Taxonomy of Collaboration

A High-Level Framework for Understanding Types of Collaborative Services

February 19, 2004

Companies are making critical decisions on collaboration platforms and services within a highly dynamic marketplace. They need to understand key distinctions and capabilities before evaluating collaborative products.

Enabling collaboration--both internally and with customers and partners--remains a high priority for many companies. These companies hope to respond to customers’ needs better, get closer to customers and partners, and improve operational effectiveness.

While we’ve made significant progress over the past decade or so, the promise of electronically-enabled collaboration (or “computer-supported collaborative work,” as we once called it) is still far from being fully realized. However, the collaboration software space has been heating up. The collaboration marketplace is rapidly changing--with companies such as WebEx and Groove defining new collaborative arenas for competition. The ubiquity of the Internet, wireless, and broadband access has changed many of the assumptions about the way people can work together. And the introduction of instant messaging and presence awareness into the enterprise is affording us completely new ways to collaborate, which heretofore were not available in a business context.

Your organization, like many others, is probably on the verge of making a decision about which collaborative platform(s) to roll out. Will you select IBM’s Lotus platform or Microsoft’s Office platform? Or will you select from among a wide range of point products for different types of collaboration: for instant messaging, for online meetings, and for project management? Or will your firm opt to use the collaboration capabilities that come bundled into the portal platform(s) you’ve selected?

We believe that these decisions should not be made lightly. Your firm’s choice of collaboration platforms and services may impact your business for years to come. If you choose well and achieve rapid adoption, you’ll reap the benefits of higher productivity and responsiveness. If you choose and/or implement poorly, your organization is likely to reject the notion of online collaboration for the foreseeable future, limiting your firm’s competitiveness and responsiveness.

In this report, we begin a renewed focus on collaboration by defining the major types of collaboration and the platforms that enable them. We will follow this over the coming weeks with in-depth frameworks for comparing and evaluating offerings and reviews of major products in three key areas: online meetings, collaborative workspaces, and instant messaging.


As we begin our series of frameworks and product/platform evaluations in the collaborative services space, we’d like to provide a high-level taxonomy of collaboration that provides the key classifications and vocabulary. For us, the critical distinctions in this taxonomy are the division between real-time and persistent collaboration and the richness of interactions available for each. Within this framework, we position instant messaging, online meetings, persistent workspaces, and email as the key types of collaboration platforms. Each of those platforms contains a set of collaborative services. We’ll be examining the services for each platform in detail over the coming months; first, let’s lay the groundwork by describing our high-level collaboration taxonomy.

Critical Decisions within a Dynamic Market

What is collaboration? We define collaboration as people working together toward the same goal. The parties collaborating might be employees within a company and their partners and customers who are co-designing a custom solution. The collaborative group could be a team that has been designated to manage a product roll-out. The collaborators might be several people working together to respond to an RFP or two technicians solving a thorny customer issue.

The collaboration software space--what used to be called “computer-supported cooperative work,” “groupware,” or “teamware”--comprises a set of capabilities or services offered by software platforms to enable people to work together. The hallmark of these platforms is their provision of mechanisms to support back and forth interaction--since true collaboration is not just a question and an answer, but a multiperson effort to reach a desired outcome.

Collaboration is both a throwback--we’ve been following this space for 17 years--and a rapidly evolving space. Much of the evolution is driven by business needs, such as quickly responding to customer requests, enhancing relationships with customers and partners, and increasing operational efficiency. For many of our clients, improved collaboration with customers or with fellow employees is a strategic initiative in itself; for others, it’s a major ingredient in other initiatives (such as enterprise and customer portals).

Today, many companies are trying to decide which services to offer and upon which platforms to provide these services. This can be a multidimensional decision, including:

* What’s the minimum and optimal set of collaborative services to offer for different groups of people and different situations? Companies frequently are getting caught up in an overall collaboration platform roll-out without having defined the services needed and the audiences for those services. In some cases, “collaboration lite” might be sufficient until a full platform is rolled out.

* Which vendor/platform should we choose? Choices include IBM’s Lotus platform and Microsoft’s Office platform--the leading options--along with portal platforms containing collaboration capabilities and targeted point products.

* Should we use a hosted service or an in-house platform? This can be a cost-of-ownership decision, or it can be driven by the availability of a specific service. (For example, many of the online meeting platforms are not for sale as enterprise applications but only available as outsourced services.) In some situations, such as collaboration between two organizations, a hosted solution may be required so that neither organization “owns” the collaboration.

These decisions are being made within a highly dynamic environment--including a rapidly changing collaboration marketplace, with ...

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