In the blog post Increased efficiency through modern collaboration In our multi-part blog series on the topic of collaboration, we have looked at the deployment scenarios for collaboration. In this article, we now want to look at the technical possibilities that hardware and software offer for collaboration today.
Collaboration hardware: Do you know your options?
The technical equipment for collaboration starts with traditional email, telephony and instant messaging services. It extends to applications for collaborative document management and integrated systems for video conferencing and screen sharing. However, collaboration must include both stationary computers and mobile devices in order to support all participants wherever they happen to be.
PC / Laptop / Mobile Devices
PCs and mobile devices are the basis for collaboration. Whether fat client, thin client, laptop, convertible pad or smartphone: collaboration applications must be available for all devices. While Windows was a standard at the end of the 1990s and software manufacturers were able to focus on it, there is now a whole range of platforms that software providers have to support, primarily due to mobile devices.
Telephone system as a collaboration hardware basis
Telephone systems today are generally based on IP technology. They can be integrated into LAN structures. This means that collaboration tools and functionalities can be made available to a computer and a telephone set. Another important function is the "cloud capability": the data center of the operator providing the telephone system is, so to speak, identical to the cloud. This can towards the user This can be an external service provider or the internal IT organization's own data center. Via the Internet, LAN and WAN functions (Local or Wide Area Network) all over the world A telephone can be connected as an extension via a network socket. This allows calls to be made worldwide and all internal collaboration services to be used - without having to use external telephone connections.
Two examples to illustrate how collaboration hardware is to be understood:
- A trading company with 100 locations and 7,000 employees in Europe works with a telephone system that is centrally located in its own data center (private cloud). This is connected to the locations via a Europe-wide WAN based on MPLS (Multiprotocol Label Switching) technology.
- A banking group with over 20,000 locations in Germany also only needs one central telephone system in its own data center (private cloud). Here too, all locations are connected via a Europe-wide WAN (using MPLS technology).
Numerous services are available that can be assigned to individual telephone devices and/or users. This variant has a number of advantages:
- It is possible to display a different number to the called party for outgoing calls than the one you actually have. This is an important feature for call centers, service desks and so on, because the called party sees, for example, the number of a hotline and not that of a single extension that is not available when the called party calls back (due to vacation, illness or similar reasons).
- Call forwarding can be set up and combined in various ways.
- Mobile devices can be integrated via WLAN, including smartphones and tablets.
- Simple call center requirements can be implemented quickly, such as group calls or call pick-up.
- Answering machines send the recorded messages in sound files to the user by e-mail.
These and other settings can be adjusted according to specific requirements.
With previous technology, telephone providers provided analog and ISDN telephone lines. This means for individual connections:
- Analog connection: One voice channel
- ISDN connection/BRI connection: Two voice channels.
The following applies to a system connection:
- One or more ISDN connections are bundled (two voice channels per connection)
- One or more primary multiplex connections/PRI connections (30 speech channels per connection).
The previous connections were operated on separate platforms and as separate networks. IP-based services do not run on the previous technology and therefore cannot be transmitted. In addition, it is not possible to combine the use of traditional and IP-based connections. The telephone numbers are location-based.
For some time now, providers have been switching from the previous technology to Voice over IP platforms and therefore to IP-based telephone connections. This means that the previous different networks are merging. Depending on the bandwidth, IP-based connections can provide a large number of voice channels. Telephone numbers are no longer tied to a specific location, but can be routed centrally or decentrally.
Here is another example: A banking group with more than 100 locations has over 100 different telephone numbers, all of which can be traced back to one IP connection with a telephone system. All locations are routed via their own WAN (MPLS technology). The big advantage is that services can also be shared via separate customer networks - thanks to the shared IP connection.
Thanks to the combinability of phone and software, a distinction must be made here between hardphones and WLAN phones.
Under IP conditions, a hardphone is no longer actually necessary as a telephone. In principle, telephones can be completely mapped as software applications on a PC, laptop, tablet or smartphone. So why be reachable via a hardphone?
- If the PC has not yet started up in the morning and has not yet shut down in the evening, accessibility is ensured.
- Important settings for the connection can be made without a PC, for example call forwarding.
Manufacturers have recognized this, which is why there are a large number of different IP hardphones. In addition to the points mentioned above, numerous features and performance characteristics of the collaboration hardware are possible that were not available with ISDN phones, such as
- Easy integration of telephone directories
- Video telephony
- Quality of service settings for secure image and sound transmission
- Easier operation when using mobile devices.
