» Archive for the 'Collaboration' Category

In the briefing room: Liaise moves into public beta

Thursday, January 7th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

It is always interesting to come back to a new product as it moves through the beta process and see what has changed.

Not so dangerous liaisons

Not so dangerous liaisons

A few months ago we wrote about Liaise, an inbox add-on for Outlook that scans e-mail messages as they are being composed and creates a task list based on any action items it finds in the e-mail.

Liaise recently moved into public beta with the addition of several new features.  What we liked about Liaise when we first heard about it was that it captures the action items that lurk in every e-mail and keeps them from falling through the cracks.  With the public beta offering, the company has added some new features which improve its functionality and fine tune how the tool works.

Liaise has added calendar integration for Outlook so due dates for action items pulled from e-mail appear in the Outlook calendar, as well as in the calendars of mobile devices that are set up to synch with Outlook.  This is the logical step for the product and links tasks, e-mail, and the calendar together.  Not having the action items integrated into the calendar was not a major problem, but the tool’s utility is definitely enhanced with this feature.

Another addition to Liaise is the ability to control more of what is displayed in e-mail messages.  In some situations, it may be preferable to have an e-mail appear normal to the recipient, particularly if that person is not a Liaise user.  At other times, for instance if the e-mail is internal only and all recipients are using Liaise, it may be useful for information about the action items pulled from the e-mail to appear in it.  The private beta of Liaise displayed this information by default.  More control is almost always a good thing and this makes the tool more likely to be used.

Liaise also had added support for cloud-based synching of project information among teams.  Particularly useful for keeping partners, clients, and disparate project teams up-to-date on project and action item statuses this allows information on projects to be updated when changes are made, without the use of e-mail.  Updates to projects can also be condensed into a single e-mail, in the event that the knowledge worker wishes to see a list of changes in one place.  Anything that cuts down on overall inbox traffic is to be applauded, although we do have lingering concerns about combining items in a single e-mail, as something may get overlooked.

As Liaise moves through the beta process the company is adding features and tweaking the user interface.  From what we have seen so far, the company is focused on improving integration, control, and the ability to synch information between users.  We like Liaise and think it has the potential to fix at least several of the problems that e-mail is plagued with relative to project and task management.  Looking towards the general release of the product as it moves out of beta, first on our wish list for future enhancements would be the expansion of the tool beyond Outlook.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

The Christmas Day Terrorism Plot: How Information Overload Prevailed and Counterterrorism Knowledge Sharing Failed

Monday, January 4th, 2010 by Jonathan Spira

There is no question that analyzing mountains of information and determining what is important, urgent, and worthy of follow-up (three separate and distinct categories) is a daunting task in any organization.

Are we sharing all of our knowledge yet?

Are we sharing all of our knowledge yet?

When the organization is the United States Federal Government and the amount of information that has to be addressed daily dwarfs what most people can conceptualize, lives may be at stake when an individual or system fails to connect the dots.

Such a failure occurred on December 25, 2009, but it need not have.

The tools to manage information on a massive scale do indeed exist and it is clear that the U.S. government is either not deploying the right ones or not using them correctly.

The National Counterterrorism Center, created in 2004 following recommendations of the 9/11 Commission, has a mission to break “the older mold of national government organizations” and serve as a center for joint operational planning and joint intelligence.  In other words, various intelligence agencies were ordered to put aside decades-long rivalries and share what they know and whom they suspect.  Unfortunately, while this sounds good in theory, in practice this mission may not yet be close to be being fully carried out.

In addition to the fact that old habits die hard (such as a disdain for inter-agency information sharing), it appears that the folks at the NCTC failed to grasp basic tenets of knowledge sharing, namely that search, in order to be effective, needs to be federated and contextual, that is to say it needs to simultaneously search multiple data stores and present results in a coherent manner.

