The BrainYard - Where collaborative minds congregate.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

September 6, 2004

9 Min Read

For years we at CS have been saying, "that he who has the most connections wins!" This is said somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but it has nevertheless proven to be true over and over. In the last 18 -24 months many of the ECM vendors realized this and acquired collaboration companies. But integration of ERP content into critical business applications that require collaboration is one of the big trends we have been tracking in the collaboration space over the last few years. It is the ability of collaborative applications to connect to content that is one of the biggest determinants of value for the collaboration technology (the other is how many people the collaborative application can connect to - the network effect). This article looks at a variety of approaches different vendors are taking to help the enterprise extract this value. The three approaches include: collaborative frameworks, smart content connectors and repository-based solutions. All of these approaches help collaborative tools (and those using them) to connect to content.Content, Context and Process

You have heard this before from me. These are the three factors we see as critical to get value from any collaborative technology: content, context and process. In addition I see three ways in which collaborative systems achieve value: from the network effect (i.e. how many people they can connect to); from how much (and how many different kinds of) content they can easily (transparently) connect to; and how much a part of a critical business process the technology can become. These also seem to be the three approached many vendors are taking to their products evolution in the collaboration market. For example eRoom (now part of Documentum/EMC) believes that the best way to get into collaboration is through building off of a content repository base. At CS we agree with this, at least more than building off of a messaging-based system (see our whitepaper on the subject). But because there are not many standards in the collaboration space, it is important for an IT organization to look at the options available before deciding on the path they want to follow.

Collaborative Consolidation Trend

A trend we at CS have been following, I call "collaborative consolidation." What I mean by this is the process that occurs in an enterprise when the IT organization gets tired of supporting a dozen different collaborative applications for as many different departments. IT either unilaterally decides to support 1-2 collaborative vendor solutions or spark an initiative in this direction.

Many Paths To Follow

We talked with three different vendors this month that are offering solutions to help consolidate or aggregate collaborative solutions in the enterprise. They each take a different approach: Global Crossing offers a collaborative framework to integrate Exchange and Notes; Groove and their partner Cashal offer Java mapped connectors to ERP and other data types through Groove's new Forms tool; and vendors like Documentum and Stellent are trying to unify the enterprise through collaboration from a repository. Global crossings solution is portal oriented, Grooves is data connector and Forms oriented and Documentum offers a repository-oriented solution.

The Way of the Portal

Global Crossing with their Compoze portal solution to provide a unified collaborative framework and through APIs, do Java mapping to Microsoft Exchange and IBM/Lotus Domino to allow the integration of mail, calendar, content and tasks. To this they are adding IM and presence and will be able to work across all of the major IM systems (MSN, Yahoo, AOL, etc.). Currently this solution is targeted towards the enterprise with a goal to unify a variety of collaborative islands. It is priced at $15k/CPU, with 4 CPU's the usual starting level. Each CPU is capable of supporting 500 concurrent users. Generally this portlet solution is sold through their resellers. The focus of the Compoze product is aggregation rather than consolidation. Compoze portlets can be embedded in such systems as Oracle, Sun, BEA, and Vignette. If you want to know more about their solution see:

Forms and Smart Connectors

Groove and Cashal have taken a somewhat different approach to this same problem. Through a new Forms tool (Version 3) in Groove Cashal (a Groove partner) now provides access to 400 different data sources. Like Global Crossing this tool also allows you to connect to MS SharePoint and Lotus Notes. This solution seems similar to the connectors offered by Stellent, who has a focus of Universal Content Management. Stellent also connects to a number of different portal systems such as: BEA WebLogic, IBM's WebSphere, Plumtree Portal and Sun's Java Systems Enterprise Portal. What is interesting about the Cashal implementation is that they abstract the semantics and do application object mapping to support ease-of-use and also connections at a high level. Groove supports a decentralized collaboration environment. It allows a team to retrieve data from a variety of ERP sources, and act on that data as a team to cut cost and cycle times. A good example of this is Siemens Medical Solutions that sells large medical equipment like CAT scanners, MRI machines, etc. These are very expensive and large machines that might take some construction to get them into the building. One of Siemens biggest problems was getting all of the different aspects of the delivery and installation coordinated. This not only involved Siemens people, but contractors and client personnel.

