Online collaboration tools are growing in popularity for a number of reasons. Increasingly businesses operate on a global basis, with networks of suppliers and partners spread over a wide geographical area.
Meeting with remote colleagues can prove time-consuming and costly, so replacing business trips with online alternatives is an attractive option. With the added cost-pressures of the global economic downturn and increasing pressure to be “green”, business travel is seen more and more as a financial and environmental burden.
The workplace as we know it is also changing. So-called ‘Generation Y’ employees who are now joining the workforce are already well versed in using web 2.0 technologies to communicate. Whether using Facebook to manage events or uploading videos to YouTube, the use of the web as a communication tool is well established.
In addition, today’s globalised world often sees business communities mirror consumer social networks, with many working relationships defined only on a virtual basis, thanks to geographically dispersed companies and partnerships. Added to this is an increasing demand for flexible working, from employees who want to be able to work from any location, for personal or business reasons.
As working practices evolve and change in this way, finding ways of communicating efficiently with staff is extremely important.
As a result, the use of web 2.0 techniques, such as online meetings, when interacting with colleagues is increasing, with Wainhouse Research forecasting that the market for web conferencing in the UK alone is set to continue to grow from $70.4 million to $154.0 million by 2012, a 17 per cent increase.
But while online meetings and web 2.0 collaboration tools can bring many benefits to a business, care must be taken to ensure all confidential information shared with remote colleagues remains 100 per cent secure.
Business-class Web 2.0
There are a huge number of web 2.0 services, offering many different ways to share information. However, they are not all suitable for business use. For instance, it wouldn’t be advisable to send a confidential report via Facebook, or use Flickr to share company photography.
Business-class applications need to combine the flexibility, scalability and availability of web 2.0 with the attributes of conventional enterprise applications: compliance, security and quality of service.
So before selecting a platform or tool for your business to use to collaborate safely and securely, there are several considerations that must be taken.
Choosing the wrong tool, with the wrong architecture for secure collaboration can put companies at risk. When files need to be shared and discussed, businesses often choose web conferencing services, but even these solutions vary greatly in their approach to security. For instance, some conferencing clients require users to upload any documents that are to be shared onto a central server from where other participants in the meeting can access them.
However, if this server is hosted on the public Internet there is always a risk that hackers could intercept it. To avoid this situation, look for online meeting platforms where all data to be shared is transferred in real-time between the participants’ computers.
In this type of environment, documents and files are only located on the host’s machine until he or she instructs it to transfer them to other users, meaning that they are never persistently stored anywhere online.
Other providers have gone further by building their own networks on which data can be shared, away from the public Internet. This approach significantly reduces the window of opportunity for malicious attacks, but also brings another key benefit: availability.
While other online meeting solutions may sometimes suffer in times of heavy network congestion, those operating on private networks can guarantee availability and reliable service at all times.
Another very important consideration when using any form of collaborative web 2.0 service in the workplace is encryption of data. There are several different encryption techniques, all of which are designed to ensure that all data is unreadable in the event of it being intercepted when travelling electronically from one person to another.
The Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) is a good indicator that your chosen collaboration tool is taking the matter seriously.
This is the standard endorsed and used by the US government to transmit classified information. Another credible encryption standard is Secure Socket Layer (SSL), which is widely in use within the financial services sector. Collaboration tools that use either of the above, or a combination of both, to secure data will help your confidential information remain in private.
Other standards, such as those agreed by the International Organisation for Standardisation (ISO) are also available for collaborative software vendors to audit against. These standards are internationally accepted and provide further means for companies to prove their solutions are suitable for business use.
Depending on what sector your company operates in there are a number of regulations to follow on record keeping and auditing.
Sarbanes-Oxley, for example, has strict procedures to follow with regard to archiving all communications. These rules apply to all kinds of business correspondence, including web 2.0 techniques such as Instant Messaging (IM) or online meetings. Therefore when selecting a collaborative tool it is imperative that it allows you to record and store any discussion that takes place.
Security during use
Finally, businesses must also consider how to guard against unauthorised participation in any collaborative sessions. Look for a solution with a robust system for inviting participants and controls to ensure no-one else can access the meeting or any documents shared within it.
The more advanced online meeting solutions available allow you to assign passwords governing access, and give the host the option to ‘lock’ the meeting at any time, leaving any unwanted guests outside. They also give control over exactly who can download the documents shared in the meeting.
Remote collaboration in the corporate world will only increase in the coming months and years, as business becomes ever more global and as working patterns and practices become more flexible. For those companies and employees yet to decide on an online collaborative working platform, the choice can be overwhelming, but with careful consideration to take both flexibility and security into account, the right tools can be found.
Natalie Butler, is manager of Cisco WebEx