Using the Cloud for Real-Time Collaboration

I’ve been contacted by a *checks email* uh, social media representative for Rackspace. If I understand this correctly, there’s a marketing promotion thing going on, particularly on cloud computing, a service that Rackspace is providing.

Now I’m moderately interested in this new fangled thing called the cloud. As far as I know, it’s like the client/server architecture, with another server layer as the “cloud”, so to speak. So I said yes, I’m interested with being provided an article on cloud computing.

“Vincent! You sold out!”. Well, Rackspace will be writing the article, so while it’s like a sponsored article, I don’t get paid for it and this blog is not hosted with Rackspace. So while I’m waiting for the supposedly newly written article, I was given another cloud computing article, so I thought you might be interested in that.

I will say this. It reads very much like a press release, with business and marketing terms and corporate speak peppered here and there. But if the cloud seemed to form an important basis for real-time communications, then I will have learnt something. The new article will be more relevant to you, I promise. Your manager might be more interested in this one.

On clouds and collaboration

Collaboration used to occur across a table. Coworkers, clients, and vendors looked each other in the eye and worked within sight and touch of one another. Today, you don’t have to be in the same room to look each other in the eye. Currently, over 70% of American workers are classified as mobile workers. By next year, IDC estimates we’ll have 1.9 billion mobile workers worldwide. Today’s workforce is global, so are the clients. Your employees and your customers work from home, from the coffee shop, or from the road. Tools like virtual desktops, file sharing, and remote email help make that possible while promoting collaboration.

Increasingly, business owners and managers are grasping for ways to reproduce the experience of working within sight and touch of one another. And, many of them are finding that fit in the cloud. Business-to-business organizations are leading the pack in adopting real-time collaboration technology. Others lag behind, citing reasons like the cost of implementation and the lack of internal knowledge. Both reasons can be overcome in the cloud. By sidestepping the cost of implementing and managing infrastructure for real-time collaboration, businesses are free to focus on how to best use the technology to meet strategic goals.

Joe Valeri, president of Lucernex Technologies uses cloud-based collaboration tools to communicate in real time across several sites. “Since we are a geographically dispersed, virtual organization with Mac/PC/LINUX users, we need to use cloud-based, multi-platform platform solutions,” Valeri said. “Webex is used for video conferencing and teleconferencing for internal and external presentation as well as webinars. In Producteev, we build one workspace for each major project we plan to manage, invite team members to that workspace and then the project manager assigns and tracks tasks. Members of the team will update tasks, attach documents, and start threaded conversations that are all auto communicated to anyone on the team that needs to know about that task. It integrates to the desktop for Outlook users as well as Mac users with really intuitive applications.”

Once the technology is in place, the challenge in establishing a real-time collaboration system becomes people issues, reports Larry Dorie, CEO of RHUB Communications. “The technology is usually very straight forward. Starting a session and managing it are very easy. The issues come down to getting everyone to be available at the appropriate time and logged into the system(s) (audio conference, if it is separate) and prepared to share screens/web cams.”

Sanjeev Sisodiya, vice president of the Enterprise Collaboration Practice at Persistent Systems, agreed. “The key challenges are scheduling and sharing the results/outcomes of the real-time collaboration,” Sisodiya said. “While most bridging the real-time collaboration tools address the scheduling challenge with decent integration into Outlook/Exchange, integration into the asynchronous collaboration platform(s) inside organizations, such as Microsoft Sharepoint, Jive, Cisco Quad, etc., can be a challenge. Significant progress is being made in this area as multiple vendors roll out comprehensive, cloud-based collaboration platforms that integrate both real time and asynchronous collaboration.”

When using real-time collaboration internally, the most important concerns are assuring that the correct people are in the meeting, have access to the documents, and no “unwelcomed” guests have joined. User interfaces and access controls in these tools should be designed to make it clear who belongs in what group and provide appropriate mechanisms to restrict sharing when necessary.

When bringing anyone into the collaboration, security, and training need to be considered. In addition to choosing a trusted provider, organizations need a comprehensive usage policy. “Many of these real-time collaboration tools have become quite simple and easy to use,” said Sisodiya. “Given that reality, it is critical that employees be aware of what an organization’s policy is regarding this form of collaboration. This policy must be easy to find and easy to understand which requires internal marketing and education. Once the users are aware of the internal policies the technology infrastructure must also enforce and track those policies as appropriate. This is particularly important for regulated industries such as healthcare or financial services where there can be non-compliance risks in addition to the risk of security breaches.”

Brian Peters, director of marketing strategy & operations at ARRYVE, a Seattle-based consulting firm, suggested three key decision points when it comes to real-time collaboration:

  • Can you easily view and control access? When team members join or leave a project it’s important to be able to add or remove them to protect access to sensitive documents.
  • Do you have access to all communications? Invite a generic admin alias from the company, in addition to the real team members, and make that role the admin in the solution. That way as team members rotate on or off of a project, there is no risk of the company losing access to the project repository or file history.
  • Is the content OK to share on a third-party service? Most of the cloud-based collaboration providers don’t guarantee backup or enhanced security or privacy of content, so while it’s great to have increased flexibility, it’s important to plan for alternative backups or to understand when it’s not appropriate to store content with a third-party provider.

With the right people connected, communicating, and sharing ideas, the cloud becomes the next best thing to being there.