Success in the global market was giving Marla Landreth headaches.
Her company, InfoGenesis in Santa Barbara, Calif., was doing well. Customers as far away as Australia and Asia were buying its systems that link sales terminals together to track sales, inventory and customers across large properties such as resorts, casinos and stadiums. But each sale was an added challenge for Landreth, who heads training for the company, which has 150 employees and 17 sites.
Most customers had steady employee turnover and a constant need to train new hires on InfoGenesis' systems. Add to that the quarterly updates of new bells and whistles to the company's software and Landreth faced big budget hits for training and travel. The dilemma grew as many clients cut their own travel following 9/11 and the economic downturn.
"We use to distribute documentation and have everyone call in with questions, but that didn't address the needs," Landreth says.
So InfoGenesis tried Web conferencing through Centra Software Inc., in Lexington, Mass. By setting up training sessions over the Internet, trainees several time zones away can click a link on their computers and enter a virtual classroom with a simulation of the InfoGenesis system and real-time instructions from a trainer.
Students see what the software looks like in action. They can interrupt the lesson with questions using text chat or voice-over-Internet protocol (VoIP) technology, which lets them make long-distance telephone calls over the Internet rather than over telephone wires. The online solution, Landreth says, "has solved a huge problem of training and turnover for our customers."
Once the province of larger firms, Web conferencing and other collaboration technologies -- tools that help people work with one another through their computers -- have become more available and affordable. This is a boon for smaller companies whose only previous collaboration option was to gather workers in a room with coffee, donuts, and a whiteboard.
Simple collaborative tools such as instant messaging (IM) can be incorporated into company systems, and even on individual employees' home computers, courtesy of the AOLs and Yahoos of the world. Calendaring -- the ability to check colleagues' schedules or add a meeting their calendar -- is now a standard feature in Microsoft Outlook. Web conferencing is being bundled into operating systems sold by companies like Microsoft Corp. and IBM Corp. Such systems will soon or already offer teamware -- software that creates virtual workspaces for project groups inside or outside a company.
The choices don't end there. The marketplace teems with companies challenging larger companies like Microsoft and WebEx Communications Inc., a hosted Web-meeting provider based in San Jose. Flypaper.com, a San Carlos, Calif., firm hosts secure digital workplaces where teams can gather and share information, and Co-create Software, an Hewlett-Packard spinoff in Fort Collins, Colo., makes software that lets engineering and manufacturing teams work together. You can even buy turnkey systems, with servers and software, for $40,000. All tolled, the collaborative market is now estimated at around $3 billion a year.
"The field is really growing by leaps and bounds now, in part due to the whole history of 9/11 and SARS [last year's outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome that put a chill on international travel]," says Mark Rice, a former Xerox executive who saw the potential of collaborative technologies and started his own Web-meeting business called Webinar Resources in Florissant, Mo.
With the flood of collaborative products available, how do you choose? The best advice is to think hard about what you need and take it slow.
"It's hard to assess the values of these technologies," says Erica Rugullies, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. "Some companies are afraid of collaboration because they see it as something that is just cool" rather than truly valuable, she says. "But there are advantages when you look at the business process, such as reduced phone bills or e-mail storage costs."
Web conferencing and teamware--software designed for groups and for communication, including e-mail, videoconferencing, chat features, and document collaboration--hold the biggest promise of savings in both money and time. Coworkers, clients, or prospective customers in different locations can look at documents and images on their computers while talking on traditional teleconference lines or directly over the Internet via VoIP.
There are several ways to go. You can contract with the main players, like Microsoft's Live Meeting, WebEX or IBM, which put together larger, more expensive Web conferences. You can also try going solo: Microsoft has bundled Net Meeting into all its new Windows products. Click the icon of the globe with the two arrows and you can try your hand at conferencing with up to 10 people.
The third route is to sign up with a smaller conferencing firm such as Centra, which can take the mystery out of Web conferencing, especially for companies with small or nonexistent IT departments. For a fee of around 20 cents per participant per minute, Centra will set up your Internet meeting place, send out invitations, and register participants. All you have to do is click on the site, hook up a computer headset, and log into the meeting. (Centra also provides a Cost/Benefit Analysis, which shows the cost savings involved with online learning initiatives.)
Going the third-party route may make the most sense for newcomers, the experts say. As with any new venture, due diligence is a necessary first step. Talk to the conferencing companies, check out their websites, ask for reference lists of customers, or even sit in on a conference, which many hold to demonstrate product features.
But if you discover that conferencing works for you, you begin to use it frequently, and you and/or your IT department is up to the task, you might consider purchasing the technology to do it yourself.
Microsoft offers Office Live Communications Server 2003, which lets companies set up their own IM networks via Office applications. OpenScape from Siemens AG combines voice, e-mail, IM, and collaboration features. Apple Computer Inc. has added video to IM with its iChat AV software and iSight digital camera. Oracle Corp. is challenging Microsoft's e-mail dominance with its own Collaboration Suite, which builds on Oracle's already considerable collaborative capabilities.
The overriding advice is to take your time, especially with your own staff. Shifting cultures from donuts and coffee to computer screens and headphones may be jarring at first.
"With options like teamware you have to change habits," says Mike Gotta, senior vice president and principal analyst at Meta Group Inc. of Stamford, Conn., an industry advisory firm. "Getting people to change can be tough. You have to convince them that new is better."