Collaboration tools: Making location moot

As agencies deal with travel restrictions and increasingly complex work teams, the technology options for bringing employees together are keeping pace.

Government employees have a variety of tools to facilitate collaboration with their colleagues -- whether they are pursuing scientific research or gathering requirements for a new piece of software.

The options range from consumer-grade tools for sharing files and free audio conferencing services to products that offer higher levels of security or support more structured forms of collaboration. The task for agencies is to line up the right tool for the job. As a result, an agency might work with a diverse set of collaboration tools rather than a single offering.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's Office of the CIO provides a portfolio of collaboration software and services for its researchers and partners at other institutions.

"The primary thing we are trying to enable here is scientific collaboration," said Adam Stone, chief technology officer and division deputy for policy and technology at Berkeley Lab. "When thinking about collaboration tools, it is always about being able to include external collaborators as full participants in the research environment."

Berkeley Lab's collaboration options run the gamut from Google Apps to project management software and wikis.

The Veterans Health Administration, meanwhile, uses Microsoft Lync and Adobe Connect to work with Defense Department colleagues, and employees use ThinkTank's technology to facilitate brainstorming sessions, said Dr. Clayton Curtis, an informaticist at VHA and interagency liaison for health IT sharing between VHA and the Indian Health Service.

While agencies weigh decisions on collaboration alternatives, the offerings continue to evolve. A challenge for tool makers is reaching users who are jaded by other enterprise communication methods.

"People are tired of 'death by PowerPoint' and one-way communication," said Steve Ricketts, chief marketing officer at collaboration software vendor ThinkTank. "One of the biggest challenges is buy-in and getting people to actively participate."

Why it matters

Workgroups are a way of life at many government organizations. Science-centered institutions, for instance, conduct nearly all their inquiries on a collaborative basis and seek tools to keep investigators on the same page.

Collaborative research, a long-established practice in high-energy physics, has become the norm at Berkeley Lab, Stone said. Collaboration takes place in groups of various sizes and involves outside institutions across the country and around the world.

Against this backdrop, the CIO's office has been reforming its collaboration technology to accommodate external researchers and address other issues such as the need for mobile device support. Another requirement is facilitating self-service provisioning and sharing. Researchers in a highly decentralized organization must be able to make decisions about what collaboration tools to use and with whom to share documents, Stone said.

Next steps

1. Collaborative mind melding. As for future collaboration tools, Dr. Clayton Curtis, an informaticist at the Veterans Health Administration, said he would like to see real-time mind mapping software. A mind map is a diagram that shows a main concept and its connections to associated ideas. Curtis said tools such as MindMeister enable the sharing of mind maps among a group, but he would like the ability to have a group fluidly make changes to a mind map at the same time.

2. In search of experts. Often, just finding people to collaborate is the key problem. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is deploying an online tool that is designed to help researchers discover one another, called Harvard Catalyst Profiles. Adam Stone, chief technology officer and division deputy for policy and technology at Berkeley Lab, said the system creates researcher profiles by mining data from public databases such as PubMed.

3. Collaboration meets big data. Each collaboration session captures a lot of information, and the collection grows even larger across an organization's worth of workgroup activities. Steve Ricketts, chief marketing officer at collaboration software vendor ThinkTank, said big-data analytics is an emerging trend. "If you can...start to aggregate that data and start to see trends, the analytics around that are extremely powerful," he said.

-- John Moore

Berkeley Lab has been a Google Apps shop since about 2010 and also extensively uses Google Drive and Google Sites. Those apps cover the productivity and collaboration bases, but they have some limitations in the research environment, particularly when dealing with bibliographic material, which is important for the final stage of research, Stone said.

Therefore, lab employees mainly use the Google tools for coordination and early-stage research. Before publishing, they typically turn to a specialized word processor such as LaTeX, which is better equipped to handle bibliographic formatting and equation editing, Stone said.