Discrete searches in separate databases will yield far different results compared to a federated search that spans across multiple databases.  All reports indicate that intelligence agencies were still looking at discrete pieces of information from separate and distinct databases plus the agencies themselves were not sharing all that they knew.

In this case, much was known about Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian man accused of trying to blow up Northwest Flight 253.  In May, Britain put him on a watch list and refused to renew his visa.  In August, the National Security Agency overheard Al Qaeda leaders in Yemen discussing a plot involving a Nigerian man.  In November, the accused’s father warned the American Embassy (and a CIA official) in Abuja that his son was a potential threat.  As a result, the son was put on a watch list that flagged him for future investigation.  He bought his plane ticket to Detroit with cash and boarded the flight with no luggage.  Yet, almost unbelievably, no one saw a pattern emerge here.

Shouldn’t a system somewhere have put the pieces of this puzzle together and spit out “Nigerian, Abdulmutallab, Yemen, visa, plot, cash ticket purchase, no luggage = DANGER!”?

Information Overload is partially to blame as well.  Given the vast amount of intelligence that the government receives every day on suspected terrorists and plots, it could very well be that analysts were simply overwhelmed and did not notice the pattern.  Rather than being immune from the problem, given the sheer quantity of the information it deals with, the government is more of a poster child for it.

Regardless of what comes out of the numerous investigations of the Christmas Day terrorism plot and the information-sharing failures of the various intelligence agencies, one thing was abundantly clear by Boxing Day: the Federal Government needs to greatly improve its ability to leverage the intelligence it gathers and connect the dots.

Clearly, there are many changes that need to occur in order to improve security but one relatively simple way for the government to proceed is to take the first steps to lower the amount of Information Overload and raise the signal-to-noise ratio so that critical information can rise to the top.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

In the briefing room: HP SkyRoom

Tuesday, December 22nd, 2009 by Cody Burke

A knowledge worker who is seeking to get a colleague’s input has myriad options available.

Can you see me now?

Can you see me now?

He can send an e-mail, fax or scan, share a screen, use Web conferencing tools, use a Webcam, use a telepresence solution, or simply invite the colleague into his office to take a look. Each of these options carries with it a potential disadvantage, ranging from lack of physical proximity to lack of an ability to share live images and show fine detail.

Indeed, collaborating with co-workers has become more complicated as knowledge workers have spread themselves across the globe and technological solutions have multiplied.

It is of course possible to share static screenshots of slide decks or documents and even live video via instant messenger clients, although this can be limited in terms of image quality. Often the most useful way to quickly collaborate with a far-flung colleague is to combine video chat with sharing part of one’s screen to simply show a live image of the work in question. There are many options, from the low end with Skype screensharing to the high end with advanced telepresence solutions.

But what about a high-quality video solution for the everyman?

With SkyRoom, HP is addressing that need. SkyRoom is a video conferencing system for up to four participants that allows users to select a portion of their screen to share. This is useful for limiting sharing to a document, slide show, or design being worked on while keeping the rest of the screen private. Meetings are initiated via a buddy list with presence indicators to show who is available, just as with an instant messenger client. SkyRoom also integrates with existing deployments of Jabber and Microsoft OCS.

The quality of the image is excellent and the system supports streaming of high definition content. In the demonstration we participated in, there was no discernible lag time; indeed, an engineering simulation that was shared between two computers over a wireless connection was crisp and looked identical to the original.

SkyRoom is a significant improvement from an entry-level solution such as Skype’s screensharing function and offers security features that make it a viable option for the enterprise. Although others in the meeting can’t participate actively, i.e. someone viewing an engineering simulation can’t make changes to it, the solution is nonetheless an effective way to collaborate on projects from the comfort of one’s office, without having to gather colleagues for a face-to-face session.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the briefing room: ViVu

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009 by Cody Burke

Online collaboration is tricky business.  It means many different things to different people.

Live, from New York, it's...

Live, from New York, it's...

