Communications vs. Collaboration

Posted by Brett Young | Friday, December 26, 2008 | | 0 comments »

Anymore, it seems that communications and collaboration are inseparable, as well they should be. Unfortunately, this close association has resulted in some confusion about how the two terms differ. It has even caused some to wonder whether they my be the same thing. The fact is that communication and collaboration differ widely from each other. However, they are complementary: think peanut butter and jelly. Neither communications nor collaboration are new concepts. Both predate the modern computer era. In this post, I will attempt to clarify these terms and their relationship to each other.

Communication is simply the act of exchanging information. People have communicated by voice, and written word for thousands of years. Communication implies a two-way interaction. This is contrasted with a broadcast which is one-way. Within in the last 150 years or so, new, electronic channels of communication have been developed to overcome the time and distance limitations of voice and written word, such as the telegraph and the telephone. The Internet age brought new communications channels, including email, instant messaging. The concept of channels is critical to understanding what communication is and is not. A channel connects two points and enables the flow of information, or communication. Information travels from one point, through the channel, to another point, just like two cans connected by a string. It is not enough, however, for the information to reach its destination. It must arrive in a form that can be comprehended by the recipient. Today, the sender and the recipient of a message could be a human or a computer.

Collaboration is simply two or more people, working together toward a common goal. For most of humankind's existence, collaboration has required meeting in the same physical location. While it may have been possible to collaborate in the early 1800's via pony express, the "latency" inherent to that system would have undoubtedly complicated the process of working together toward a common goal. It was not until the arrival of the telephone that collaboration across space became viable. However, the telephone was not without its flaws. A telephone conversation is ethereal and lacks context. If you really wanted to work as a team toward a common goal, you needed a common meeting room, or workspace. So, for decades we have been flying people all over the world to meet in common workspaces and work toward a common goal. Although modern air travel makes this easy, it is still relatively slow and expensive. In some cases, people are using communication channels such as telephone, email, and instant messaging to avoid travelling as often. Ultimately, however, communication channels cannot adequately replace the need for a common workplace. A workplace provides critical context that is not present otherwise.

Today, virtual workplaces may be supported by real-time communication platforms, such as audio, web, and video conferencing. However, to overcome the obstacle of time, we need persistent virtual workplaces. They provide context and access to the content and tools necessary to achieve a common goal. This is where collaboration platforms such as Lotus Notes and Microsoft SharePoint come in. Collaboration platforms enable a framework that supports working toward a common goal. Collaboration platforms by themselves are not the solution anymore than a physical conference room is a solution of itself. Instead, collaboration platforms provide a common workplace within which teams interacts, manages relevant content, and accesses enabling tools.

Collaboration without communication is not possible. On the other hand, communication without collaboration happens all the time. When there's no common goal, communication without collaboration is to be expected. Unfortunately, people with a common goal attempt to collaborate using communication tools only. Perhaps they are using the only tool available to them or understood by them. We all know what it is like to be part of a project that relies solely on email. It's hard to find the project artifacts among all the other email. It's also hard to find the right version of a particular artifact. Compiling input from multiple people into a single piece of content is time-consuming and prone to human error. A communication may be misunderstood because it doesn't contain adequate context. A common workplace attempts to address all of these issues by delivering a common workplace built around a common goal. A workplace where the content, tools, and members come together for the purpose of reaching a goal.

Unified Communications and Collaboration (UCC) provides an integrated set of technologies that enable people to work toward a common goal across time and space constraints. As a society we are maturing rapidly toward leveraging communication channels and tools within the context provided by common workplaces. Where do you see communication and collaboration going over the next decade? Are there any disruptive technologies on the horizon that could substantially change the way we communicate and collaborate?

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In a recent Gartner article entitled Critical Capabilities for Unified Communications (16 Sep 2008 - G00160464), they identify eight critical UC capabilities: Telephony, Conferencing, Messaging, Instant Messaging, Clients, Communication-Enabled Business Processes (CEBP), Consolidated administration, and SMP products. Here are some of my take-aways:

  • Is your focus primarily on enhancing telephony or collaboration? The answer may direct you to one vendor versus another.
  • Cisco, IBM, and Microsoft are the only vendors with "excellent" ratings overall. Alcatel-Lucent, Avaya, NEC, Nortel, and Siemens are all rated as "good."
  • IBM and Microsoft score the highest overall, but have a bias toward the collaboration use case.
  • Microsoft rates slightly higher than IBM in terms of the "Clients" capability, 5/5 compared to 4/5, due to usability.
  • IBM rates higher than Microsoft from a "Telephony" use case, due to its extensive partner ecosystem
  • The Avaya "Clients" capability is rated a 2/5, due to limitations with the Avaya One-X solutions.

