Simplicity Eludes Group Work

Opinion: The future of collaboration is XML, but we still lack products and services that bridge the gap between enterprise data and tools people like to use.

The future of collaboration is XML, but we still lack products and services that bridge the gap between enterprise data and tools people like to use.

In the past year, Ive seen faint indications that some companies see the need for simpler collaboration, but there are still too few companies that understand that users want to work with tools that are familiar and convenient. That can be the Web browser or a desktop application such as Microsofts Outlook. The experience shouldnt change that much based on the client.

In the case of sales force automation, companies use many disparate systems to communicate with and about customers, including e-mail, word processing, and presentation and SFA-specific applications. However, few of these systems can easily talk to one another.

Earlier this year, I looked at two tools for automating construction of sales proposals. These tools—The Savo Groups Sales Asset Manager service and Pragmatech Softwares Proposal Automation Suite—show the potential of tapping into the connection between desktop apps and back-end databases. Savos Sales Asset Manager gives users a Web-based interface for creating and managing content, whereas Pragmatechs Proposal Automation Suite provides users with access to server-based instances of Microsoft Office applications to create content.

Because Office applications speak XML, it seems that the easier solution is to provide links from the applications to a content and document management database. Users charged with creating content get to use familiar tools—Microsofts Word or PowerPoint—to write the content, while the database manages content style, retention, versioning and distribution to consumers.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read more about the integration of XML in Microsoft Office.

A simple Web front end such as the one on the Savo service can give content creators the ability to create or modify content in the context of established styles, even if they dont have access to Office applications at a given moment.

At the other end of the spectrum are products such as SugarCRMs Sugar Sales 2.0.Sugar Sales has a plug-in for Outlook that allows users to copy an e-mail from their in-boxes to the Sugar Sales sales force automation application with a mouse click via SOAP and XML. This helps alleviate the problem that not all communications get shared as part of a customers history.

Some automation of this otherwise manual task, maybe parsing messages for clues such as a customer number as it enters the users in-box, would be a good next step.

Another problem continues to be the silos of communications that users must deal with. Companies use e-mail, portals and, to a lesser degree, IM to communicate. But theres no guarantee that users will see every e-mail because in the past year, the volume of e-mail—legitimate and otherwise—has grown to exceed user bandwidth.

Companies can tap instant messaging to manage group discussions, using products from Jabber, Parlano and Instant Technologies, but even these technologies dont ensure that people will see the information they need in time to act on it.

Companies need to focus on improving integration across communications platforms. When human resources updates information on the employee portal, for example, employees need to get more than an e-mail update they might never read. Automating prioritization and monitoring for follow-through should become common aspects of communications and content management.

Next year, I hope to see products that more effectively manage how users interact with documents and online content, ensuring they see what they need to in a timely manner.

Technical Analyst Michael Caton returned to eWEEK Labs in 2003 after spending three years working as a consultant. He has been evaluating technology products for more than 14 years, most of that time for eWEEK. He currently covers collaboration, messaging, help desk, sales force automation and CRM applications.

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