For some knowledge workers, it means basic screen sharing and voice communications.  For others real-time video is key.  For most, however, typically deployed tools fall somewhere in the middle, in what is often a compromise of both ease of use and functionality.  Indeed, meeting attendees must often wait while technical glitches are resolved.

The next generation of online collaboration tools probably won’t resemble what we have become used to.  In fact, the very terms “Web conference” or “video conference” imply a certain aesthetic experience that has proven itself over and over to be not quite ideal for effective online work.  Sitting in a cubicle as a slide presentation whizzes by, accompanied by a faceless narrator or attending a meeting via an elaborate telepresence setup are not the only options.  Perhaps the next wave of online collaboration solutions will provide features that encourage true knowledge sharing, be it by slide decks, desktop sharing, chat, or video.

ViVu is a company that may very well be offering one of the first of a new generation of collaboration solutions.   Their solution is a Web-based videoconferencing tool that runs without any download or installation and features video, chat, desktop sharing, and the ability to share slide presentations.  The system is quite easy-to-use and the interface is clean and responsive and presents the user with modules that can be rearranged and resized on the screen.  Such functionality is quite useful; the video feed can be reduced to a small size and the presentation slides enlarged when necessary, or the slide deck minimized completely if the focus has shifted to the video feed.   Allowing the user to control his environment enables fine tuning that helps ensure sharp focus and maximum effectiveness.

The system scales from small meetings to large conference-style events.  ViVu is available as a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) or as an on-site deployment that keeps sensitive information behind the firewall.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the briefing room: Venuegen

Thursday, December 10th, 2009 by Cody Burke

I recently had the pleasure of attending a meeting on the deck of a sailing yacht; the sky was clear and the waves lapped pleasantly on the boat’s hull as I listened to our host explain his company’s vision for the future of enterprise collaboration.

And it never needs cleaning...

And it never needs cleaning...

At times, he got rather excited, gesticulating and laughing at jokes.

The amazing thing was, I did this all without leaving my office.  Instead, I was immersed in a 3-D virtual environment.

Meetings have been taking place in online environments, such as Web conferences, on a regular basis since PlaceWare was launched in the 1990s.  While there have been some significant improvements since then, the basic model hasn’t changed.  Meetings remain a combination of screen sharing, audio call in, and perhaps some integrated functions such as chat, hand raising, and polling.  Unfortunately, many subtle communication cues are lost due to the lack of a richer interface.  Advanced telepresence solutions are available to a limited few, but the cost of these solutions will not lead to mass adoption in the near future.

Second Life, a pioneer in 3-D virtual environments, has struggled to find a compelling business niche.  Indeed there was an initial land rush to set up virtual store fronts and facilities in Second Life but most people seem to have moved beyond.

The Venue Network is a company that developed Venuegen, an immersive, browser-based 3-D environment that is strictly business.  The system is simple to use and manage and offers a variety of meeting environments, such as conference rooms, lecture theaters, a coffee shop, the set of a late night talk show, and of course, a yacht.  Venuegen offers useful functionality that allows organizations and users to personalize the meeting experience.  One example: users can upload a personal photo that is then used to create a life-like avatar.   As with more traditional systems, Venuegen supports a variety of content, including slides, documents, flash content, video, and integrated Web browser and chat.

Avatars also have a wide range of facial expressions, hand gestures, and body language options that can be either randomly generated or manually controlled.  Slider bars are used to set levels of interest, intensity, and posture.  The on-screen avatar reflects these settings with remarkably lifelike movements and gestures, a manager can express anger or happiness while speaking with sales agents at a meeting, meeting attendees can express their impatience with an overly long speech or laugh at jokes.

Venuegen is a huge leap forward in enterprise-level 3-D virtual meetings, primarily for the features that personalize and bring a human element back into the meeting.  We have lost many of the visual cues that play such a large role in human communication as we have moved towards more online meetings, and Venuegen may truly be an idea whose time has come.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the briefing room: Xobni Enterprise

Thursday, November 5th, 2009 by Cody Burke

The challenge for any new tool that fights Information Overload is to gain the legitimacy that is necessary to apply it in an enterprise setting.

