Shared experience

The UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) is way off target. All five of Britain’s largest new military projects, several less than a year old, are already experiencing cost overruns, schedule delays, or both. While none may be on the scale of Eurofighter – a project several years late and £1 billion over the UK’s budgeted contribution – the MoD knows it must take action if new projects are not to slip as a matter of course.

One of the keys to the perennial problems of managing vast, complex projects, involving scores of different contractors and sometimes shifting requirements is, in the MoD’s view, web-based collaboration.

That process of bringing groups together online, to interact, and share documents and data is at the heart of the MoD’s current plans to create an unmanned air capability by 2017 that can strike deep behind enemy lines. The core aspects of the project, known as FOAS (see box, In Practice: Ministry of Defence), are being choreographed using a system from UK-based IT services company Ultra Secure Business Solutions (Ultra SBS) that enables a team of 200 staff at aerospace contractors and the Ministry to work as a virtual team.

Such collaboration systems are reducing the risk of project failure through better visibility and communication, says Gordon James, the project’s manager. On a broader scale, he adds, the system has been instrumental in the MoD’s reassessment of how it can speed up the development and submission of bids for military hardware contracts, he adds.

While its projects may be in a class of their own, the MoD is not alone in placing faith in this fast-evolving set of technologies. Organisations of all kinds are exploring collaborative working, from a supermarket such as Sainsbury’s working on


In practice: Ministry of Defence

Like most government organisations, the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is under extreme pressure to deliver projects on schedule and within budget. But given the scale, the complexity and the dynamic requirements of its projects, that goal is not always met. That pressure has prompted the development of the MoD’s Shared Working Environment (SWE). Its aim is to improve the sharing of information, increase communication, and to integrate business processes both within the MoD and between its contractors.

Using the SWE, companies such as BAE and Rolls Royce are bidding for contracts in the first phase of the MoD’s Future Offensive Air System (FOAS) programme, an effort to build an unmanned ‘deep strike’ air capability.

“We are trying to get away from the situation where we throw a contract over the wall and wait for the suppliers to come back with a proposal six months later,” explains Gordon James, the project manager for the SWE. Currently there are four defence contractors and several different MoD organisations involved in the SWE, a number that should grow as the project progresses. Over 200 people currently have access to the system.

On top of SWE’s secure network platform, sit three components. Firstly, a website is accessible to all parties to coordinate the management of the FOAS project, and provides details of the objectives, timescales and processes. The second component covers risk management. The workflow-based system is designed so that each manufacturer has to update information about the progress of their aspect of project on a weekly basis, thus reducing the risk of project overrun.

Finally, there is the collaborative workgroup platform that provides document management, an activity tracking facility, discussion threading, and the ability to create private working areas.

Of these last two components, it is perhaps the workgroup platform that has been the most successful to date. Its document management ability solves the problem of version control that the MoD has faced when documents were sent through the post, email or by fax. In these situations, “you can never be confident that the document on my desk is the same as the one on yours,” explains James.

Overall, the SWE has been met with mixed enthusiasm by FOAS manufacturing partners. The workgroup software, James stresses, is not a replacement for face-to-face meetings but rather a supplement to them: “Typically, collaboration seems to work best between people who have already met.”

Moreover, with the risk management process the MoD has found that manufacturers are not always comfortable about revealing the status of their projects to others who may be commercial rivals. That can be fixed through refined access control, says James.

As FOAS develops beyond the contract bidding stage, manufacturers will increasingly make use of the platform’s ability to integrate complex design documents. However, for now, James is taking a relatively relaxed approach to compliance. “You should not force your suppliers on to the system. You can not do collaboration by coercion,” he says.



marketing campaigns with confectionery supplier Nestlé, through to sportswear company Adidas working with its European and North America-based designers and its manufacturers in the Far East.

Such interest is prompting a major re-positioning among the companies that provide the pieces to the collaborative jigsaw. Companies with software roots in content management, portals, document management, search and knowledge management are all rushing to graft collaborative capabilities onto their products, mostly through acquisition.

Content management software players, in particular, have been active. Open Text, iManage, Stellent and Interwoven have all added, or are in the process of adding, collaborative features and functions to their core content management products.

