November 11, 2000
The following is the third of a series of three articles describing the "ideal" project wor space.
The first article describes it from a general sense, the second describes an actual project workspace (physical), and the third article describes the virtual work space as it should be.
The Collaborative Project Work Space
The Virtual Project Room Part 3
Developing a technical architecture often requires constant collaboration among geographically distributed and multi-domain teams, within a company, among contractors, subcontractors and customers in both a synchronous and asynchronous manner. Individuals and teams need to be dynamic and mobile, being able to collaborate with one other and have access to data and their flow, from an office desktop, home or hotel room.
One response to these requirements is the Virtual Project Room.
The Virtual Project Room (VPR)
The VPR is web-based, thus accessible from anywhere with access to the organizational intranet, from any office, hotel room, meeting room or home. It integrates synchronous and asynchronous capabilities, almost for free, based on existing interface standards and reusing components adopted by most organizations.
The VPR simulates a secure physical room, into which only team members come, in which data change rapidly and are always available (news, latest decisions, documents, designs, tools, actions, schedules), and people come and go to work or to chat/collaborate with other full and part-time members of the team. The VPR provides access to people and data from anywhere, at anytime.
The VPR should include capabilities such as:
- Bulletin Board – on which any team member can add news appropriate to the team.
- Members - virtual room membership plus capabilities to add new members .
- Team Calendar (Exchange) - to store all team events
- Project Planning, tracking and monitoring (MSProject)
- Team File Repository (Netscape Publisher) - a shared file repository.
- Link Repository - a repository of links to the web
- Action Items, Meeting - specialized data stores in support of ISO9000 requirements. Team members can easily create, edit and access this data.
- Mail archive (Exchange) - a repository of email messages deemed critical to be shared with the rest of the team; very applicable to keep history. Email attachments are also supported.
- Discussion threads (FrontPage) - used for sharing questions, answers, and issues with the rest of the team accessed from any standard newsreader client (e.g. Netscape Communicator or Microsoft Outlook).
- What’s new - a listing of the last 10 files added/modified in the file repository as well as a short summary of other room contents (calendar entries, action items, etc.)
- - Full-text search is provided on any data in the file repository, the mail archive, the action items, the meeting minutes and the web links. An associated "agent" regularly indexes new files in the room and makes them searchable.
- Virtual Call (Netmeeting) - integrated 1-1 audio/video/data conferencing capability between members currently in the room.
- Textual chat capability.
- Conference Center (Netmeeting) - a conference center for real-time document conferencing or application sharing, a tool providing a web-based infrastructure for administering and participating in these conferences.
- Agent Notifiers - This gives users the ability to subscribe to email notifications on an event-driven basis whenever a particular document or directory is modified. A recommended use of this feature is for users to subscribe to notifications whenever a new document is placed in a directory in which they are particularly interested; this is useful to implement active problem reporting resolution.
- A collection of "active" capabilities, " agents"
An agent as autonomous pre-developed software which gets activated as a result of events (e.g., timers, changes in data or email arrival) and performs some action, like sending email, causing a web event, notifying the user of some activity, or causing the execution of programs. Agent development varies from a few hours to a few weeks.
- Monitors. Examples are: a) the guard (ro)bot which alerts other present members when someone enters the room; b) the action item due (ro)bot, which daily checks which action items will be due the next day and alerts assignees via email
- Agent Notifiers. The room allows members to set up individual notifiers to either email or page people when specific directories/files change.
- Information publishers. Example is the "what is new in the room" capability which gathers and publishes summaries of data and latest changes in room
- Integrators. Agents integrating synchronous and asynchronous technologies, e.g., calendar and virtual conference scheduling, and synchronization of changes to organizational mail directory.
- Information gatherers/brokers. We allow users to select areas of interest and web sources of interest for agents to create newsletters for the team. The agents generate a daily newsletter, stored in the virtual room, for those selected areas of interest.
- Support Agents. Examples are the hourly indexing of all room data for subsequent search and conversion of received email to html for room sharing purposes.
The agent capabilities clearly demonstrate how those active collaborative spaces can help teams become more productive and help team collaboration and coordination. For example, users are reminded of action due dates or notified of important data or changes in documents, information can be gathered and disseminated, and activities can be coordinated among distributed team members.
"Anytime, anywhere access to the VPR"
Virtual Project Room Principles
- Utilize web-based content delivery wherever possible. Maintaining the thin client architecture was important; firstly, by avoiding client installations, new users are more quickly brought into the system and face a smaller learning curve; and secondly, upgrading functionality requires changes to one machine only and the user community instantly benefits from the new capabilities.
- Use two types of user interface, a graphical one, to entice infrequent users of the room, and a linear list of hot buttons for more experienced users.
- Notify users "who is in the room" with an agent which notifies members present whenever someone enters the room with a switch so users could turn the notification off whenever they do not want to be disturbed.
- Enable project leads to add or delete members.
- Enable a link repository as it is extremely beneficial in maintaining a shared list of useful sites.
- Enable shared file repository, it is the key to maintaining latest versions of documents, lists of problem reports, etc.
- The organization of the file repository is still up to the team and careful coordination is needed to avoid redundant branches.
- Enable a mail archival, which provides a quick way to maintain relevant information for the group, easily searchable via the room search engine.
- Enable individual users to set their own notifiers. It allows different roles to identify their own needs, like: a configuration manager can be notified when a new problem report comes in; reviewers can be notified when versions of the document change, etc.
- Allow user-defined daily newsletters.
- Allow a non-member area, in order to make documents available.
- Encourage room use. The hardest roadblock appears to be to get people in the habit of visiting the room frequently since they are typically too busy to remember. Towards this goal, we have integrated room capabilities with email, so users get messages when something is changed or something is of interest; this message has a pointer to the room, thus providing immediate access to it.
- Provide standard features, for all operational rooms to minimize room administration maintenance and for easy evolution. However, tailoring capabilities are needed since different projects and teams have different needs.
- Support security. Virtual rooms should be able to support a full complement of security mechanisms (e.g. encryption, authentication). Have the capability to have team members from outside the organization’s firewall.
- Platform/OS independence
- HTTP (Web) and NNTP (Newsgroup discussion threads) provide that.
- Design for the minimum expected browser.
- Web browsers exhibit varying behavior across different platforms and version numbers, design to the minimum capabilities allow wide-scale usage.
- Be extensible. New technologies appear everyday: audio/video streaming, push technology, agents, etc. A virtual room should be designed for extensibility.
A majority of the information on VPRs was extracted from a paper by Maria H. Penedo of TRW.
The original paper is located at:
A collaborative workspace environment: experience of evaluation and selection in the Agora project
by Tracy Gardner and Rosemary Russell
A Web-based Virtual Room for Small Team Collaboration by Maria H. Penedo
COLLABORATIVE GIS IN A DISTRIBUTED WORK ENVIRONMENT by Robert L. Boettcher
Collaborative Settings: Fostering Teamwork in the Workplace Herman Miller
Reinventing the Sales Office arbee associates
This is the third of three articles describing a collaborative workspace. A copy of this article, previous articles is located in the Tools part of the Enterprise-Wide IT Architecture (EWITA) web site, located at http://www.ewita.com.