Collaboration Software: A 5 Minute Primer
Created: Jan. 17, 2002
Computers are increasingly being used as communications
devices and to support collaboration. With this have come a range
of produts. The problem for many is to sort them out in any meaningful
way. The good news is that there is a large body of research on which
we can draw. This is a very quick overview of some of the
The minute that you have two people looking
at a computer screen, you have a form of collaboration software.
However, with the advent of large screens, high speed networks, etc., a
number of products are growing to support various forms of collaboration
more explicitly. The result is a confusing mess.
The trick, then, is to find a way to make
sense out of the mess.
Time & Space
The easiest way to start is by way of the
In "Collaboration 101", the primary dimensions
by which systems are differentiated are space and time. Let's start
with the first row, which deals with synchronous collaboration.
If you have two or more people in the same space at the same time, a whiteboard
(electronic or traditional) is one means of collaboration. On the
other hand, if the people are working at the same time, but at different
locations, a speakerphone, videoconferencing, or a pair of synchronized
electronic whiteboards would be examples of how to support collaboration.
The second row in the figure deals with
collaboration. The first column encompasses the situation where people
are co-located, but working at different times. Leaving a note on
the fridge at home is one common example. Email might be another.
If the collaborator is at a different place, and working at a different
time, then voicemail, videomail, email, or some other form of stored and
electronically transmitable form of messaging is required.
The next dimension according to which one
can compare collaborative tools has to do with the modalities of
interaction that are supported. Ask questions like:
Can one point?
Can one mark, draw, or annotate?
Can one speak?
Can one do any or all of the above together?
If it is a synchronous meeting, can any or
all of the above be saved?
Can they be saved in sync (i.e., pointing/marking
sync'd to speaking)?
Power, Control & Turn-Taking
In synchronous collaboration, especially,
power, control and turn-taking significantly affect the nature and dynamics
of collaboration. Think about a brainstorming session on a large
whiteboard where there is only one marker. Now think about how the
same session is altered if each person has their own marker. You
have two completely differnt dynamics. The same is true if you have
to explicity "pass the cursor" or if only one person can point, type or
draw at time. The system that is good for presentations, may be a
disaster for brainstorming, for example.
The issue here is, what is the repertoire
of data types can the system deal with? Spreadsheets, 2D drawings,
3D models, etc. And if one has spreadsheets, can one only look and
point, look and draw, or actually modify them.
But I'm not going to go into it. Your
5 minutes are up.
But if you want to look at some of the
research that I have been involved in, click
Besides looking at the text of the papers,
the references will also point you to the work of others.