Figure 1 - Siemens Logistics Page

Siemens needs a flexible system as they change their processes monthly to continue to optimize them. In addition Groove can be the front-end to Siebel, PeopleSoft, J.D. Edwards and other ERP systems. Groove is using the CASHAL solution internally for their sales force and Siemens along with eight other companies are currently beta testing this product. According to Matt Pope, the product manager for Groove that we interviewed, the product is supposed to be in production release late this month.

"The Groove connector will give us a fast, low cost, easy way of mapping data directly between Groove forms and our back-end data warehouse systems," said Doug LaVigne, vice president of logistics, Siemens Medical Solutions, which currently uses Groove software for its high-speed logistics process improvement project. "We enhance our applications every quarter to support our changing business needs, so the ability to quickly build and deploy data transports is critical to our success. From my perspective, this is the marriage of an industry leader in data integration with the industry leader in collaboration software that supports today's mobile, cross-company project teams."

For more information on the Groove/Cashal solution see:

Collaboration Architectures

Collaborative tools fall into two general classes: messaging-based or repository-based. When examining technologies for your enterprise it is important to determine which architecture for collaboration will best fit your current (and future) infrastructure and use.

Messaging-based Collaboration. Microsoft Exchange/SharePoint and Novell GroupWise are examples of messaging-based collaboration tools. The messaging infrastructure is used to send process assignments through the e-mail/messaging system. Unless this is a one-to-one interaction, the pervasiveness of e-mail as a current part of enterprise infrastructure, supports employees in "worst practice" behaviors that can make a critical business process slower, less secure and less repeatable. These systems are limited by the e-mail capabilities and policies:

  • Content is sent with e-mail messages as attachments, URL links or is stored in mail server folders

  • Attachments sometimes do not arrive or links aren't accessible, especially when sent to external parties

  • Content can't be viewed by the recipient if they don't have the application needed to render it

  • Attachments exceeding IT policy limits are not forwarded

  • There is no way of knowing with attachment is the latest version

  • In addition, e-mail attachments can carry viruses and may be a security compromise. The corporate servers can often mistakenly filter out legitimate content. This model is not scalable or appropriate for enterprise or value-network oriented collaboration.

Repository-based Collaboration. Lotus Notes, FileNet, Documentum eRoom and OpenText are examples of repository-based collaboration tools. This collaboration architecture is more efficient given the trend towards rich, complex documents and larger document sizes, and operates as follows:

  • Content is stored in a central repository and exposed to a team through a digital workspace where it is placed in context within a project or process so teams with access can interact with it.

  • Team members can be notified of changes in the content and are usually given a URL to the content in the team space.

  • The team space offers a variety of real-time capabilities such as IM and application sharing and asynchronous tools such as content versioning and project/resource management.

  • Access control is implemented at various levels, with the more sophisticated tools implementing group, process and role-based security.

This is a much more flexible and scalable architecture for an enterprise, and does not have many of the same challenges that an e-mail based collaboration environment has. CS believes that the most successful collaboration solutions are those based on repository architecture. End-user organizations tend to dramatically underestimate the level of complexity involved with collaborative solutions. A messaging-based architecture can't cope with the increased complexity - whereas a repository-based architecture can. Increased complexity in today's enterprise can come from a variety of sources:

  • Increased content (CAD or rich media)

  • Increased process (inter-company processes)

  • Security and team access rules and increased roles

  • Disbursed expertise and colleagues leads to increased complexity in both interactions and relationships

For more information about the Documentum Repository-based collaboration solution see the CS white paper on the topic ( ) or contact Documentum.

Whichever path you choose, portal, repository, or connector, the trend seems to be for collaboration to be linked to enterprise content. After all, you need to collaborate around something! That thing is usually some sort ofcontent, and these connections are one of themajor ways to increase collaborative value.

The trend towards consolidation of enterprise collaboration vendors both inside and outside the enterprise will act as an additional driver for the types of solutions mentioned above. We at CS expect this area to become a hot spot for collaboration over the next year or two, and expect to see similar solutions from all of the major vendors. For what is at stake here is access to the enterprise.

David Coleman is the Founder and Managing Director of Collaborative Strategies. This column is his ideas and comments and do not necessarily represent the views of all of the analysts at Collaborative Strategies.

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