Real-time collaboration gets real

Until recently, more than 2,000 employees at SAS, the world’s largest privately held software company, were using a hodgepodge of consumer instant-messaging tools that lacked enterprise-level security and robust functionality.


Until recently, more than 2,000 employees at SAS, the world’s largest privately held software company, were using a hodgepodge of consumer instant-messaging tools that lacked enterprise-level security and robust functionality.

The Cary company rectified that situation by deploying Microsoft Live Communication Server and Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 clients. Today, more than 3,000 of SAS’s 10,000 employees are using the system, which integrates with various applications so co-workers can collaborate from a spreadsheet, a document or line-of-business system, such as CRM.

Live Communication Server also integrates with videoconferencing, web conferencing, phone systems, email, calendar, directory programs and public IM systems to create a presence-enable work environment that’s as close to real-time as you can get.

The impact on the business has been dramatic: “It used to be that something would sit on somebody’s desk for weeks. It just doesn’t happen any more. They move on. They don’t sit on decisions,” says Suzanne Gordon, CIO of SAS. “People know that if they don’t act, the world’s going to move on without them.”

While SAS initially adopted an enterprise instant-messaging application to make IM more secure, the presence aspect of the application is having a major impact on the way the enterprise collaborates, communicates and operates.

“Presence awareness was sort of the icing on the cake that turned out to be one of the killer applications,” says Kevin Angley, who manages the messaging and directory resources group for SAS’s IT organisation.

SAS is now “federating” or connecting its real-time collaboration system with those of its business partners and implementing public IM connectivity to link up with partners that lack an enterprise IM system. “Public IM is secure within our borders to their access to the proxy server within their network,” Angley says.

Taking a gamble

Another company that has introduced real-time collaboration and presence-aware tools is Procter & Gamble. The Cincinnati company has 60,000 IM users who are transitioning to a more robust, enterprise-oriented system.

But P&G is taking an interesting approach: It’s not forcing collaboration tools on employees; it’s creating demand for them. “We are moving from push to pull. We should not mandate tools, but we should let them be adopted,” says Filippo Passerini, P&G’s CIO and global business services officer.

P&G employees are adopting real-time collaboration because it fits individual work styles and the organisation's collaborative culture. “For collaboration tools to help, they must be completely embedded in the work processes,” Passerini says.

The company has a rich history of collaboration, developing its own email system before commercial systems became available. Like SAS, P&G has adopted Live Communications Server and Office Communicator 2005. Using Communicator, employees can escalate instant messages to web conferences through Microsoft Office Live Meeting, which P&G uses as a hosted service.

Spontaneous collaboration

The shift toward real-time collaboration is nudging organisational cultures to accept more spontaneous interaction. For example, the ability to switch from an IM to a web conference to a videoconference on the fly is changing conferencing from a scheduled to a seat-of-your-pants type activity.

“Web conferences make more sense in an ad hoc context; whereas, before they had to be planned out, laid out, uploaded and then the meeting tended to be more of an event and was, of course, scheduled and prearranged,” says Laurie Heltsley, P&G’s director of computers and communications services.

The most significant impact of presence is that it integrates collaboration and communication into people's work styles. In other words, rather than abandoning work to initiate an interaction, collaborators can connect directly from within applications.

“Presence will become, more or less, the focal point of the desktop over time,” Heltsley says. “And there are some indicators that we're going to drive many more things that used to be off the centre of the desktop to the centre of the desktop via presence. So, for example, video is one of them. Another one is application sharing.”

Grace makes the case

For companies on the cutting edge of collaboration, videoconferencing no longer requires walking to a conference room. Those large group systems are becoming presence-enabled and integrated with IM and other desktop tools. For example, buddy lists in Office Communicator and in IBM Lotus Sametime can display group videoconferencing systems from such vendors as Polycom and Tandberg, as well as users of those systems.

WR Grace, a chemicals and materials manufacturer, uses Polycom Web Office for presence-aware web conferencing and logs more than 1,000 web conferences and videoconferences per month.

In addition, a Grace sales and marketing team uses the text chat features of Groove Virtual Office from Groove Networks, now part of Microsoft, to get deals done faster. As its collaborative culture evolves, Grace expects to use IM more extensively throughout its operations.

Intellicare, a subsidiary of PolyMedica, uses IBM Lotus Sametime so that nurses and other health professionals working remotely can collaborate on care decisions through IM. The company, whose customers are managed-care companies and large practice groups, delivers triage and care over the phone to patients and fields more than 40,000 calls per month.

