Collaboration: Working Together, While Apart

General Dennis J. Reimer, the U.S. Army's chief of staff, offers compelling insight into what an executive can do from a remote location. Reimer travels with a laptop and routinely communicates by e-mail with 350 general officers and 150 garrison commanders around the world. Using a Web-based network called America's Army On-line, which also includes an intranet chat room, Reimer can raise issues with his officers and receive advice on key decisions, often within hours. "The network allows me to be productive and to maintain a pulse on what is happening whether I'm in Washington or overseas," Reimer says. "It not only saves travel costs but also enables collaborative teamwork across organizational and geographic boundaries around the globe."

More businesses recognize that remote workers include telecommuters as well as workers located in different offices. Since nearly everyone works with people who are in different departments and locations, many businesses are moving work online to better serve these remote working situations, whether the worker is local or remote, moving or static.

The vast majority of organizations already use basic collaboration tools - email, instant messaging, intranets, or web conferences - to share information between colleagues in different locations. " Today's employers want to provide a common electronic work space where employees can collaborate on projects regardless of their office locations, time zones, travel schedules or "flex hours," says Ian Campbell, an analyst at International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

Groupware is software that groups of people use together over computer networks and the Internet. It is based on the assumption that computer networks help people increase their productivity by collaborating and sharing information. The object of Web-based groupware is to help companies with multiple locations organize and manage projects collaboratively. The bonus is that it streamlines how teams interact and collaborate to complete work.

Basic categories for Groupware products include e-mail/messaging, group calendaring and scheduling, and workflow tools. Groupware also comes in the form of bulletin board, interactive conferencing, threaded discussions, and chat room applications.

Ongoing collaborations are inherently superior to face-to-face meetings because they allow collaboration over long periods of time, and keep central repositories of documents (memos, progress reports, schedules, budgets, press releases, etc). In fact, meetings become events that take place over days with attendees making contributions via electronic mail or the bulletin board system. This saves time, money and eliminates redundancies while helping each person in a collaborative project perform his or her specific job in a more efficient way.

Using such collaboration tools proves useful for:

Whether company facilities span across continents or just the stairwells of a building, web-based groupware provides tighter workflow for organizations with geographically dispersed workgroups. After years of hype, collaboration tools may finally be approaching the elusive goal of enabling employees, vendors and customers in different locations to work together as smoothly as in face-to-face meetings. Communications networks and IT are the tools that make possible this "working together apart." By utilizing technology, a working group in multiple locations and time schedules can collaborate as effectively as if they were in one place, even though they are geographically separated.

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