Blended Computing: A Different Mix

By Michael Vizard  |  Posted 2007-04-17 Print this article Print

New collaboration technologies will shake up current concepts of how workers interact.

Everywhere you go these days, everybody in I.T. is talking about the need to provide better collaboration tools to their end users as part of a general drive to increase the productivity of employees. But when you start to examine the options available to boost collaboration among users, you quickly discover that you're about to take a trip down a very expensive rabbit hole.

The core problem, of course, stems from the very nature of the applications we use today; they were designed as personal productivity tools, not as components of a meaningful collaboration infrastructure. To get around that issue, most companies have been using shared drives to store documents that are then typically shipped around the organization sequentially. This approach creates management headaches because more often than not, there are multiple versions of the same file floating around the enterprise, which in turn leads to version-control problems and increased storage expense.

To try to solve this problem, many organizations have turned to offerings such as Microsoft's SharePoint Services, Lotus Notes and EMC's Documentum because they all offer some sort of document management capability. However, setting up these solutions takes a fair amount of time, energy and cost when most users simply want a relatively easy way to collaborate. And even when you do set up these programs successfully, they still have shortcomings such as a lack of offline client support; in this regard, SharePoint needs to be augmented by a third-party product such as Colligo Networks' Reader or Contributor tools.

Because of these issues, you are also starting to see a growing interest in a number of software-as-a-service offerings such as Google Docs and CommuniClique. The difference in these services boils down to an offering from Google that by its very Web nature is a collaborative application versus CommuniClique, a program that makes it easier to track and share existing Microsoft Office documents. The CommuniClique service is similar in concept to Microsoft's Office Live offering, which is simply a Web-based implementation of SharePoint. But unlike Office Live, CommuniClique provides a higher level of fidelity between documents that exist on your systems and the documents stored in the service, which is something that Microsoft can only promise to deliver with a future iteration of SharePoint.

The problem that I.T. people are having with this trend is that both the Google and CommuniClique services could potentially result in sensitive corporate data residing outside the firewall. For that reason, Honeywell's Automation and Control Solutions division mandates that employees use SharePoint for collaboration, and as part of that effort plans to roll out a forthcoming version of SharePoint that will make it easier for employees to collaborate across the company's firewall while still providing a secure environment.

But while that apparently makes sense for Honeywell, a lot of other corporations are going to find it extremely difficult to enforce that type of policy in a world where Web-based collaboration services of all stripes are simply a browser click away. In fact, the new reality might be that I.T. organizations will simply have to get used to the idea and hope that employees exercise good judgment when using those services, because policing the activity in question is going to be next to impossible. For example, David Russo, president of Independent Network Consultants, says his small company already works with a number of large clients using CommuniClique. From a security perspective, this means that there will probably be a lot more emphasis on encrypting data, because the lines are blurring when it comes to figuring out exactly where the enterprise as we know it today will actually begin and end tomorrow.

In the meantime, companies such as Google and Salesforce.com will continue to hype the value of software as a service, while Microsoft struggles to define the exact relationship between smart clients and services on the Web. But all that rhetoric aside, it's the everyday users who are ultimately going to define the next generation of blended computing models because as history has shown us time and again, increased productivity eventually trumps I.T. policy. And with the advent of new SharePoint services from Microsoft, new WordPerfect Lightning applications from Corel, or even relatively unknown business programs such as the forecasting and budgeting tools from Adaptive Planning, the next generation of blended collaborative computing applications is already upon us.


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