In the first part of this series I talked about how future project leaders may select team members for their projects. In this installment, I will discuss the future of virtual team spaces, which include real-time tools that facilitate ‘in-person’ sharing of information and the online workspaces where project documents are stored.
The technology to facilitate online presentation-style meetings has improved quite a bit over the past decade. It has evolved from dedicated video conference rooms that few people could use or afford, to PC-accessible services like WebEx or Microsoft Live Meeting where anyone with an Internet connection and a video camera can participate in a very good online experience. Curiously, the technologies to facilitate virtual team meetings and real-time collaboration for small groups have not kept pace. The best available desktop sharing tools are cumbersome or nearly unusable for small collaborative groups that require instant desktop switching and highly collaborative whiteboards. Nevertheless, there are some very good starting points out there. Examples follow:
The whiteboard product from Vyew.com is one of the best Web-based brainstorming tools I’ve seen to date. However, despite its many good features and ease of use, it still lacks powerful drawing features, seamless cross-platform coverage, and integration with team spaces. Whiteboards of the future will be essentially PowerPoint for multiple simultaneous users. They will come with a rich set of drawing tools and will provide utilities to import and export content in a large selection of data formats to facilitate sharing with people outside the project team. They will also be tightly integrated into virtual team spaces so that collaboration artifacts can be created and left directly in the ‘rooms’ along with other related project material.
Products like WebEx and GoToMeeting typify what project teams must use for their collaborative virtual meetings. These tools provide a sharing window where a single desktop or presentation slide is displayed on many remote computer screens. They are designed for live sales events or company updates and, as such, they all lack features for small collaborative teams such as fast access, easy switching between desktops, and easy content creation and export to common office applications. HP’s Virtual Rooms tool shows one solution to the quick access requirement. HP’s tool has an easily accessed launch window where a single click takes you directly to any of your group project rooms, greatly simplifying and speeding the process of getting people into a meeting (full disclosure: the author was previously employed by HP and had influenced the development of HP’s Virtual Room product).
One of the best aspects of face-to-face meetings is the casual time we all share before and after the formal portion of a meeting. In the future, we should see tools that provide an immersive audio and video experience where people can gather in a virtual meeting room to chat as easily as they do in physical rooms. All we need to make this work is an online 2-D space (3D is overkill) where each of us can move a simple avatar (perhaps our photo) around on a work surface to form small chat groups separate from other avatars in the room. By adding position-modulated audio, wherein people whose avatars are close together hear each other louder than those further away, and you have a great start on a virtual collaborative meeting center. Most of us already have the basic bits of hardware on our desktops to make this work (stereo speakers or headphones and a videocam), but the software (and perhaps the networking infrastructure) still must evolve to make it easy to quickly connect people on any platform (PC, Mac, Linux) and to provide the position-modulated audio levels required. You can read more about the positional audio concept on AM3D.com’s page describing a virtual meeting environment.
Many people have imagined that online 3-D work spaces are the future for virtual teams. Some forward-thinking companies (i.e., Qwaq.com) have even developed 3-D online knowledge repositories for serious business use. Using spaces like these, people can post documents on virtual walls for others to discuss or can explore the “work surfaces” of a project for documentation of interest to them. I must tell you that I believe 3-D workspaces for project documentation are overkill, and even a bit distracting. Similar to video cam feeds shared during real-time working meetings, these highly rendered 3D spaces have a novel initial appeal that quickly fades. In fact, dealing with all the visual clutter can actually reduce productivity. Nevertheless, I do appreciate the potential benefits of the concept. For example, if all projects across a given enterprise were organized and decorated in a consistent manner, it would be relatively easy for newcomers to find project goals, schedules, task lists, and deliverables for even very large projects. By contrast, if every project chooses to organize their sites differently, then navigating these spaces to browse for documentation will waste as much time as traditional list-centric document repositories do today (see Knowledge Management for Virtual Teams).
Whether or not team workspaces evolve to take on a more 3D appearance, one thing is certain, future team spaces will be a tight integration of real-time tools such as application sharing and whiteboarding, and the traditional knowledge repositories such as EMC’s Documentum. This combination will allow multiple people to work on a single document at the same time, eliminating the need for locking and checking-out documents to edit. An excellent example of this concept can be seen in Google Docs. If you have not played with Google’s simple online spreadsheet, you owe it to yourself to check it out. Their collaborative spreadsheets allow multiple people to make changes on different cells at the same time, allowing everyone to see all changes made, as they are made. It is a good early example of the merging of offline and on-line workspaces. Over time, these capabilities will be available for most mainstream products and will hopefully be compatible across platforms for truly seamless collaboration (well, I can dream, can’t I?).