posted 7 Sep 2005 in Volume 9 Issue 1
By Jessica Twentyman
Today’s information workers are distracted, frustrated and distinctly less productive than they need to be, says Connie Moore, an analyst at IT market research company Forrester Research. The fault, she adds, is not their own, but lies squarely with a disjointed set of office productivity and collaboration tools – e-mail, instant messaging, calendaring and contact-management functions – that are, in her opinion, “profoundly deficient”.
“Today’s tools don’t help users manage the barrage of inputs from communication and information channels and don’t help people organise or communicate their thoughts in a natural way,” she says. “Often, the tools don’t exist for what information workers need to do. And virtually all the tools don’t model the way people think.”
The suppliers of such products – companies such as IBM, Microsoft and Oracle – may not publicly agree with Moore’s remarks, but it is clear that they are working to address these challenges with a new generation of personal productivity and collaboration suites often referred to as ‘information workplace’ products.
Forrester defines the information workplace as, “a software platform now emerging to support all types of information workers by providing seamless, multimodal, contextual, mobile, right-time access to content, data, voice-processes expertise, business intelligence, e-learning content and other information through the use of portals, collaboration tools, business process management, content repositories, content analytics, taxonomies, search, information rights management and other emerging technologies”.
That is a tall order – but it is a very necessary one: in the years ahead, more workers will need to communicate effectively with more people, both inside and outside the organisation, who are in different buildings, transportation modes, time zones or countries. “An integrated, contextual multi-modal workplace will become critical as business boundaries blur, the traditional office disappears, the current workforce retires and the next generation enters the workforce with sky-high expectations,” she says.
“The world of work is changing and workers expect a lot more flexibility these days,” agrees Darren Strange, Information Worker product manager at Microsoft. “We’re working on products that aim to give them a fuller experience, as and when they need it,” he says.
Key to that is Microsoft’s March 2005 purchase of collaborative tools company Groove Networks. Groove’s peer-to-peer software enables users to interactively collaborate on documents and data over an internet protocol-based network. It was invented by Ray Ozzie, who previously created the Lotus Notes collaborative software platform, and who became chief technology officer of Microsoft when the deal was announced. Unlike existing groupware platforms such as Lotus Notes, which replicate documents to each user’s PC, Groove uses a downloadable software client and enables users to work on the same document, interactively, in real-time.
Likewise, Microsoft’s Live Meeting conferencing package, acquired with its 2003 acquisition of Placeware, enables information workers to collaborate with colleagues, customers and partners in real-time over the internet. “That cuts down on travel,” he explains, “but at the same time equips information workers for a world that is more global. It’s rare these days to have any kind of job where you don’t have to meet up with people in one way or another.”
Microsoft’s approach is based not on providing single screen access to each of the various applications it offers but instead on “contextual collaboration”, he explains. “We work on the basis of providing a common interface to information workers to get the benefit of collaboration without having to go to different screens – because that is often inconvenient, clumsy and time-consuming for them,” he says.
There are some similarities in the IBM approach to collaboration. “Pulling tools together into a single view is a major challenge for customers and one that we need to tackle on their behalf,” says Fraser Davidson, VP Northern Emea at IBM Software Group.
Although IBM has reassured its customers that their investments in its Lotus Notes and Domino products will be protected, it plans to gradually integrate the software into its new IBM Workplace platform. The emerging Workplace portfolio is an umbrella brand for all future collaboration products with an emphasis on server-managed ‘rich clients’ that will enable convergence of text, audio and web platforms. Unlike Notes, Workplace is built on a service-oriented architecture.
IBM is encouraging enterprise customers to purchase the core Workplace components in a new bundled offering called Workplace Collaboration Services, which will be priced on a per-CPU basis. This includes templates for chat, course collaboration, customer support teams, discussions, document libraries, Domino application access, human resources activities, event planning, sales teams, and team projects. IT can modify or create templates and offer them to end users, who can further customise them to meet their specific needs. It also includes a set of basic spreadsheet, document, project scheduling and presentation editors.
But perhaps the most interesting development is the inclusion of ‘presence-aware’ technology. Using the Activity Explorer tool, objects light up to indicate when they are being viewed or edited by other workers. Users can hover over an object to see the names of those viewing it and then engage those viewers in an IM session for real-time feedback.
Presence awareness is a concept also being explored by Oracle in the Oracle Collaboration Suite, says Tim Payne, vice president of technology marketing at the company. “We’re putting a huge amount of work into presence awareness because the information worker needs these tools to know where they are, what they’re doing and what device they are using to get work done,” he says.
That is important, agrees Forrester’s
Not only that, but it will also be multimodal. “Users will access the information workplace via multiple access points, including desktop and laptop computers (through both browser and rich-client access), PDAs, landlines and cell phones, tablet PCs, wearable computers or embedded devices in cars, factory machines and radio frequency ID (RFID) systems,” she says. “Figuring out which communication channel to use will no loner be a user operation because business communications will no longer be location and device-specific. Instead, users will have a single contact address and profile for setting preferences for how and when they are contacted.”
This may sound futuristic, but the information workplace is not far off,