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Choosing A Proprietary, Team-Based Collaboration Solution

In my last blog entry, I examined Open Source, asynchronous team-based collaboration systems.  Several Open Source vendors were profiled and categorized in terms of their products’ functionality, scalability, integration, and support.  Selecting proprietary (that is, non-Open Source) asynchronous team-based systems is a little more complicated, I’m afraid.  There are many different vendors in this space, and their products often have similar features.  Nevertheless, let’s look at some proprietary vendors and discuss how to narrow your choice.

I am sure I will leave out several vendors as I try to categorize the market, but from my most recent analysis, conducted in December 2005, I found 16 prospective candidates.  These vendors include:  BEA, Collabnet, EMC, IBM, Interwoven, IsoSpace, Kubi Software, Microsoft, Net Documents, OpenText, Oracle, Project-Open, SiteScape, @task, Tomoye, Vignette, and Virtual Global Team Leader.

These vendors can be put into the following three categories:

1. Niche Collaboration Vendors
2. Generic Collaboration Vendors
3. Business Process Improvement Vendors

Niche Collaboration Vendors. Niche collaboration vendors target specific collaboration processes such as task management, sales effectiveness, software development, or outsourcing projects.  Companies in this category either started as a consulting company that created an application for a specific customer's need and then productized the solution, or a company that found a large enough market for their specific collaboration tool.  The products are not deployed as enterprise collaboration systems, but more as process-specific systems.  If a buyer has a specific collaboration need, limited budget, a self-contained user group, and does not need to worry about the rest of the company, then one of these vendors may be the right fit.  Here’s a short description of some of the niche vendors:     

  • Collabnet.  Focuses on collaboration software for software developers and for those contributing requirements to the project.  
  • Kubi Software. Built a sales effectiveness collaboration system that is integrated with Outlook and allows sales teams to work together on opportunities. 
  • Net Documents. Has a collaboration system for law firms that require asynchronous collaboration tools with rich document management capabilities.
  • Project-Open. Specializes in the collaboration process that companies require for translating information into multiple languages. 
  • Tomoye. Prides itself on providing a rich collaborative environment for communities of practice.
    Virtual Global Team Leader. Focuses on the collaboration process for government organizations and software development. 
  • @task. Focuses on the project management process and tailors its collaboration environment to a project team's needs.     

Generic Collaboration Vendors. Generic collaboration vendors include BEA, EMC eRoom, IBM, Microsoft, and Oracle.  These vendors specialize in providing collaboration solutions that can virally spread throughout the enterprise.  Often these vendors provide a collaboration solution that is either free for a certain number of users or discounted as part of the purchase of another of their products. 

The basic collaboration functionality provided by these vendors gives users a good start and experience with a asynchronous collaboration environment and provides teams with a good system, but as soon as several teams need to start sharing and collaborating with each other at a company-wide scale, or when a lot of customizations need to be made, these systems fall short or require the purchase of additional components.   Also, these systems do not have the full collaboration functionality found in products sold by the business process improvement vendors (which I’ll cover momentarily).  These vendors fall short when it comes to document management functionality (such as check in and out), product scalability, communities, search, and email integration. 

The generic collaboration vendors have the most popular and widely deployed solutions and are continuously improving their solutions.  As such, several of them might make the leap and become a business process improvement vendor -- but my initial evaluation indicates that this hasn’t happened yet.

Business Process Improvements Vendors. Companies in this segment include Interwoven, OpenText, SiteScape, EMC Documentum and Vignette.  These vendors are distinct from the generic collaboration vendors in that they provide customers with a rich set of collaboration functionality that can be customized to fit specific business processes that a department may require.  These tools provide flexibility: one solution with many applications.  The majority of the business process improvement vendors are most successful selling into specific groups within a company that have regulatory needs, content harvesting projects, knowledge management initiatives, and specific collaboration process demands.  Customers who deploy this type of solution usually have experimented with several niche or generic collaboration vendors and now need a system that can consolidate these functions to fit an enterprise's needs.  Business process improvement solutions are more expensive than generic collaboration solutions, but can provide a better ROI and greater impact within a company.  Some people in a company could be use a BPI product out-of-the-box, while others might construct a customized system that helps optimize a specific process.  Yet in both cases, the same application and repository is used, and it’s supported by the same vendor. 

To help you understand which category best fits your needs, you should decide how much you want to spend, understand the business needs, how the business prioritizes collaboration, and how many users in the organization will use the system.  You might start with several niche and general collaboration products within your company, and then consolidate them to a single business process improvement vendor. Or you may want to start with a business process improvement vendor.  In my next blog entry, I’ll discuss how to avoid costly pitfalls during the vendor selection process.    

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