The CIO's office, meanwhile, has added a number of collaboration-oriented extensions to Google Apps. Among them is Lucidchart, a tool for creating flowcharts and other diagrams. The lab has also incorporated Smartsheet, which Stone described as a lightweight project management tool, and GQueues, a task management app. Outside the Google ecosystem, the lab's collaboration offerings include Atlassian's Confluence wiki software.

Restrictions on travel have also raised the profile of collaboration tools. The General Services Administration's conference scandal and subsequent travel restrictions have limited agencies' ability to conduct off-site meetings.

"Before, we could reasonably justify getting a group of people together," Curtis said. "It is almost impossible to do that anymore."

As a result, VHA conducts more virtual meetings. The agency uses its Lync system or services such as GoToMeeting or Cisco's WebEx for some meetings. But other situations require a more powerful tool that can support larger meetings in which several groups convene in breakout sessions to tackle specific issues, Curtis said. VHA uses ThinkTank for meetings in which participants must brainstorm solutions to a problem or produce a set of positions on a given subject.

In one case, VHA employed ThinkTank to conduct a virtual meeting that had traditionally brought about 200 people together in person. Curtis noted that the tool was able to accommodate the conference, including breakout sessions, and might be used again in that capacity due to travel constraints.

VHA uses Adobe Connect in its work with DOD because the tool provides the Web conferencing portion of Defense Connect Online.

The fundamentals

Collaboration tools can be segmented in different ways. One approach is to break down the market according to functions: conferencing services versus file sync-and-share solutions, for example. Conferencing services include audio-only offerings, Web conferencing such as GoToMeeting and WebEx, and group video meetings via such tools as Google Hangouts.

Solutions in the file sync-and-share category, on the other hand, let users share files with co-workers. Examples include and Dropbox.

Beyond those categories, there are applications geared toward structured collaboration versus informal meet-ups and information-sharing sessions. Products in that category embed collaboration within a particular enterprise workflow.

ThinkTank offers one example of a structured collaboration tool. The company's software helps meeting participants focus on common objectives, discover the best way to pursue those objectives and drive good results, Ricketts said. ThinkTank facilitates collaboration in the context of a particular process -- for example, by offering ThinkFlows that guide processes such as audit, Lean Six Sigma, risk management, project management and strategic planning.

Some companies divide collaboration tools into consumer-grade and enterprise categories. Huddle CEO Alastair Mitchell said consumer sync-and-share tools lack the functionality and security of more sophisticated enterprise collaboration software. Therefore, Huddle's cloud-based collaboration service, which complies with the Federal Information Security Management Act, offers features such as version control, audit trails, and the ability to manage file and folder permissions.

"What [customers] look for in enterprise and government is to move beyond very basic file sync and share," Mitchell said.

Huddle is based in London but launched operations in Washington, D.C., about 18 months ago. The company's federal customers include NASA and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

Yet another approach is to categorize collaboration tools as asynchronous or real time. File sharing, for example, is an asynchronous tool that lets users access and work on files at their convenience. Real-time collaboration, on the other hand, supports all the participants working on a project simultaneously.

At Berkeley Lab, real-time collaboration tools include Google Hangouts, which are used for informal videoconferences, and Vidyo's VidyoH2O, which pulls in researchers using other videoconferencing technologies -- such as traditional room systems -- into a Google Hangouts session, Stone said.

The lab's real-time collaboration lineup also includes Fuze for online meetings and UberConference for audio conferences.

The hurdles

Perhaps the main obstacle in harnessing collaboration tools is the wealth of available technology. Employees unfamiliar with new products and services might not be inclined to use them, at least initially. Therefore, education and training become important for organizations that offer multiple tools.

Berkeley Lab hosts one or two training sessions each month on collaboration tools. Employees can also send questions via email to the lab's collaboration tool team, and the lab's annual LabTech conference provides a number of sessions on collaboration technology.

Stone described the education approach as a concierge service that fields questions and helps researchers understand how to apply tools in particular scenarios. It explains the tools but stops short of deploying them for employees.