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10/12/2005
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Gathering Business Requirements for Collaborative Environments

Before launching into any kind of collaboration technology program, we must collect user requirements for doing business in a collaborative way. Even before that, we need to explain to these prospective users exactly what we mean by a collaborative environment.

Let’s assume that we have defined our perception of the concepts of shared spaces, content and context management, presence, messaging, and so on. Next, we determine who the user population is. We also target other potential users and estimate who the heavy users will be. Then, we ask a segment of that group for a list of their business needs. What happens if they still don’t know what they don’t know?

I am a very big fan of lists. A good list with clear language should be helpful in this situation. I recently developed a simple laundry list from which a select group of IEEE volunteers will name their business needs for communicating and collaborating online.

Here is the alphabetical display of what I chose to offer as features and functions in the list:

• Ability to integrate custom tools
• Ability to post multiple file formats
• Advertising capability
• Announcements area
• Application sharing
• Blogs
• Calendars
• Calendar email reminders
• Chat
• Content moderation
• Customizable configuration
• Databases
• Discussion email subscriptions
• Email integration
• File sharing
• Highlighted content area
• Instant messaging
• Inter-community search
• Integration with IEEE Member database
• Integrated with myIEEE
• Invitation tracking (for administrators)
• Mailing lists
• Member profiles
• Microsoft system integration
• Mobile access
• Other system integration
• Personalized conferencing
• Platform independent
• Polls/surveys
• Presence (who is online and their availability)
• Reporting capability (for administrators)
• Search capability
• RSS feeds
• Threaded discussions
• Unlimited file capacity
• URL checker (live or dead links)
• User-friendly interface
• Version control on files
• Virus scanning on all file uploads
• VOIP enabled
• Whiteboard

This list is actually part of a larger database designed to collect additional information such as the volunteer’s name and location, other functions not named in the list, comments on the project, and whether or not he or she would participate in a pilot project. The database is currently available in an online community that uses the CommunityZero platform by Ramius.

To further encourage the volunteers to contribute their business needs, I posted a discussion topic that defines collaboration platforms, asks for participation, and links directly to the database. Then, I subscribed the intended group of participants to the discussion topic so they would each receive an email (if they didn’t opt out of the email subscription service) containing the topic and a link to log in to the community.

The timing of this effort coincides with a major IEEE meeting for local volunteers from around the globe. At the meeting, I will be collecting data directly from volunteers as well as via a kiosk-type setup with a laptop open to the database in the community. The user won’t be required to log in (due to their new volunteer status, some of the users are not yet members of that online community).

By appearing at the event, I will have the opportunity to answer questions, explain precisely what I’m up to by collecting this data, and encourage these volunteers to think about collaboration in a wider context. One of the reasons why they travel so far to take part in this meeting is to network with other volunteers who do the same things and experience the same challenges. It would save them time and money if they were able to conduct more networking and local work online.

This will be a learning experience in advance of the next intended group of IEEE members to be surveyed. That equally large, if not larger, group comprises university students and their mentors in Latin America. Not only do they fall into a significantly different age bracket, but the majority of the students already have experience with the current online collaboration platform, and consequently, have a different set of business needs. I expect that I will make improvements to the database by the time that trip comes in two weeks. 

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