How Xobni sees Basex Chief Analyst Jonathan Spira

How Xobni sees Basex Chief Analyst Jonathan Spira

Most large organizations have complex IT requirements that software must meet before it can be deployed, including centralized management and security.   Most important, the new tools must not suffer the unintended consequence of increasing the same Information Overload they are trying to fight.

We covered Xobni in the past, and the company received a Basex Excellence Award for its efforts in fighting Information Overload at the Information Overload Day Inaugural Event in August 2009.

Recognizing the need to move into the corporate market, the company recently released Xobni Enterprise.  The new offering is a new version of its e-mail and relationship management solution that is fine tuned for enterprise use.  Previously, installing Xobni was done on an individual basis, with no administrative controls.  The new release provides a corporate license and central administrative capabilities that allow Xobni to be deployed on a company-wide basis with oversight from IT.  A new Web-based administration portal enables configuration, deployment, and management of user permissions, policies, and enabled features.  For instance, a company may be fine with users having access to integration with FaceBook, but not Twitter, or vice-versa.

Search capabilities have also been refined: it is possible to search e-mail by sender, recipient, subject, and date by building a complex search query via a series of drop down menus that facilitate the filtering of results. Other enterprise-friendly features in Xobni Enterprise include support for standard policy settings such as those from Active Directory, the ability to create extensions for enterprise applications such as CRM systems and portals (extensions for SalesForce.com and Microsoft SharePoint already exist), and integration of corporate profiles via LDAP.

The release of an enterprise-ready version of its e-mail and relationship management software  brings another tool for fighting Information Overload into an area that sorely needs it, larger organizations.  Tools such as Xobni work best when they are universally used within an organization, and this release enables effortless adoption in an enterprise setting. The challenge for tools such as Xobni is to not overload the inbox environment by pulling in too much content, but to strike a balance between access to information and access to the right information at the right time.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

E-mail: Reports of My Demise are Premature

Thursday, October 15th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

It is both premature and foolhardy to proclaim that e-mail’s reign as “king of communications” is over as a recent Wall Street Journal article trumpets.

E-mail remains the most-used corporate communications tool despite reports to the contrary.

E-mail remains the most-used corporate communications tool despite reports to the contrary.

Not that e-mail is the best communications medium for everything; indeed we know very well it isn’t.

Instead, e-mail has, in the past 15 years in particular, become that path of least resistance for almost everything that transpires within an organization.

Update status? Send an e-mail to a few hundred of one’s closest colleagues.

Finish a report? Send another e-mail to a few hundred of one’s closest colleagues.

The fact is that we use e-mail opportunistically rather than with an understanding as to what the impact of its use might be.

Sending that status report to those few hundred colleagues actually cost the organization ca. 24 hours in lost time when one calculates the few minutes each person spent opening the e-mail he didn’t need to receive in the first place – plus the “recovery time,” which is the time it takes to get back to where one was in the task that was interrupted.

The result of all of our communications (and it isn’t just e-mail) is Information Overload, a problem that costs the U.S. economy ca. $900 billion per annum.  On August 12,  Information Overload Awareness Day was observed around the world with meetings and discussions.  But that’s just one day – each additional day that we don’t address the problem of Information Overload and take steps to lessen its impact costs billions.

Companies can take steps to lower their exposure to Information Overload (an article about what can be done may be found at here) but even raising awareness of the problem and understanding the impact of overusing such tools as e-mail can make a big difference.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

In the briefing room: Teleplace 3.0

Thursday, October 8th, 2009 by Cody Burke

The Teleplace 3.0 environment.