Typically, a hundred nurses are online handling calls while exchanging IM. When a patient describes complex symptoms, the nurse collaborates with colleagues in real time without putting the call on hold. Nurses can also escalate IM to web conferencing and share a customised triage management application with a chemist or doctor to quickly resolve the crisis.

Less hierarchy is more

Collaboration tools improve worker productivity, but they also give remote colleagues a sense of community, whether they're nurses, software developers or marketing professionals.

“They can have almost a water cooler conversation when things aren’t busy, find out about each other and talk about each others’ lives,” says Jeff Forbes, CIO of Intellicare. “Some companies see that as wasting time but we see it as really key to creating a workplace that has some value and a sense of community for the person.”

Intellicare, like many organisations that embrace real-time collaboration, rejects hierarchy. The culture involves connecting with anyone spontaneously and Forbes says that no employee hesitates to IM or call Intellicare’s president.

He, along with everybody else, is typically on and available. “We’re respectful of people’s time but it’s a highly informal and collaborative organisation,” Forbes says. “Somebody has an idea. They want to share it and act on it. And it really fits with the presence model.”

Forbes describes Intellicare's real-time collaboration approach as “very inexpensive, very low-impact and very low-maintenance”. The company has also made BlackBerries presence-aware so that managers and others can collaborate from anywhere. Version 7.5 of Sametime provides location awareness so that people know whether their colleagues are at work, at home, or elsewhere.

Culturally, real-time collaboration works best in organisations with less hierarchy. That’s because a summer intern can theoretically interact with the CEO, if he is online.

SAS CIO Gordon agrees. She views the fact that anyone can talk to her via IM as an executive advantage. She says sometimes people clam up when she walks into their office, because they view her as the CIO.

“With instant messaging, I’m just like one of their peers. You can get a lot of real information that way. That’s one of the things I really like about it.” She adds that using IM "”s almost like having a couple of drinks. It breaks down that inhibition.”

Rosen's new book entitled The Culture of Collaboration describes how collaborative companies maximize time, talent and tools to create value. Information on the book is available at He can be reached at [email protected]

Asynchronous tools aren't dead yet

The emerging view of collaboration is that it is a collection of capabilities rather than a set of separate applications.

These capabilities are becoming always-available from multiple applications and devices. Despite the shift toward real-time collaboration, asynchronous tools will continue to play a key role in organisational interaction.

The challenge is determining which mode to use when.

Enterprises are discovering that team sites and spaces, and increasingly wikis, can create exceptional value particularly for longer projects. And these tools are rapidly becoming integrated with real-time tools.

Fifty people may provide input on a team site document or wiki, but it’s impractical to have that many people involved in a real-time exchange. Increasingly organisational cultures will use asynchronous tools more judiciously and email will become less of a default choice.

Perhaps the larger issue is that as enterprises embrace real-time collaboration, organizational culture must evolve to accept spontaneous interaction regardless of level or function.

Collaboration FAQ

Here are some frequently asked questions about collaboration and presence:

What is real-time collaboration?
Real-time collaboration integrates multiple presence-enabled tools, including instant messaging, videoconferencing, web conferencing, and phone. As an example, collaboration can begin as an instant message and easily escalate into a web conference or videoconference . While IM is often considered real-time, it is actually a near-real-time tool.
What is presence?
Presence is the ability of a person or a device to communicate with others and display levels of availability. Both users and programs determine availability. If a calendar indicates someone has a meeting at 10 a.m., a user's presence status automatically changes at that time. If a user picks up the phone and the PBX or IP-PBX is integrated with the collaboration system, the user's presence status will indicate he or she is on a call.
How much do presence tools cost?
IBM Lotus Sametime costs $55 per user for a perpetual license that includes upgrades and support for a year. There is no additional cost for server software. Microsoft Live Communications Server costs $4,969 for a server license plus 25 client access licenses. There is no additional cost for the Microsoft Office Communicator 2005 client software.

Monster mash: How job site uses presence

Despite the growing interest in enterprise-oriented IM, some enterprises continue to achieve collaboration results using consumer-oriented tools.
At, the online job-search and career-development company, engineering and product-development teams use Windows Live Messenger, AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo Messenger. The teams are at development centres outside Boston and in Prague, the Czech Republic.
“You can bring contextual links across. You can be working on something in parallel with an IM session,” says Mark Conway, CTO of Monster. “[IM is] a really powerful tool. We have adopted it heavily.”