As a rule, no additional network connection to LAN is required as the telephones usually have a built-in switch to connect a PC. The following solution is an alternative: Each affected employee is given a mobile device as collaboration hardware instead of a hard phone.
WLAN telephones are replacing the previous mobile telephone terminals, which were mainly based on DECT technology (Digital Enhanced Cordless Telecommunications). The ability to integrate an IP-based mobile device into the network via WLAN also opens up the possibility of using IP services on mobile devices. For example, it is easily possible to give a WLAN end device the same extension number as a hardphone.
Videophones were already being pushed by Telekom sales in the 1990s with little success on ISDN levels. Nevertheless, telephone providers still offer some as high-end variants. However, there are no signs that their use will expand, not even in connection with collaboration hardware. The goal is video telephony with IP telephone systems and IP devices.
Conference phones have become standard in meeting rooms. They are now facing competition from mobile conference systems that can be connected to a local PC or smartphone.
Conference video phones
In contrast to conventional telephones, video conferencing systems have their raison d'être, especially with regard to collaboration hardware. The advantage lies in the transmission of emotions, which makes meetings more personal. The latest systems are placed in the middle of the table and film in all directions. The user who is speaking is displayed enlarged.
Telephony is an essential part of collaboration in companies
The most important telephony topics with regard to the possibilities of collaboration hardware in companies are therefore:
- Conference calls
- Conference services
- Making calls via PC
Collaboration Software - Groupware: The most useful tools
Groupware, also known as collaborative software, refers to software that supports collaboration within a group over temporal and/or spatial distance across. Groupware is the implementation of the theoretical principles of Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW) in a concrete application. The main difference between groupware and other software that supports multiple users, such as multi-user database systems, is groupware's explicit attempt to reduce the isolation of users from each other. The use of groupware therefore creates an awareness of colleagues and their activities.
Well-known collaboration software products that are referred to as groupware are
- IBM Notes
- Groupwise from Novell
- Sun ONE from Sun Microsystems
- Collanos Workplace
- Microsoft Exchange
- Microsoft SharePoint technologies and Microsoft Lync (Skype for Business)
- jabber and webex from Cisco
- Zimbra from VMware
- Comindware Tracker.
Examples of cross-platform groupware servers are FirstClass Software and Kerio Connect or SOGo (formerly OpenGroupware.org), which all support Windows as well as Linux and Mac OS X. Lotus Notes co-founder Ray Ozzie began developing Groove in 1997. The associated company was Acquired by Microsoft in 2005 and the collaboration software into the Ultimate and Enterprise Editions of Microsoft Office 2007.
Other free software products are
- Atmail Open
- Horde Groupware
- Tine 2.0
Telephony and collaboration software
The standard is CTI technology (Computer Telephony Integration), also known as computer telephony integration. This is a general term for any technology that enables the integration and coordination of interactions via telephone and computer. The term is primarily used to describe desktop-based interaction that offers users greater efficiency, but can also refer to server-based functions such as automatic call forwarding.
CTI uses computer programs to provide the basis for automatically setting up, accepting and ending telephone calls, setting up telephone conferences, sending and receiving fax messages, telephone book services and transferring calls. CTI applications usually run either on the user's desktop or on an unattended server.
In practice, the systems are often integrated into e-mail programs, such as Microsoft Outlook or IBM Notes, and have a TAPI interface (Telephony Application Programming Interface). Among other things, this allows stored contacts to be called directly from the e-mail program. Journal functions, for example, store all notes made by a clerk during the call together with the contact data. Thanks to the collaboration software, the person making the call can immediately access the entire history of the customer contact if necessary, thus saving unnecessary inquiries. Some CTI modules also offer fax functionality.
E-mail as collaboration software
Email is the classic written exchange of information and/or requests. Since the early days of smartphones (starting with the Blackberry at the beginning of 2000), e-mail has increasingly taken on the character that it must be answered immediately. However, the more the new Web 2.0 applications are used, the more e-mail becomes an information medium that does not need to be responded to immediately. In this sense, e-mail is clearly not part of "online communication".
Calendar as collaboration software
Within the company, it is about the ability to open the calendars of colleagues if necessary. The settings for the transparency of what exactly can be viewed are up to the respective user.
To-do and checklists as collaboration software
The systematic management of task lists, to-do lists and checklists offers the opportunity to delegate tasks to others within the company, provided the right foundations are in place.