Others are buying up the functions that they need to better support collaborative working practices. In December 2002, for example, Documentum acquired collaboration software vendor eRoom, and Vignette added portal vendor Epicentric.

And even the largest players, such as Microsoft with its acquisitions of Groove and PlaceWare, and its forthcoming XDocs product, are signalling that collaborative capabilities will inevitably be embedded in almost every aspect of an organisation’s day-to-day business processes.

Behind much of this is the technology industry’s drive to serve new patterns of working – loosely termed ‘adaptive workplace’ – a model that aims to mesh the flexibility of human interaction with the speed and precision of IT systems. In the definition of Giga Research analyst Dan Rasmus: “Adaptive Workplaces are broad sets of technologies that link people and content across the enterprise, but do so by embedding collaborative and discovery technology into the work environment, not by exclusively relying on predefined rules.”

The upshot will be that tomorrow’s spreadsheets and word documents, applications and web pages, will be a starting point for employees to work online with each other, and with customers and partners, to find and incorporate data from across the enterprise, and ultimately capture the fruits of their collaborative work into documents that can themselves form the basis of new cycles of collaborative and unstructured working.

But at this stage, that is more vision than reality. Today, different levels of collaborative working are achieved by bringing together a number of discrete technologies, including groupware, web-based portals, email, content management, workflow, instant messaging, knowledge management, and identity management.

The spread of technologies, combined with technology vendors’ liberal use of the term ‘collaboration’ in their marketing collateral, has made it difficult for organisations to identify where and how they can use collaboration technology to their best advantage.

Usefully, however, early implementers of collaborative systems are now charting the benefits and challenges.

Group working

Collaboration for most of these organisations has been about trying to incorporate the characteristics of face-to-face interaction into businesses processes that rely on data and documents. The key technologies that underpin this can be split into two camps: workflow and workgroup.

Workflow is by far the most established form of collaboration, and is a core component of documents, content management and portal software. The technology passes documents and data between employees and applications to fulfil a defined business process. For example, employees can use it to pass documents that they have created for line manager approval. Workflow also acts as a means of alerting employees to given tasks.

But as organisations’ use of these systems has evolved, it has become clear that workflow does not completely accommodate real working practices. “Many companies integrate their applications through workflow, but do not achieve the full efficiencies because large parts of their business processes involve human collaboration,” explains Dan French, the European general manager of Intraspect, a collaborative groupware software vendor.

“For example, I don’t think you could do a sales or customer service process in a content management system because it is not designed to get people together. Content management is good for putting content onto websites or publishing print material, but not for human interaction. Human processes are analytical, decision-oriented and need to support flexible planning,” says French.

Workgroup technology, on the other hand, has certainly worked well in this manner for Masons, a UK-based law firm that serves the construction and engineering, energy, infrastructure and IT industries. The firm has beaten its competitors in bids for several client contracts over the past two years, based on the fact that it can offer collaborative working through WorkTeam groupware software from content management vendor iManage.

According to Kevin Connell, Masons’ Director of Information and Technology, the workgroup platform is attractive to clients because it enables them to access and review up-to-date legal documents that Masons has created. “The way in which lawyers work is not always as process- or workflow-based as other professions. It is more an ongoing exchange of information,” explains Connell. “The main benefit [of workgroup software] is the speed at which you can turn information around.”

Naturally, the asynchronous interaction provided by workgroup software is particularly useful when working with partners who are distributed across a wide geographical area. For example, eRoom software is used by German sportswear manufacturer Adidas to work with its third-party partners in the West on joint design and with manufacturers in Asia.

Similarly, computer equipment manufacturer Hewlett-Packard (HP) uses eRoom across multiple tiers of its suppliers and distributors of computer circuit boards to minimise its inventory levels and increase responsiveness. For example, HP can expose specific pages of its SAP enterprise resource planning application to suppliers and distributors so that they can view changes in demand and inventory.

Employees from each of the companies can then discuss and plan related actions, even using the polling system to vote on proposals and reach a consensus. According to Mike Gan, the managing director of eRoom in the EMEA region, HP has managed to reduce its inventory levels from sixteen days to just two and a half by using the software.