Meetings, particular the online variety, can be dull, tedious, and, most importantly, not terribly productive for participants.  This may very well have something to do with the medium and the manner in which the meeting is conducted.  In a typical online meeting, the main speaker may share his screen with the attendees, roll through a slide deck, perhaps demonstrate an application, and solicit feedback (in online meetings this occurs via the fairly rudimentary tools found in most meeting environments).

The limitations of this kind of approach to meetings are significant: a single two-dimensional interface common to all participants and a lack of a connection between participants due, in part, to a lack of visual cues.  In addition, online meeting rooms typically differ from their real-life counterparts in that materials and files are typically not stored in them.  Many meetings are ongoing; participants meet several times a week or month and need to update materials in between, as well as to be able to return to a virtual room and have the needed materials in one place, in the state in which they left them.

As anyone who has read Snow Crash knows, the concept of using virtual environments for business use is not new.  Organizations as varied as IBM and the U.S. Army have explored the possibility of using virtual worlds for training, meetings, and collaboration.  During the recent Second Life land grab, enthusiasm for which has since died down, that virtual world was flooded by companies establishing virtual properties for marketing and customer outreach.  Ultimately however, the perception of virtual worlds and environments as a toy, not a tool, has proven difficult to shake.

One company that is pushing the business case for virtual environments is Teleplace, née Qwaq.  The recent name change was part of a shift the company is taking to make clear its focus on enterprise customers.

Teleplace 3.0 is the latest version of the company’s online environment for meetings, training sessions, visualization, and virtual operations centers.  Teleplace has been designed from the ground up as a business environment first, and a 3-D virtual world second.  Spend as little as an hour in Teleplace (I’ve spent several already), and you will see it is suited for serious business.  In Teleplace, business applications exist in a persistent state on virtual walls and displays.

Teleplace can accommodate different sized meetings: small meetings with a handful of people allow for complete interaction amongst participants.  Virtual lecture halls can handle up to 60 people and, if more attendees are expected, can support a broadcast mode that can go to thousands.  Participants can use a laser pointer to direct everyone’s attention to objects or specific areas of a chart.  Meeting leaders can bring people into rooms or areas, and also conduct polling and control communications.

There are many features in Teleplace that effectively demonstrate that virtual environments can be an effective business tool.  Teleplace goes beyond the traditional meeting environment and provides tools that have the potential to introduce greater efficiencies into the workplace.  One example is the persistence of the environment; this is a huge step up from traditional online meetings; an attendee can view a shared chart or slide show on a display wall, move to another area to interact with other attendees, and then simply return to the wall to view the chart again.  Environments that have been populated with content, such as video clips, slide decks, documents, and integrated business applications, remain in place, enabling users to drop in and out and later return to the same work area.

Virtual work environments may in some ways remind us of their toy predecessors, but offerings such as Teleplace 3.0 remind us that they are in fact powerful business tools.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the Briefing Room: eDev inteGreat

Thursday, October 1st, 2009 by Jonathan Spira and Cody Burke

Many people think of software development as lone programmers working in isolation, perhaps reminded of Douglas Coupland’s 1995 classic Microserfs, where programmers slide flat foods, such as “Kraft singles, Premium Plus Crackers, Pop-Tarts, grape leathers, and Freeze Pops” under the door of a fellow coder after they hadn’t seen him in days.  In reality, the process of software development is a collaboration-intensive activity that would benefit greatly from improved knowledge management technology and thinking, much in the way knowledge sharing and collaboration happen between workers in far less technical occupations.  Unfortunately, many managers fail to realize the necessity of actively managing knowledge and facilitating collaboration in this area.

Companies typically spend vast amounts of time and money to document their requirements and it is far from easy to keep such documentation up to date.  At the same time, they struggle to find ways to interrelate information, given that such information comes from diversified sources.  In other words, how does one create a document that leverages information that is anywhere and everywhere and still be able to make sense out of it?

