Teaming With Possibility


Maybe it is the nature of publishing, but I don't remember ever working in the same office with every member of my team. Even in places where all the editors and creative and production people were on site, the writers have been located anywhere from cubicle farms to huts in Botswana. As such, I've witnessed the evolution of digital collaboration first hand and with hands on: from taking typewritten copy from writers and keying it into a Verityper all the way to building and using wiki workspaces.

Along the way, I've enjoyed every step in the growth of collaboration tools, each revolutionary in its own way. Disk-delivery of copy was a vast improvement over typing pools; emailed copy made near-immediate feedback a possibility; web-based, real-time tools like IM and wikis bring the team to life. And here we are in content's here and now. Instant coffee, instant gratification, and now instant collaboration between team members, wherever they may be located.

Yet team fragmentation can't be reduced to geographic issues. In large organizations, putting together the optimal group of people to achieve any objective can be almost as difficult as uniting them from different time zones. Different work styles, workloads, priorities, and even a complete lack of awareness of another's expertise in a given area all pose hurdles to team building.

The problem is that as collaboration needs and expectations become more complicated, solutions also become increasingly complex. Companies add piecemeal software solutions—IM, forums, wikis, blogs—to solve isolated problems, but these lack cohesion. 

Jive Software is taking a crack at bringing these disparate collaborative tools together with Clearspace, out in beta this month. I got a peek under the hood and it's clear Clearspace is a very ambitious undertaking.

Clearspace is a collaboration solution that unifies all content tools (whether or not they were made by Jive) using an open, plug-in architecture, and emphasizes real-time communication. On its face, it presents a unified portal-view to content from all over an enterprise. Fueling this integrated content environment is relationship mapping, so that users don't have to hit a variety of company blogs to find out if anyone has been discussing a topic. Instead, they can look at a category and see if anyone has written a post, IM, or document on a subject. They don't even need to know where to look, they just need to be interested in a category-defined community. As Hersh puts it, "the communities drive the organization, not the tool."

Clearspace provides more than just a unified view of the content being created in the far-flung corners of an organization. It includes collaborative document creation, which takes the form of wiki-style pages; activity management; blogs; document management; threaded discussions; and content syndication. It also allows for dynamically configured workspaces, which can be restricted or open for use with partners and customers.

While all of this functionality comes with Clearspace, many organizations will be even happier about the fact that the open architecture allows them to hang on to legacy applications that teams are comfortable using. Hersh says, "I'd like to add value to the investment people have made in systems like wikis."

Ultimately, though, getting a team together remains one of the most formidable challenges in large or widespread organizations. Clearspace allows communities to form naturally around a subject of interest. However, it doesn't rely on an individual's altruistic interest to bring them on board. In the company's experience building online forums, it developed a rewards-based system to further entice participation.

Clearspace also allows for a more proactive approach to team building by including a people-search component. It not only identifies those with expertise, but also indicates things like proximity and similar interests based on activity within the space.

Effective collaboration isn't easy and Jive is tackling it with a feature-complex yet simple collaborative environment. Hersh and his team certainly feel the pressure to produce as a team, "We've been working ourselves ragged trying to make this thing clean and easy, yet still unified." For his team, and for those of his clients, he says, "Those ‘ah-ha' moments are really important."