Enabling Project Team Collaboration

The complex nature of today's project teams requires strategic planning to make sure the end goals can be accomplished. Here's a helpful guide to get you started.

Project teams exist to create great products, but the odds are often stacked against a project's success. A recent study from The Standish Group of 40,000 projects found that 66 percent of projects completely fail or are late, over budget or missing critical features. The cost overruns average an alarming 43 percent (Extreme Chaos, 2004).

One factor that can contribute to these failures is geographical distance among project team members. Project teams now rarely have the luxury of working together in a single location. And they often lack even the assurance of having a stable team for the life of the project. Thus, as companies outsource more design and manufacturing services, their teams must find ways to work together across geographical — and often company — boundaries.

As a result, project team collaboration is a popular catch phrase for decision makers at many companies today. Nearly 60 percent of participants in a recent Giga Research survey, for instance, said that technologies that promote project team collaboration were their top concern (February 2004).

Missing the Mark

It's no surprise that plenty of products have jumped on the collaboration bandwagon. But most only partially address the comprehensive needs of project collaboration. Companies that ask an incomplete solution to carry the entire burden of project team collaboration are setting their projects up to fail.

Take the example of an advertisement that appeared recently in a leading information technology (IT) magazine. It invited businesses to enable collaboration with a powerful electronic communications device. This device, it promised, ties multiple parties together in real-time, performs outstandingly, and offers a low cost, easy deployment method to cross company boundaries.

If your business has geographically dispersed project teams, this advertisement might intrigue you. However, it in fact referred to something that you likely already have: the speakerphone. This tool actually does all of the things that the advertisement promises. But obviously, while it is a useful tool for project collaboration, it's only a partial solution — necessary, but insufficient.

The same can be said for desktop or application sharing software. Like the speakerphone, application sharing is relatively low cost, easy-to-use, simple to deploy, and enables real-time collaboration. And like the speakerphone, it's necessary, but insufficient, for supporting communication across dispersed project teams.

Covering the Bases

Application sharing does play a part in the success of many projects. Some 60 percent of companies already use it as a collaborative tool, according the research firm the Delphi Group. But application sharing falls far short of being the integrated, comprehensive solution to project team collaboration needs.

Here are some tools and processes that are both necessary and sufficient to enable your project team's collaboration to succeed.

How Project Teams Work Today

Twenty years ago, establishing a project team and enabling effective interaction was fairly straightforward: You opened an office and put everyone in it. The team needed little more support than desks, chairs and a chalkboard.

Today, projects are more dynamic. To understand why today's teams need a comprehensive collaboration solution beyond application sharing, it's important to think about what a project team does together.

Successful project communication involves three different types of activity: organizing, communicating, and managing.

Organize
Team leaders establish a project and select team members who then begin to organize their project data in a central location.

Establish roles and rights — As part of establishing a project, team leaders assign each member a role. Ideally, leaders will set individual levels of access to project information that depend on the duties of each team member and the security needs of the company.

Share data sources — Again, the Delphi Group stated that nearly 60 percent of companies already use some type of online, shared workspace today, and many view it as essential to their survival.

Throughout the project, team members need such a space where they can easily store and access plans, designs and other project information.

Communicate
Dispersed teams need tools to help them exchange information, solve problems and make sound decisions.

Present information — When team members must view project information such as design data together in real time, they use application sharing. They may need to share large files and graphics-intensive data to communicate design intent.

Collaborate ad hoc — In addition to attending pre-planned collaboration meetings, team members sometimes call spur-of-the moment, or ad-hoc, meetings for one-on-one troubleshooting or clarifying misunderstandings.

Collaborate offline — Team members in different time zones must often communicate offline, via tools such as discussion threads and a common project repository.

Manage
Finally, to move a project forward, teams need ways to manage tasks, decisions, and overall project knowledge.

Manage tasks and decisions — For the sake of accountability, teams assign and track tasks for individual members, as well as track project decisions.

Capture project knowledge — It's necessary to capture project knowledge and make the information available to the team. Tracking project knowledge as a whole forms an audit trail, a critical ingredient to successful projects. A centrally managed audit trail is also now necessary for compliance with government regulations such as Sarbanes-Oxley, SEC 17a-4, NASD, and HIPPA.

The Other 75 percent Factor

In organizing, communicating and managing a project, dispersed project teams work both inside and outside of meetings. Perhaps 25 percent of the work occurs in these meetings, and application-sharing technology provides critically needed support for this work.

But then there's the other 75 percent of the work. Looking at the overall picture of how teams work shows that application sharing is only part of the collaboration story.

The real collaboration issues center around such needs as these:
* Real-time sharing of documents and any other form of electronic information
* Offline sharing of electronic data
* Shared recording and distribution of decisions, tasks, and work products

Technology that enables project collaboration should: establish roles and rights, share data sources, present information, collaborate ad hoc, collaborate offline, track tasks and decisions, and capture project knowledge.

Selection Criteria

When selecting a product to fully support project collaboration, consider the following key factors.

Convenience
User involvement is one of the two most critical factors in project success, according to the Standish Group. Like generic application sharing technologies, your collaboration solution must be easy to deploy and learn so that all project team members can use it immediately.

Unlike common application sharing technologies, however, your collaboration solution should use fully accessible Web conferencing. While Web conferencing has emerged as the most popular, practical way to conduct real-time collaboration, many Web conferencing products do not function across the corporate firewall, according to InformationWeek. Even those that can do so may not have built-in security. Because your team may have a number of members that sit outside the firewall, choosing an inaccessible Web conferencing technology can deprive your project meetings of critical insight and expertise.

And Research Technology Management said companies should recognize that teams that create blockbuster products share knowledge in many ways, such as capturing team member and management buy in, recording project information, adequately organizing data, and conducting rigorous team review meetings. Your team thus needs an integrated solution with a wide range of communication options, from real-time to offline, instant messaging to task management, and application sharing to project repository.

Affordability
As with simple application sharing, your solution should be affordable enough that all project team members can use it. And it should stay affordable after deployment, with no hidden consulting fees.

Integration
Project collaboration is an area where the individual parts do not necessarily add up to the whole. It's true that you could patch together a set of isolated technologies that each address a specific communication need. But it won't provide cohesive support. Inevitably, you'll hit speed bumps such as incompatible tools and the inability to comprehensively track and organize information.

Tailored to the Project Design Team

Your project collaboration solution needs to support all of the ways that project teams work, as previously discussed. But take care to ensure that each component of your solution can support the specialized needs of a project design team.

For instance, many project team members today use instant messaging. Many of these tools are available for free. However, they can carry security risks, endangering your company's intellectual property.

Also consider the capabilities of your solution's application sharing. Generic application-sharing technology does not address certain critical needs for product development teams.

As an example, generic application sharing technology often has difficulties displaying true color or OpenGL accelerated graphics applications such as computer aided design (CAD) or analysis (FEA, CFD). These difficulties usually manifest themselves visibly as poor performance, with team members in a shared application session falling behind in the discussion. Project team members lose patience quickly when they cannot communicate in real time around these critical applications. Application sharing that is quick to deploy and easy to use but delivers below optimal performance will be abandoned and teams will resort to old methods and tools.

Conclusion

While it is clear that application sharing is an important component of any project team collaborative solution, it is equally clear that it cannot carry the burden of project collaboration on its own. Most collaboration takes place either offline or in an ad-hoc fashion. To bring your projects maximum benefit, application-sharing technology must be embedded in the context of the project team tool set and integrated with the full suite of necessary technologies.

About the Author: John Alpine is chief technology officer at CoCreate Software.

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