TECH TALK: Collaboration: The Building Blocks
Collaboration systems must be designed using the two most common components on computers today: email and the Internet browser. This hybrid approach must be extended to designing solutions where computers can serve to amplify human effort, and which work in the online and offline modes.
The glue between email and the browser is HTML. Today, most browsers support HTML email, which means documents can be sent through as messages, and can have the rich text formatting provided by HTML. This means that hyperlinks can be embedded within mails, which can make the recipient interact with web servers at the backend. Email and the Web browser are thus the building blocks for collaboration solutions.
The good thing about email is that if one uses a Mail Client (like Outlook Express or Eudora), access to emails is also available offline. Thus, the collection of emails becomes the file system. While a web-based solution can offer much greater flexibility, one needs to be connected all the time to use it.
Email too has its limitations. The email flood overwhelms most people. Even though filters and folders can help in sorting out mail, most people don’t tend to use them. The result is an overflowing Inbox. Sharing of information or setting up meetings via email means sending messages to each other (and inevitably, to everyone on the list – just in case).
Email also lacks context. There is no metadata attached to emails. The “From” field and the “Subject” field are what most people rely on.
The end result is that even as HTML email becomes the window to the enterprise, the sheer flow of messages being received makes people less productive as there is a finite time which has to be spent to process each incoming message and decide what to do with it (file, reply, forward, delete).
Of course, there are alternative solutions for collaboration. Microsoft has the Outlook-Exchange combination and Lotus has Notes. The primary problem with both is the cost on both the server side and on the client side. Per-user costs can be as high as Rs 3,000 (USD 60), putting it beyond the reach of many small and medium-sized enterprises. Besides, it also means getting people to learn new interfaces. Small wonder then that in many organizations, Lotus Notes with all its capabilities gets used for little more than messaging.
The challenge therefore is to use HTML email and the Web browser as building blocks for collaboration. A new approach is needed to make the two gel together to make us more productive and effective in the workplace.