant and even slightly cultish following, sort of like that which surrounded Apple and particularly the Mac. I think it may be partly due to the sort of "us vs. them" mentality that grows up around a successful niche product or product line. And lest some Lotusphile come whacking me about the head and shoulders for classifying a Lotus product as a niche product, it's pretty much a given in the industry that Domino is not exactly the right toolset for a small business owner and her three employees. Nonetheless, I'll probably get beat up by the Lotus zealots for this statement. As to the cultish feeling, I almost get the sense that some of the more intense among them enjoy the sense of being an outsider, not unlike the days of the TROU campaign for Mac (the computer for The Rest Of Us).
SharePoint has its share (no pun intended) of user communities as well. They range from avid SharePoint fans to real curmudgeons like Mike Drips. And while the QuickPlace/Sametime folks have the common center of the entire Lotus product family, SharePoint seems to be a little bit of a wallflower (and Live Communication doesn't even get invited to the dance). In general, I get the sense that specific Microsoft products don't really attract the same sort of following as the individual Lotus products both within Microsoft and in the greater user community. Is this a cultural thing? Or more an issue of the sort of hegemony that Microsoft tends to impose on its product lines? I couldn't tell you, but I find it interesting that Microsoft products tend to be as blurred as IBM products (particularly our beloved iSeries), whereas the Lotus product line is fiercely independent. Would that we had the same sort of inner support for the iSeries!
Lotus has Lotusphere, of course, which is a hugely popular show (although, oddly enough, there is absolutely no information available on Lotusphere 2007 even though it is supposedly being held around the last week of January), as well as Lotus Developer, which is run by the same fine folks at Wellesley Information Services that bring you iSeries DevCon. One unique thing I found was a conference specifically devoted to QuickPlace and Sametime called Collaboration University.
SharePoint also has its conference, although, just like Lotusphere, the conference is over, and there's no information to be found about the upcoming conference. And as always, not a peep about Live Communications.
Lotus has a bunch. For example, there are about 30 in the United States and another 20 worldwide. As always, remember that anything to do with Lotus is likely to be dominated by Notes/Domino, but where there is Domino, there are QuickPlace and Sametime. Interestingly enough, in this age of MPEGs and Webinars, there simply aren't that many good online tutorials that aren't sponsored by the vendors themselves. One nice touch in the Lotus community is the "virtual user group" run by LotusUserGroup.org. They do Webcasts of Lotus-related events, but the last one was in May, so I'm not sure what's upcoming.
Windows also has user groups, although I was kind of surprised that I couldn't find a really good central repository. Unlike the Lotus user groups or even the iSeries user groups, the Windows user groups seem to have no central clearinghouse.
Which Way to Go?
That's the question, isn't it? Comparing these two sets of information doesn't give you a whole lot to go on, either, although I think I can say this: The conventional wisdom on Lotus products is that larger companies can take advantage of and indeed need the extra features that the Lotus suite provides, while smaller companies often cannot afford the initial cost—of both product and more importantly training—that goes with a Lotus startup. That being the case, the SMB market, especially the low end, tends to belong to Microsoft by default. Tight, tight integration with Office doesn't hurt.
However, this article is focused on training. You might want to think about the fact that while Microsoft seems to be sort of feeling its way in the dark and has no clear direction for its collaboration suite, Lotus knows exactly what it wants to do and keeps going in that direction. Microsoft can give you documentation on this year's products but can't really tell you what next year holds, while Lotus has a large, avid base of users who continue to give feedback to the developers and who have a large vested interest in making sure Lotus continues supporting old code as it moves into the future ("futureproof" is the buzzword I hear most often). This fan base (for lack of a better term) will be available to provide lots of training and support and technical tips that may not be available for the "lesser" Microsoft products.
So if you're willing to take the plunge into a whole new technology but with a smaller initial investment and are willing to rely on Microsoft's online documentation, then SharePoint/Live Communications may be a viable solution. If, on the other hand, you want to take advantage of a huge install base and a ton of existing customers and are willing to endure the higher cost and learning curve, then the QuickPlace/Sametime product family might well be for you.