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Contextual Collaboration: The Next Step in Effective Communications

By Philippe Szwarc


Conferencing and collaboration have been buzz words in the business world for quite some time. Although the definition of these terms varies depending on who you ask, the core concept is that conferencing and collaboration solutions are tools to enable geographically dispersed individuals to communicate and work effectively together. However, the majority of solutions in use today force participants to step outside of their normal work environments, and adopt a new environment, in order to conduct a conference or collaborate on a document. In other words, the current video conferencing, Web conferencing, data collaboration, and application sharing solutions require users to open a new application/tool or utilize a piece of equipment that is not part of their normal work processes. Contextual collaboration is the next generation of these types of solutions.

Contextual collaboration enables users to conference and collaborate in real time within the context of their existing work environments. Contextual collaboration solutions are embedded within the applications that people use everyday in business leveraging the power of conferencing and collaboration from inside the users most critical business tools. In addition, contextual collaboration takes advantage of presence technology to simulate the in-person encounter when individuals can see when a person is online and available for an ad-hoc conversation or work session with the power of all of their business tools facilitating the process.

The Present State of Conferencing and Collaboration
The use of real-time Web conferencing and collaboration within the enterprise is on the rise. As a result of globalization and an increase in mobile workforces, enterprises must maintain productivity while managing communications between dispersed, national and international teams. The cycle of communication has to be shortened and decisions must be made quickly in the face of rising competition.

It is apparent that real-time Web conferencing and collaboration that incorporates audio, video, and application sharing in a single collaborative platform addresses the communication needs of todays enterprise. It replicates the personal nature of face-to-face meetings and engenders the kind of creative brainstorming that drives success. Helping to speed the decision making process and enhance productivity, todays conferencing and collaboration solutions are empowering employees, customers, and vendors to effectively and equally contribute to the dialogue and streamline business processes. However, these traditional solutions fall short because they do not work seamlessly with other business applications. This incongruence is disruptive and can make conferencing and collaboration technology awkward and often painful to implement and utilize in the day-to-day office setting.

As enterprises realize that real-time conferencing and collaboration is no longer considered a luxury, but a necessity, developers are embarking on the next generation of tools that are exponentially more effective than their standalone application predecessors.

Enter Contextual Collaboration
Contextual Collaboration is a new approach to conferencing that combines presence technology, real-time communication, and resource sharing to make online meetings as simple, natural and productive as face-to-face encounters without abandoning the business tools and applications that are a critical part of daily operations. By either combining all relevant applications (i.e., Word, IM, calendars, conferencing software) into one easy-to-use interface, or embedding the collaboration and conferencing tools into those applications, contextual collaboration allows corporations and individual users to launch a meeting, seminar or training session at any time from any document and collaborate in real time.

The goal of contextual collaboration is to empower users to instantly share any resources at their disposal without forcing them to leave their core application or tool to launch a new one for the purpose of sharing it with others. If the collaborative component is a built-in feature of the initial application, it is much more intuitive and simple to use. It becomes an embedded feature from a drop-down menu or a benefit that is only one click away. Combined with presence technology, employees can literally tap a colleague on the shoulder for a quick look at a document, whether they are in the next cubicle or on the next continent.

With contextual collaboration, users do not need to leave an existing productivity tool for the purpose of sharing, sending, or collaborating with remote associates. These are now capabilities that are embedded in the core productivity tool or application. The impact of contextual collaboration solutions is not just about saving time or brainpower for the individual user to learn a new application, but the repercussions for the enterprise on the whole. Supporting, implementing and training individuals on monolithic collaboration tools adds to the complexity and costs of enterprise technology. Although individuals may have some productivity gains with standalone collaboration solutions, they may be offset by the toll they can take on the average IT department. Senior management needs to be concerned with enterprise-wide efficiencies and business process management beyond the individual.

The Elements of Contextual Collaboration
There are a number of basic components that are typically present in contextual collaboration.

These include:

Presence Technology
Real-time Communication
Resource or Data Sharing

Presence technology is a key component of business communications today and needs to be incorporated in contextual collaboration solutions. This technology empowers users to be aware when a colleague is available. Just as employees in a close office environment are equipped with the knowledge and ability to check the pulse of a colleague on a moments notice, with presence technology, so are employees that work in offices an ocean apart. When presence technology is embedded in the application infrastructure, it enables individuals to see who else is online, who else is using a particular application, and who else is viewing a particular document engendering ad-hoc communication and power information sharing.

Real-time communication is an extension of the awareness established with presence technology. This can take the form of textual communication, voice communication, video communication, or a combination of all three. The ability to talk with colleagues is infinitely more effective than sending materials or documents back and forth. It speeds up work flow and decision making and enhances personal relationships. When video is added to the mix, the ability to see one another adds another layer of information and intimacy. The expressions, body language, and subtle nuances that individuals project in personal encounters cannot be translated into other modes of communication.

Resource or data sharing is a critical element as well. By providing the capability to show, share, and change documents, files and applications, productive workgroups can be established beyond traditional geographic boundaries. The goal of contextual collaboration is to further make online conferencing and collaboration as simple and intuitive as it is to work with people in the same room, while enabling that capacity between people anywhere in the world. The ability to share knowledge and resources remotely is at the core of these initiatives.

Think Outside the Office
Corporations and individual users using contextual collaboration can launch a meeting, seminar, or training session at any time from any document, and collaborate in real time. Users can collaborate from a personal computer or laptop, PDA, mobile phone, or with a conventional or IP telephone. Participants gain the freedom to join a meeting or session from wherever they are available: a hotel, coffee shop, airport lounge, or even the office. As business is conducted in all types of environments, contextual collaboration is not limited to the desktop.

Enabling remote or mobile employees to participate in and drive the discourse is an absolute necessity in todays business environment. Communication with colleagues and customers should be accessible 24/7, from anywhere in the world, with any resources necessary at the fingertips of any executive. Contextual collaboration should encompass not only the applications in ones business environment, but its devices as well. There are no technical obstacles today that would prevent enabling a traveling employee to launch a document on his PDA, see his supervisor online, send him an IM asking his opinion, initiate a conference call with a customer, and share the document that they both annotated to secure an immediate approval or electronic signature on a contract while waiting in line for coffee from a street vendor.

Benefiting the Individual and the Enterprise
Contextual collaboration provides employees with the most up-to-date knowledge and tools they need, when they need it and where they need it. It dissolves traditional communication barriers, speeds response time, and significantly enhances productivity for the employee as well as the enterprise.

The transition to contextual collaboration will be transparent and seamless to users because they have nothing new to learn. Ease of use is the essence of this technology because users are already familiar with the application or tools they are using. The collaboration is achieved by choosing an option, tab, or icon located within a known application interface.

Enterprise-level benefits are also significant. By removing the obstacles to conferencing and collaboration deployment, IT departments are liberated from the financial and human resources normally dedicated to deploying, training, and supporting users on these standalone applications or systems. By embedding these capabilities into existing business tools, they become part of the natural fabric of the work environment encouraging usage and eliminating obstacles. IT

Philippe Szwarc is Chief Executive Officer of Arel Communications and Software. For more information, please visit the company online at (news - alerts).

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