One company that provides a tool in this area is eDev Technologies via the company’s inteGreat offering.  The product is a requirements management solution that allows for the creation and reuse of requirements through the development of a central body of knowledge, which the company refers to as iBoK (Integrated Body of Knowledge).  This knowledge base is a collection of reusable requirements.  InteGreat allows developers to create requirements using a drag-and-drop interface and then relate them to one another to aid in reuse.

Requirements are then visually mapped out as process flows using MS Visio, and are saved either as inteGreat files or exported as Visio files.  Users also have the ability to create mockups using an included simulation tool.  Once a process is created, generated documents are exported via MS Word, Excel, or Visio, or saved within inteGreat.

As in any form of knowledge work, the recreation of content, in this case requirements, is a huge and costly problem, and is essentially a problem of finding things and avoiding recreating that which already exists.  If the knowledge worker can not find information, be it a document or a requirement, they will have to recreate it, increasing project costs, squandering limited resources, and impacting an organization’s bottom line.  The end result of enabling the reuse of requirements is that, for future projects, there will be a reduction in the time and cost of gathering requirements, as well as lessening the burden of maintaining software.

In inteGreat, the ability to reuse requirements once they are developed adds a much needed knowledge management aspect to the development of requirements, affording software developers the same KM capabilities that other knowledge workers now take for granted.  In turn, as more companies adopt similar solutions, they will see increases in efficiency and a reduction in the time spent recreating requirements.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.
Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the Briefing Room: Gist

Thursday, September 17th, 2009 by Cody Burke

In an age of Information Overload, the inbox has come to dominate the knowledge worker’s world.  E-mail is, however, far from alone in competing for the knowledge worker’s precious time.  The rise of social networking, tools such as LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, along with other sources of content that have exploded in use such as wikis and blogs, have created a tidal wave of content that more often than not swamps the knowledge worker.  It isn’t only the sheer volume, but the disparate sources of content that create Information Overload, which in turn impairs the knowledge worker’s ability to process information, make decisions, and get things done.

One solution to this overwhelming amount of content from various sources is aggregation, where the tidal wave is filtered down to a manageable stream, with only the most important and relevant content being presented to the user.  This reduces the harmful effects of Information Overload by limiting the non-essential content that is presented as well as dramatically reducing the time that would have been spent locating that content manually.

One company that is addressing this pain point is Gist, which launched an open beta of its eponymously-named  relationship and information aggregation offering.  Gist retrieves content from sources such as Gmail, Outlook, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter, ranks the content, and then prioritizes it based on relevancy (determined by analysis of a users inbox habits).  The content is also enhanced with further material culled from the Web, such as a blog posts and news stories that set context.  The result is a dashboard presenting a snapshot of the user’s contacts and wider social network, combined with supplementary relevant information.  Assembling the same array of information manually would be a time consuming process; Gist does this automatically, by parsing and rearranging the data in a meaningful way, depending on the context.

In practice, Gist is useful for drilling down on a person; a meeting attendee for instance, and quickly compiling information, past communications, and other relevant data.  From the individual’s page, which would present contact information, blog posts, aggregated communications, the user can pivot to a company’s page, which presents the same variety of information, giving context on the person for an upcoming meeting or sales call.

The service can be accessed from an account on the Gist Web page, via an Outlook plug-in, or from within Salesforce.  Gist has three options for inputting data.  Names of people may be added manually, and the system will then compile content on them; a list of contacts may be uploaded, such as a list of meeting attendees; or the system can run automatically and pull information from e-mail accounts and contact lists.

Gist, as its name suggests, is meant to provide the user with a general understanding of what is going on with their contacts and allow for deeper drill downs as needed, reducing the information flood to a manageable, and critically, relevant stream.  The offering does an excellent job of extending the functionality of Outlook via the dedicated plug-in, adding some much needed capabilities to the knowledge worker’s inbox.  As Gist moves through its beta phase, it shows great potential as a remedy for Information Overload and is certainly worth keeping an eye on.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.