One of the biggest disruptors of the last few years has been the distributed nature of work. People can now work pretty much anywhere, anytime, with anyone, on any content. And though content still plays a critical part, I am starting to see context as more critical for any type of collaboration. Without a common context it is hard for two or more people to work together.
Tools like email can work for one to many interactions (if you cc the whole organization), but not many to many. Web conferencing also falls under the one to many umbrella. And though a common context is required in those instances, they do not require the deeper knowledge of context that many to many interactions do, as we see in distributed teams.
Each person on a distributed team has many contexts: their personal context, their project context, their company context and their country context. With all that, it is hard to see how anyone gets anything done. Yet they do. It is not just globalized organizations, but many of the start-ups I deal with also have very distributed development teams.
Many to many collaboration tools can be used to support distributed teams. But frequently they fail in not having a true visual nature, high levels of complexity, and an inability to shift context or incorporate new content. I have seen new technologies over the last few months trying to tackle the challenges of distributed teams in new ways. These products are:
Each has taken a different approach to these difficult collaboration problems and each offers a very different solution, yet all have some of the same collaboration elements and all try to help deal with complex contexts. This is not an extensive list of vendors, just a sample of what is available today.
Fuze is focused on customer value, and supports all mobile platforms. It has a mobile first development philosophy, and integrates with Dropbox, Yammer, SFDC, Outlook, Google Calendars and more. It also has an “easy” design policy in mind (one to two clicks to do anything). Since I use Fuze I can tell you it only took me about 10 minutes to familiarize myself with the basic functions, and since it has a stable connection (both audio, video and content sharing) I have begun to use it over Skype (which, after three people, has bandwidth problems). It is currently free for up to 12 simultaneous users.
Figure 1 – Sample Fuze Meeting on an iPad
Groupon is a big Fuze user. It has eliminated all of its other web conferencing tools (WebEX, Cisco Conferencing, Jabber, Tandberg room meeting systems and GotoMeeting) and is rolling out Fuze to all 12,000 employees in 48 countries. Like Adobe Connect, Fuze understands that people flow seamlessly from asynchronous to synchronous interactions throughout the day. Fuze supports persistent meeting rooms where you can put any kind of content you want, all of which is available to share in a meeting.
Fuze understands that you are not going to change your behavior and so, wisely, it wants to integrate with tools that you already use. With an open API coming in Q3 of this year, they also see their tool as a platform and, with the rich API layer, it not only allows you to connect to Fuze data, but allows you to build an app on top of Fuze for something like customer interviews, resume rating or working directly with field support people.
One of Fuze's goals is to move beyond meetings and into Continuous Collaborative Teamwork (CCT). Their spaces are a lightweight way to store relevant documents and create tasks. This scenario is more realistic if you look at a tablet as an "always on" video portal to a group, team or pod. I have seen this work very well a number of years ago at IDEO, where it was used to help connect its eight worldwide offices. It is like the other part of the team is always there and understands the context of the current discussion, adding to it whenever appropriate.
Bluescape, also a new company, is currently focused on opportunities in the US. As you can see below (Figure 2-3) it looks like a big white board, touch sensitive and interactive with a theoretical size of 3 x 3 Acres. The one in the picture is a smaller panel composed of 16 high resolution screens, but Bluescape can also be mobile with a 1 X 3 screen that can be moved from meeting room to meeting room.
Bluescape helps to provide teams with a common context for distributed workers, which also supports colocated workers at the screen. It is also a way to curate or keep institutional knowledge, as well as a way to deal with data overloads (big data) and an inability to find specific data.
Figure 2-3 - Bluescape on a wall and on a tablet
Their goal is not to change the way people work but to make work more visual. It allows multisite collaboration and is widely used by architects, software development teams and people looking to drive workspace excellence. What is critical is that everyone sees the same thing at the same time, no matter what device they are on. With all the current focus on big data, Bluescape is a great platform to explore and collaborate on.
Oblong offers a tool called Mezzanine (figure 4) which is ideal for remote teams. Somewhere between a telepresence room and a collaboration room, Mezzanine is an “infopresence” system that supports multiple screens, multiple users, multiple devices and multiple streams of information. You configure each meeting -- you can dedicate a screen to each remote site or you can have multiple sites on a screen. Mezzanine is really a room, and includes the screens, cameras, white board, “cork boards” (screens off to the side) and a wand to manipulate the data and images around on the screen (the wand works by small RF sensors in the ceiling which are able to tell where it is in space and what a movement means). Mezzanine can also be controlled from an iPad or laptop.