Bottom line:

  • Preserve value of existing investments – i.e. don't forklift IBM and replace with Microsoft
  • Determine areas where UC investments provide most value and solve most urgent needs – i.e. instant messaging/presence and conferencing
  • Plan to leverage more than one UC vendor – no single vendor offers a complete UC solution

The full article is available to Gartner members or for individual purchase.

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Overview: The MOSS Slide Library

Posted by Brett Young | Tuesday, December 2, 2008 | | 0 comments »

Companies are addicted to PowerPoint. It's hard to imagine how anyone ever sold an idea or proposal prior to digital presentations. This has resulted in mountains of bloated slideware files clogging our email and file servers. Microsoft Office SharePoint Server (MOSS) 2007 now includes a slide library feature that goes a long way toward improving the way we work with PowerPoint presentations.

The out-out-of-the-box slide library leverages all of the standard content management features inherent in MOSS, including as check-in/check-out, versioning, alerts, and workflow. The difference between a slide library and a standard document library is that when you upload a presentation from PowerPoint or MOSS to a slide library each slide becomes a unique SharePoint item, which is managed independently.

The real magic begins when you create a new presentation from the slides stored in the library. First, you select the slides to include. You have the option of creating a brand new presentation or importing the managed slides into an existing PowerPoint presentation, providing it is already open. You also have a choice whether or not to keep the formatting. Finally, you can choose to be notified if the managed slide in the library ever changes.

Think about it. As you open a presentation, it automatically checks the authoritative source of record to see whether any managed slides have been updated. That's powerful! If there have been updates, you can decide whether to replace the old slide or simply append a copy of the updated slide. Obviously you can ignore the update all together, if you wish.

So here's an example: We maintain an overarching Unified Communication and Collaboration (UCC) Strategy presentation. In addition, we have several sub-strategies for specific services within UCC. There are some redundant slides and some unique slides across each of these presentations. By using the slide library we can manage a single copy of each unique slide. Then, when we open a presentation it checks to see whether each slide is current with the version in the slide library. Before, if we needed to update one of the redundant slides, we would need to remember to replace the old version in each of the presentations. That takes time and is prone to human error. The MOSS slide library results in a much more efficient means of managing PowerPoint slides.

Although the advantages of using the MOSS slide library are clear, there are some things to keep in mind:

  • The MOSS site type must be a 'team site' or 'document workspace.' Other site types may not support slide libraries. Slide libraries cannot easily be added later unless you create a new sub-site based on the 'team site' or 'document workspace' site type.
  • All slides should be uploaded to the root of the slide library. It too difficult to create a new slide show from slides scattered across different folders in the library, since you lose your selections when navigating between folders.
  • Whenever you create a new, unique slide it should be uploaded to the slide library so that it will be managed.
  • All slide edits should be done on the managed copy stored in the library. Do not edit slides directly in the presentation. This will ensure that every presentation using that slide will be kept up to date.

The MOSS slide library is valuable to any team that manages a large number of dynamic presentations. I hope that Microsoft will continue to develop and enhance the slide library. Here are some most wanted improvements:

  • Larger thumbnail graphics - The tiny thumbnails in the main slide library view are so small it is impossible to read the content. Unless you are very familiar with the content, you will need to click on the slide to see a larger image or perhaps even open the slide in PowerPoint.
  • More safeguards - There are not any built-in safeguards to ensure that a presentation made from slides in the library will stay in synch. Someone could easily break the link with a slide in the library and not know it, resulting in the Presentation becoming stale.
  • Support for templates - A document template based upon slides in the library does not maintain the connection between the slides in the template and the slide library.
  • Deletion support - If you delete a slide in the library, you should be prompted to have it removed when you open presentations containing that slide. This would make it much easier to retire an obsolete slide across all presentations that contain it.

Have any of you used the new MOSS slide library? How does it work for you? What improvements would you like to see?

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