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Emerging Technology (Enhancing, Engaging, Connecting)

Collaboration Systems

Systems that support true collaboration have been talked about and pursued for decades. Interest in these systems continues to grow. Factors including the recognition of active and collaborative learning, a globalizing workforce, increased recognition of the importance of business intelligence for the enterprise, and the difficulty and cost of travel have all contributed to the interest of systems that support collaboration. Numerous companies and organizations have sought to fill this gap. While the number of options has increased, high-quality solutions at reasonable prices remain elusive.

The history of systems that support collaboration is long and winding. As soon as personal computers became popular, ways to provide messaging developed. The first email systems provided this capability, and soon made possible file sharing through attachments. More direct methods of sharing files then developed. Because these systems were intended to support collaborative work by groups, the term “groupware” soon became fashionable. Ironically, many versions of these systems persist today in organizations where technology has not evolved.

Throughout early development, most of these systems were based on client-server technology. But soon systems moved into the cloud and became more web-enabled. Cloud/software-as-a-service (SaaS) led to the proliferation of even more activity toward collaborative systems using web technologies. Numerous systems have launched, probably none as well known as Google. Through all of this, why do I contend that good solutions remain few? Let’s consider several reasons.

Reasons to Consider

Cost is a great place to start. Some of the most capable systems today are products that providers are very proud of — as demonstrated by the high cost to acquire and maintain. Further, many of these systems are highly proprietary and have corresponding limitations when deployed beyond a narrow set of systems. IBM is one such company, but Microsoft is perhaps unparalleled in this regard. Windows and Office have long been at the center of Microsoft’s universe — and thinking. While collaborative capabilities for Windows clients running Office are strong, capabilities for other clients are only now beginning to appear in a serious way. In addition, SharePoint is costly to implement, and even more costly to maintain and support with continued enhancements.

Another reason for the limited options available is that so many systems still equate collaboration with file sharing. True collaboration involves the sharing of ideas through interactive communication as made possible by such tools as online discussions, wikis, blogs and others. The best systems feature or integrate with robust email and calendaring capabilities, and true collaboration is quickly coming to include unified communications and web conferencing as fundamental components. Web tools such as Dropbox are widely touted as supporting collaboration, but only at a rudimentary level. Still, it’s certainly better than email attachments or local file shares.

A Look at Some Offerings

Options abound, and those options span the spectrum of capability. It’s quite possible to spend a considerable amount of time investigating and evaluating systems and still come up empty. It’s important to have a clear idea of what your needs are, what clients you want to support, what capabilities you have for supporting a system and what you are willing to pay for it. To help you get started, I’ll mention a few systems that are currently getting attention. Please note that these are not endorsements. The capabilities of these systems vary widely, and thorough analysis is required to find a system that fits specific needs.

Box is a widely noted system in broad use, but it is primarily for file sharing. Citrix Sharefile is getting a lot of notice, but it is also primarily for file sharing. Open Atrium is built on Drupal, and is described as “an intranet in a box.” File sharing is not its strongest asset. Huddle is an interesting system that has lots of capabilities and deserves attention, especially for use by workgroups. It may not be a good enterprise solution, but it is used by large organizations.

Alfresco is a widely used system for file sharing and is deployed in a number of large organizations. It lacks collaborative features to support true collaboration. Alfresco is often deployed as one component of a full collaborative solution. Companies such as Appnovation have integrated Alfresco with Drupal, for example.

Accellion is an interesting system with many capabilities. It is used by numerous organizations and may provide quick startup and deployment. Liferay is another interesting system along similar lines. Although Liferay describes itself as an enterprise portal, it features numerous collaborative capabilities. It is widely used, and built on open source.

Numerous other systems are available as well. Robust collaborative capabilities are not only a point of discussion, they can help transform an organization and significantly expand its effectiveness.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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