Software // Enterprise Applications
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11/14/2003
11:46 AM
Tony Kontzer
Tony Kontzer
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Real-Time Teamwork

The promise of real-time collaboration is a few years from being realized, but some companies are getting a head start

The vision that South University officials have for their new School of Pharmacy in Savannah, Ga., to open in June, is considerably different than one might expect. For any given course, they don't want all the enrolled students taking their seats in the classroom when instruction begins. Instead, the private university sees the pharmacy school as the centerpiece of an emerging online collaboration strategy, in which technology will help it break loose from its dependency on physical classrooms.

While the plan calls for having most of the pharmacy students on-site, they'll be sharing space with video-conferencing equipment that will transmit instructors' lectures over the Internet to other students attending class via Web browsers on their home PCs. Voice-over-IP technology will let remote students ask questions in class and participate in discussions, and instant messaging will let them communicate with classmates and instructors. Workspace sites created online will enable teams of students to share applications and work on projects.


Jim Freyburger -- Photo by Milton Morris

Collaboration technologies will let South University's pharmacy students attend class from home, VP of IT Freyburger says.

Photo of Jim Freyburger by Milton Morris
In addition to reducing classroom size, the university sees the plan as a way to recruit students from around the globe. "I like the idea of a diverse population of students being able to express ideas and comment on them and not be inside brick and mortar," says Jim Freyburger, VP of IT for the 1,500-student university, which specializes in business and health-care undergraduate programs. But whether it will take one, two, or even three years to realize that vision in its entirety, Freyburger isn't sure. "Call us back in a year, and we'll see how well it's working," he says.

Like Freyburger, many business-technology managers see a lot of value in using the Internet to keep people in constant and instantaneous communication with one another, yet they're not certain when that vision will become reality. It's happening, but only in bits and pieces, as with telecommuters who communicate with co-workers using IM and employees who attend project-team meetings via Web conferencing. This concept, known as real-time collaboration, focuses on the person-to-person aspect of a company's broader collaboration strategy. On occasion, technologies such as IM and Web conferencing are being used to collaborate in real time with customers, partners, and suppliers.

But are the technologies and concept advanced enough to build a strategic organizational plan around real-time collaboration? That's a question business-technology managers are asking, and there are numerous challenges to achieving that goal in the near future. Many of the technologies available don't follow standards and don't link to each other easily, and the performance of multimedia delivery over the Internet hasn't reached a high level of consistency. Then there are the cultural issues involved in getting people to embrace a completely different way of working. "Real-time collaboration apps aren't ready for prime time," says Forrester Research analyst Erica Rugullies.

On a positive note, analysts think it will be only a few years before big visions for real-time collaboration are realized. Big-name vendors such as IBM Lotus Software, Microsoft, Oracle, Siemens, and Sun Microsystems are promising--and in some cases already offering--collaboration tools that embrace standards-based technologies such as XML Web services, Java 2 Enterprise Edition, and voice over IP. The resulting flexibility will let collaborative components be sewn together to create an always-on architecture. The plan from the IT community is to let collaborative features be embedded in various enterprise applications, launched from numerous communication tools, and consumed by just about any device. "There's a larger vision here than a group of disconnected services," says Rob Koplowitz, senior director of product marketing for Oracle. "Customers are beginning to see this as an infrastructure play."

Delphi Group analyst Nathaniel Palmer expects to see a quantum leap in the next two years in real-time collaboration, brought on by improved standards and interoperability, employee and management acceptance, and continued advancements in computing. What's advancing real-time collaboration, he says, is IM's underlying root technology, known as presence awareness. "The value of instant messaging is not that it's instant, or the message, but rather that it's a real-time loop for a computer to determine who's online," he says. Presence awareness, or the intelligent, aware network, will lead to "major cultural consequences as real-time collaboration becomes more persistent," Palmer predicts. "This is a couple of years away, at best."

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