Chatting as collaboration software
Chatting is the written form of online communication alongside face-to-face conversations or telephone calls (with or without video). This form of communication is easy to use and has the character of a personal exchange. In contrast to e-mail, there is usually no salutation or address footer. Group chats with several people are also possible. In addition to the usual characters on the keyboard or the characters used, so-called emoticons are often used, which make it possible to expand written communication with a variety of images and symbols. Emoticons are often used to emphasize feelings or reinforce certain statements in written communication.
Furthermore, chats can be used as additional collaboration software for web or video conferences. This makes it easy to quickly send additional information to individual, several or all participants. For example, web links can be used to access internet or intranet pages during the conference.
Status and presence in the collaboration
Presence refers to the availability or working status of a person. All of the tools used use color symbols in the form of traffic lights to indicate whether a person is "available" or approachable. For example, the color red can be read as "do not disturb" or that the person in question is in presentation mode in a conference. Yellow means, for example, that the person is "absent" or "in a meeting" or "on the phone". Green, on the other hand, indicates availability. Presence systems can be easily linked to calendar and/or telephone systems so that various automatic statuses can be displayed.
Integrated calendar as collaboration software
It is relatively easy to integrate additional services from other collaboration tools using plug-in or add-in functions. Here are a few examples to illustrate this:
- Web conferences can be scheduled via the calendar. As a rule, a link is provided with the appointment that takes you directly to the relevant app.
- With regard to the integration of telephony, links can be set up directly via CTI functions and interfaces, which make it possible to reach the respective participants from an appointment - just like from the address book or from an e-mail. This means that an appointment partner can be reached at any time by phone, video or chat, without having to search the phone book. Of course, presence or status information also plays an important role here.
The term open federation is used when it is possible to exchange presence information or chat messages outside the user domain. This can increase supplier or customer loyalty and therefore also functions as collaboration software.
Video telephony on the phone has not yet caught on and is relatively rarely used on cell phones themselves, especially as not everyone always has headphones or a headset with them. With PC-based solutions, on the other hand, video telephony is now standard, but is only used to a limited extent.
If there are several participants, integrated solutions for telephony, video telephony and desk sharing (see following section) are ideal for collaboration via web conferences.
With desk sharing tools as collaboration software, it is possible to display your own user interface on the PC or selected applications to one or more people. In addition, control of the mouse and keyboard can be transferred to a connected person. It is also possible to work together on a document or show a presentation to a group of people.
The right collaboration software enables document sharing and editing
Experience has shown that desk sharing and online presentations are more important than video telephony. The following examples can be used:
- Lync / Skype for Business
- Goto Meeting.
Cloud-based document management has also proven its worth, such as
- Dropbox & Co.
- Telekom Customer Center
- Office 365.
Local content servers are another important category, for example
Mobility and collaboration software
For problem-free and seamless collaboration, all services are also provided for mobile devices!
Increasingly, apps are being developed that are specifically designed for team collaboration and therefore contain several components. The apps from Microsoft and Cisco may serve as examples.
Teams and Yammer (Microsoft) and Spark (Cisco) are apps that are especially suitable for teams and/or projects. Elements of desk sharing, web and video telephony, chatting and linking to other websites and a central (project-specific) file repository are possible. Tasks can also be assigned. In addition, a person can be a member of several individual teams or generate a room for a team themselves. The various services are directly available via the app interfaces. It goes without saying that these apps are compatible with Windows, MacOS, iOS and Android.
Collaboration via social media
More and more companies are offering Facebook and Twitter as additional channels. The apps originally intended for the consumer market are now being offered to customers. The apps are now not only an input channel, but also an information channel for customers.
The use of blogs serves the active distribution of content from previously rigid homepages. As a rule, push information improves contact with interested parties. At the same time, the blog content is also made available for XING, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and other platforms in order to maximize the information interface as much as possible.
Collaboration technology has developed considerably in recent years, so that the first part of the series described scenarios can also be effectively supported. Thanks to the expansion of Internet bandwidths and, above all, the mobile Internet, collaboration is now possible from almost anywhere.
As a network organization, we at TCI make intensive use of the various possibilities of collaboration and support our customers in a product-neutral manner. If you have any questions, please contact us. We already support projects of this kind.
In the next article in this series, we will look at the challenges and risks that collaboration entails.
(Cover picture: © Patrick Müller)