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Software // Enterprise Applications

Collaboration Hard To Define, Even For Experts

During a panel discussion on collaboration at Technologic Partners' Enterprise Outlook conference in Palo Alto, Calif., the only consensus was that there's no consensus.

What is collaboration, and what drives its adoption within companies? What kinds of benefits are companies getting from their collaboration software investments, and when will use of those tools take hold as a part of daily work life? These are a few of the questions surrounding the emerging collaboration technologies that a panel of startup executives tried to tackle Wednesday during a panel discussion at Technologic Partners' Enterprise Outlook conference in Palo Alto, Calif.

The only consensus was that there's no consensus. Consider the issue of what constitutes collaboration. Julio Estrada, CEO of Kubi Software, which recently launched a product for creating collaborative workspaces within corporate E-mail applications, said simple communication too often is misconstrued as collaboration, which he said requires a team to gather, at least virtually, and within the context of specific goals. "I don't think that instant messaging, E-mail, and Web conferencing are collaboration technologies. They're communication tools," said Estrada. "As teams develop objectives around communication, and they create structure, that's where collaboration begins."

But Bruce Stewart, senior VP of strategic business solutions for America Online, disagreed. He said there's room for both structured and unstructured collaboration, citing the use of a messaging tool to get information from a colleague's sales proposal as an example of unstructured collaboration.

Communication really is just the beginning of collaboration, argued Julie Farris, CEO of Scalix Corp., which is preparing to launch a messaging platform that runs on Linux and open systems and announced $13.2 million in venture funding this week. It truly takes off, she said, when the ability for many people to communicate with each other simultaneously--as opposed to the one-to-one or one-to-many capabilities of E-mail--is combined with structure and workflows. The difficulty in making that happen has kept collaboration from truly taking off, she said.

Everyone on the panel agreed that collaboration ultimately will bring numerous benefits. Stewart noted cost reductions related to E-mail storage and long-distance phone calls as obvious gains, particularly for companies with large populations of remote workers. Estrada said the most powerful benefits will come from contextual collaboration in which collaborative communication tools get layered over business processes. Until now, he said, collaboration tools largely have required users to learn new interfaces, and that has kept them from committing to using them. As the tools improve, that commitment will solidify.

That won't happen overnight. Farris offered the most skeptical view of the market, predicting that collaboration won't become a part of daily work life for another 10 years.

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