Several factors will play a role in determining the questions IT managers should ask when assessing Web-based collaborative applications, including the level of data security required, the need to collaborate in real time, and the need for customization options. Here are factors to consider when evaluating applications that allow users to share documents, tasks and projects, as well as create structured workflow applications such as a basic issue tracking or CRM app.
1. Basic Capabilities
Does the application include support for task management, both individual and shared? What project management features are included, such as charting, job costing and so on? What facilities does the product offer for contact management, including integration with existing contact information sources? Does the product include support for group calendars and resource scheduling? Does the product include document library functionality, and what management features, such as version control and check in/check out, are available? Does the product provide discussion forums?
2. Advanced Capabilities
Does the application allow users to build and share database-driven applications? Does the product allow users to store structured data? Can users build complex workflows? Does the product offer support for rules-based workflow, conditional triggers, formulas or user roles for application logic? What sort of alerting mechanisms for application workflow does the product support?
3. Form Creation
Applications allow varying degrees of flexibility when it comes to creating data-entry forms. Some products allow users to build only two-column forms, while others have more sophisticated embedded form editors or allow users to import forms from other applications, such as Microsoft InfoPath. Can applications share tables? What user methods and tools for creating database applications are supported? What application and structured-data formats may be imported?
4. Real-time Collaboration
Does the product include support for real-time collaboration features, such as presence data, instant messaging, Web conferencing, whiteboarding, desktop, application or media sharing, or document co-editing?
5. Preconfigured Applications
Database-driven applications can include a number of preconfigured applications, ranging in capability from issue tracking to human resource management. Having these applications available as preconfigured solutions can make it easy for users to get working quickly. In addition, they can serve as templates for creating other applications built on the same workflow. Companies should gather information about the availability of these applications and the ease with which they can be used to create other applications. In particular, are training and help systems available for preconfigured solutions? Does the product allow users to write online help and training systems for custom applications?
Does the application support dashboards for graphical presentation of performance metrics? Does the product support both user and administrative reporting? What methods are available to users for creating reports and accessing raw data for reporting using third-party tools? Can the product generate reports and alerts specific to administration and security policies, such as when users are added and deleted? Administrators may need to use reports to look for violations of policy, such as building applications that include Social Security numbers. Does the product support reporting and alerts that watch for the creation of fields based on field parameters?
Securing these applications, particularly when shared with external partners, will be a complex task for administrators. Companies should look for tools, including application life cycle policies and reporting, to help manage data access. Most hosted collaboration systems allow users to manage their own applications, not only by adding features and creating new applications but also by adding and removing users. What authentication sources does the product support? Can administrators define password complexity policies? Does the product support directory synchronization?