Content is king?

Despite the benefits of such collaborative workgroup software, it is not particularly document-centric. But that is changing.

One of the drivers behind the acquisition of eRoom by Documentum was the opportunity to create a platform that fulfilled the complete ‘lifecycle’ of a document, from collaborative creation through to delivery and archiving.

Previously, eRoom focused largely on web conferencing and offered very little ability to store and manage documents beyond the collaborative creation phase. For example, one eRoom customer, Deloitte Consulting, has had to use CDs to store all the content and workgroup templates that are created by the 50,000 employees, customers and staff that access its workspaces, according to eRoom’s Mike Gan. David Gingell, Documentum’s EMEA marketing director explains why the union of the two companies will change this: “We see our enterprise content management tools bringing true document management rigour to collaboration.” It is something that companies such as Open Text, iManage and Intraspect, have already managed to achieve through integrating aspects of workgroup and content management software.

“An online collaborative meeting in which no content is created, reviewed or followed up on is not valuable. We are making both the preparation of content and follow-up more efficient,” explains Dylan Barrel, Open Text’s director of product management.

Another driver for the convergence of workgroup software and content management is the fact that workgroup software is not ideal for every type of process. Bryan Richter, vice president of EMEA operations for Stellent, explains: “[Workgroup] collaboration will become a critical component of content creation, but it does not represent the complete lifecycle of a business process.”

Richter uses the example of an acquisition process. An executive might identify a target company that he thinks could be acquired. He can then set up a collaborative workgroup, and invite colleagues to discuss the potential acquisition. As discussions develop, lawyers and employees from the company to be acquired can also be given access to the virtual workspace, including all documents and discussions that they can usefully contribute to. Such capabilities are the really strong points of collaborative workgroup platforms.

However, once the transaction actually goes ahead, it is the role of content management workflow to take over, says Richter. For example, human resources (HR) or marketing teams from both companies may have used the workgroup platform to discuss the aggregation of their policies and materials. But when it is time for HR to implement its new policies, it will need to use workflow to take the documents through the official processes for approval, before publishing and distribution.

The same example can be applied to other situations as well. ABB, the Swiss-based industrial conglomerate uses eRoom to collaborate with customers when negotiating designs and contracts for building oil rigs. This way of working ideally supports the open exchange of views and information at the point of transaction.

However, once an agreement is made, and the legal compliance phase of the process begins, ABB uses a workflow system to ensure that the work is carried out to schedule and according to the correct procedures.

That is how Connell at law firm Masons characterises the most relevant applications, and the limitations of workgroup software.

“Workgroup software is very useful when you have a significant number of parties working on a small number of documents, or when you have a large number of documents being worked on by any number of people,” says Connell. “But it may not be as appropriate for repetitive work with a small number of documents and a well-defined process.”

With these guidelines in mind, it is clear that the value of workgroup software will differ between organisations and departments depending on their day-to-day work. Certainly, there will always be instances when every employee could benefit from access to the flexibility and openness of a workgroup platform. Right now however, collaboration can, and therefore should, be implemented on selectively.

For many, it may just be enough to keep up to date with the developments of collaborative software functionality. Although, the integration of workgroup and content management is well underway, the real leap towards putting the ‘adaptive workspace’ concept into practice will probably not take place until desktop software vendors are able to reach a broad consensus on the standards that define the metadata for the Extensible Mark-up Language (XML).

Microsoft’s development of its ‘XDocs’ functionality, to be released sometime in 2003, is a prime example of how this process will occur. Working with Office applications, XDocs will, according to executives at Microsoft, give every employee the ability to create and store reusable XML documents in a central repository. Combined with Microsoft’s popular email and instant messaging software, this may well prove a convenient ‘on-ramp’ to many organisations seeking to exploit the potential of collaborative content management. In short, the facilities for collaborative content management will be be built in. Individual organisations will need to decide whether or not to take advantage of them, and how they might do so to best effect.

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Ben Rossi

Ben was Vitesse Media's editorial director, leading content creation and editorial strategy across all Vitesse products, including its market-leading B2B and consumer magazines, websites, research and...

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