While Monster successfully uses videoconferencing, the company has had mixed results using VIM. “It didn’t get a wide adoption. People didn’t really feel it provided that much more value than the IM session itself in terms of collaboration,” Conway says.

Part of the reason that Monster engineers use VIM only occasionally is the language barrier between the two development centres. “A lot of them write English much better, have a much better time with written English vs spoken English,” Conway says.

In contrast, group videoconferencing involves more people and the tool is less likely to spotlight the language skills of individuals than one-to-one VIM exchanges. That’s because people who struggle with English can simply talk less. So for large-scale design sessions, design reviews and brainstorming, Monster uses videoconferencing combined with application sharing and whiteboard.

Four presence potholes to avoid

1. Culture clashes.
Despite the productivity benefits of presence-aware tools, enterprises must grapple with the cultural shift toward real-time collaboration. While organisations typically make use of the tools optional, many employees feel compelled to join in if they want to participate in key decisions.

“There’s a lot of people who find it to be an intrusion and invasion of privacy, because they walk away from their desk for five minutes and their machine declares that they’re idle or they’re reading a document on paper at their desk, and all of a sudden their computer claims that they’re idle,” says Kevin Angley of SAS.

At Procter & Gamble, the company emphasises to its employees that 24-hour availability is unnecessary. “It comes up culturally all of the time. When do I get to quit working? That is just a reality as our business and personal lives converge,” says Laurie Heltsley of Procter & Gamble. Heltsley explains that it’s acceptable for P&G people to turn their presence status to off or unavailable.

2. Ownership issues.
In some enterprises, corporate communications or even human resources manages videoconferencing, Web conferencing and collaboration. Collaboration tools are sometimes an outgrowth of distance learning and training, and HR has historically driven those initiatives. In other cases, corporate communications has run video production and business television, and videoconferencing may have grown out of these efforts.

“Ownership” also may depend on the network. The more advanced the network, the more viable it is for rich, real-time collaboration and the more likely that IT will manage those tools.

Regardless of which function drives collaboration, ideally, multiple functions partner in developing a collaboration strategy and implementing tools. Collaboration accomplishes business objectives more effectively when organizations focus on integrating tools into work styles and culture.

3. IT-related turf battles.
As real-time collaboration integrates conferencing with IM, the shift can cause turf battles over responsibility for tools, particularly in enterprises with well-defined “silos”. Because enterprise-oriented IM systems tie in with mail server systems and line-of-business applications, IT expects to own IM.

However, presence integrates IM with conferencing. If corporate communications or HR manages conferencing, that function may resist ceding control of real-time collaboration to IT. Meantime, the tug of war over tools is preventing the implementation of enterprise-oriented IM and presence in some companies.

“We're still working to define who’s going to take responsibility for what,” says Barry Kuhn of WR Grace. Ultimately, almost all collaboration and communication will occur over data networks which are rapidly evolving to handle the traffic. Therefore, IT naturally owns the collaboration infrastructure. However, input from other functions is a critical success factor.

4. Data retention.
Retention is another issue vexing some network managers, IT directors and CIOs. While enterprises typically keep all e-mail, instant messages traditionally vanish. As IM catches on as a standard business tool, compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act and other laws means retention will reach beyond email to real-time exchanges.
“Our chief legal counsel is saying that we need to make sure that any time an instant message session is done, it’s somehow recorded such that we can recall it,” Kuhn says.

Retention is driving the desire among enterprises for more robust real-time collaboration approaches. Microsoft Live Communications Server (LCS) and IBM Lotus Sametime both provide mechanisms for enterprises to retain IM. LCS uses Microsoft SQL Server-based logging and searchable conversation logs. Sametime provides retention through products from business partners including Symantec , FaceTime Communications and Akonix.

As conferencing converges with IM, enterprises may also begin archiving all collaboration and communication, including videoconferencing, video IM and even voice. While this notion raises privacy concerns in some legal departments, the pendulum is swinging toward retention. LCS offers video-IM archiving capability. Sametime provides video as an add-on to web conferencing rather than IM and allows for archiving this video. Both LCS and Sametime integrate with multipoint control units from partners including Polycom, Tandberg and Radvision. This arrangement allows managed retention of group videoconferences.

Find your next job with computerworld UK jobs

"Recommended For You"

Understanding the value of unified comms IBM says desktop computers and phones will disappear