Web-based collaborative software help people spread over diverse geographical areas but involved in common tasks or projects achieve their goals seamlessly. It also allows individuals access work tools from anywhere, without being constrained by a physical office. It includes common web-based applications accessible over the internet, remote access storage systems to archiving common use data files at a single location, online calendars, wiki, and more. Such collaborative capacity allows for a global work-team, enabling the organization to leverage resources and competitive advantages from across the world.
Such tools became popular with the spread of the internet ion the early 1990s, and big companies such as Boeing and IBM started using electronic meeting systems to leverage key internal projects. Lotus Notes was the first popular online collaboration tool. Since then much water has flown down the bridge, and most companies now have their own customized tools.
Web-based system overcome the vexatious issue of files and programs not opening in different operating systems, but it doesn’t do away with the problem. A good system has to work the same way in all web browsers. This is difficult, for not all browsers, for instance support all video formats. The collaborative system incorporating a video that runs in say, flash will not open in a browser that supports only QuickTime plug-in. Similarly, users may upload or download documents of various formats, which may not be readable by others. Similarly, the company’s central office creating and distributing .docx word files when individual users have only MS-Word 97 that opens only .doc files renders the system impotent.
A good web-based collaborative system specifies file formats and other standards, and ensures that all users have ready access to applications to read or view such formats. The obviousness of this requirement notwithstanding, many systems still do not ensure this in actual life, and fail.
Reliability or uptime poses a challenge for web-based systems, especially when the collaborative workgroups extends to a global scale. Uninterrupted and fast internet access is the lifeline of web-based systems, and disruption in internet activity may result in missed deadlines, a key team member rendered incommunicado, and more. Even slow internet access can cause hold ups and delays, disrupting work flow considerably.
Similarly, the uptime of the central server hosting the web-based applications also remains crucial. The system collapses if the central server goes down
Ways to mitigate the danger of the internet becoming unavailable are:
- Ensuring that each individual user have a backup internet connection
- Ensuring a backup central server, or decentralized storage
- Allowing users to work on the cache version and upload or download as required at periodic intervals. This is a useful technique when uninterrupted and real-time broadband access is not possible for any reason
- Allowing an HTML or text only version minus the fancy graphics and animations that take time to load, for user with slow speed internet connections
The spate of high-profile hacking and the overall increase in cyber crimes place computer and network security at the center stage. Accessing the internet is risky regardless of the antivirus or firewalls in place. Hackers can for instance use spear phishing tactics such as a fake web page or email of a seemingly legit source to entice the user to make a click that would download malicious Trojan worms, and compromise the entire network. Hackers can steal data when in transit over the network, a traditional bane of cloud computing, or they make even steal the password and impersonate a user. There are many other similar threats.
Very often, success of the web-based collaborative tool depends on the safeguards and measures it adopts to ensure safe access. This may include white listing team members, ensuring adequate safeguards such as blocking suspicious emails or files, and more. Having said this, no safeguard can protect a careless user who makes unwanted clicks, downloads unnecessary files, browse unsafe websites and undertake other such activities.
The spread of web computing raises new challenges in implementing web-based collaboration systems. Online tools now need to remain compatible with both mobile and desktop versions. This, for instance means one format to fit the small mobile screen, and another to fit the large desktop screen, and for applications to run on multiple platforms, such as say Windows OS in the desktop and Symbian OS in the mobile.
On a related note, chat and voice communications are non-persistent and evaporate at the end of the session whereas virtual room and online file cabinets can persist for years. The selection and integration of the tool should depend on the duration needs.
Web-based tools with its possibility of centralized storage and all members having access to the same document makes version control of files and documents easy. Many serious version related issues however remain.
Multiple input and output streams raise concurrency issues. What would happen, for instance, if two users accessed the same file simultaneously, work on them, and upload at the same time? Normally, one user will find his work lost. A solution is to block edit rights to the file when another user is working on it, but the viability of such solutions depends on company policies and the usage pattern of the file.Similarly, not all users would remain aware of all the changes, and as such a good tool need to archive previous versions and create a timeline of edits to allow tracking and making sense of changes.
Technology helps to bring people together and create a more successful virtual team, but the benefits do not realize without proper rules and protocols to control the process.
Beyerlein, Michael M.; Freedman, Susan; McGee, Craig & Moran, Linda (2002). “Beyond Teams: Building the Collaborative Organization.” Pfeiffer. ISBN: 978-0-7879-6373-6
Davidson, John & Deus, Lucy. “A Case Study in Technology Transfer of Collaboration Tools.” http://www.mitre.org/news/the_edge/june_98/transfer.html. Retrieved August 19, 2011.