The Many Forms of E-Collaboration: Blogs, Wikis, Portals, Portals, Discussion Boards, and Instant Messaging

Article excerpt

[The Web is] an information space through which people van communicate, but communicate in a special way: communicate by sharing their knowledge in a pool. The idea was not just that it should be a big browsing medium. The idea was that everybody would be putting their ideas in, as well as taking them out.

--Tim Berners-Lee, in a talk at the MIT Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) 35th anniversary celebration, April 14, 1999 [www.w3.org/1999/04/13-tbl.html]

The true blossoming of Tim-Berners-Lee's idea of everyone putting ideas in as well as taking them out took almost a decade. The special type of communication he described strikes right to the heart of collaboration. Better ways to facilitate online collaboration are definitely on the minds of most knowledge managers and intranet Webmasters. Some collaboration initiatives are targeted specifically at communities of practice, helping them find specific information on a topic, share successes, develop best practices, replicate ideas, and identify experts. However, creating successful online collaborative communities isn't necessarily easy--or always necessary. Just because you can create an "online" dimension of community doesn't mean that you should. Technology should be a supporting player in any collaboration effort, not the driver.

Spend time at any intranet or knowledge management conference and you'll collect dozens of horror stories about failed online communities. You'll also hear about successful initiatives and thriving communities. Each story has a nugget of truth about what works or doesn't. Failures usually result from unusable software with overly complex routines, organizational readiness, governance, and communicating value to the individuals. Don't let these stories make you gun shy about adding collaborative tools to your intranet. Many employees and organizational groups are looking for collaboration tools to help support their efforts. If you haven't put in a suite of collaboration tools, it's probably time to do so. Most employees don't have the time or energy to select, set up, and maintain these tools. Nor do employees want to learn six different tools, one for each project team.

Chances are you will have a number of teams with very similar needs for online collaboration, while other teams will have unique requirements. If you think back a few years, this will sound familiar--the same situation occurred as intranets blossomed from one-size-fits-all to more customized and personalized information portals having a diverse range of specialized workflow applications. Thinking about online collaboration requires thinking beyond just one application to a suite of tools and solutions. The good news is that some low-cost, easy-to-install tools have been gaining traction with enterprises such as wikis, blogs, and instant messaging.

Online collaboration tools range from the simple to the complex, inexpensive to expensive, locally installed to remotely hosted, commercial or open source, large versus small. Fundamentally, the tools all offer these basic services:

* a way to communicate

* a mechanism to share documents

* some means to discover other members of the community

Optional services include integrated online calendaring;, extensive user profiles and expertise finders; recommender systems, shared whiteboard; and multiple channels, including instant messaging, Web, and/or phone conferencing facilities.

WHEN YOU NEED AN ONLINE COLLABORATION TOOL

Are you working collaboratively with people who are not physically co-located? Even if they are in the same location, would online collaboration space help the project or work get done faster and more effectively? Often the answer is yes, but not always. Some very successful communities of practice thrive without any formal online community space. Other communities would not even exist without it.

Online collaboration tools can help teams collectively author, edit, and review materials in a group workspace. …