Laiserin's LemmaDon't Try This at Home
(lemma: a short theorem used in proving a larger theorem)
In a recent commercial on US TV for a high-tech service business, a senior manager finishes mulling over a proposal and enthusiastically announces "Let's do it!"only to be dismayed when his two consultants sheepishly reply, "We don't, um, actually do what we propose, we just propose it." This estrangement of analysis from implementation can be the downfall of any techno-centric or techno-enabled project, which is why we here at The LaiserinLetter always try to do the things we propose. Sometimes the results can be, shall we say, "interesting."
Alert readers of this letter will note that the emailing date of this issue is many weeks out of synch with the cover date. As a purely virtual business, with no offices, physical plant or fixed staff, we depend exclusively on digital communications to connect the Editor and the Webmaster for production coordination. With one or both of us on the road somewhere in the world at any given moment, we are constantly pushing the limits of Internet cafes and ATT GlobalNet dial-ups. Even when spanning such disparate locations as Berlin and Costa Rica, our connections remained virtually intact. However, stretching from Helsinki to Belize, as we recently attempted, proved to be more of a stretch than our best technology could handle.
Now that we're back on track with at least one of us operating out of a fixed home base at any given moment, we anticipate not only returning to a weekly schedule, but publishing a bit more frequently over the coming months until our nominal email dates once again coincide with our cover dates. There will be no skipped issues, special double issues or other publishing gimmicks to fudge our schedule.
The Big Easy
There are a couple of useful lessons here for any organization or team of organizations seeking to doand not just proposeworking collaboratively via virtual means. First, the stuff that you may think is hard turns out to be relatively easy. Ordinary email (Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora) works just fine for most of our communications and attached files, since all our work product starts in digital form and stays digital through and including final publication. We upload and download larger files via FTP (file transfer protocol) for greater speed and efficiency. We use the markup, whiteboarding, and application sharing capabilities of Microsoft NetMeeting, combined with instant messaging via Netscape Messenger to easily achieve real-time, synchronous collaboration, although synching across eight or nine time zones can be a personal inconvenience.
All this stuff is free or nearly so, it's mature technology, stable, and not too difficult to use (at least it is well within the grasp of anyone sufficiently techno-adept to master typical CAD or graphics applications). It's only when the business/cultural horizons of a collaborative project start to expand that these tools become unwieldy. Mass market users who have less skill or patience but still want to perform essentially the same functions prefer easier to use, more fully integrated sets of tools. Multi-enterprise collaborations (such as those typically found in AEC, plant/process and facilities projects) must accommodate a broad and unpredictable range of hardware/software configurations, security firewalls and internal corporate systems.
A peer-to-peer (P2P) collaboration product such as eZmeeting provides the requisite ease of use, multi-configuration support and firewall compatibility to serve as a nearly universal solution. Where P2P falls short for LaiserinLetter purposes is in the need to install "client" software on each peer machinea system that won't work for collaborators connecting from "public" machines such as those in Internet cafes. However, if all your project participants always connect via machines that can be configured in advance, eZmeeting is a great way to go.
Web-based collaborative systems typically rely on universally available browser software, such as Microsoft Internet Explorer or Netscape Navigator, to display and control all connecting information on the machines of all collaborating users. Generic examples range from enterprise-level outfits such as eRoom (which comes in both self-hosted and vendor-hosted "flavors") to small-biz-friendly providers such as Intranets.com, and provide a centralized clearinghouse and repository for contacts, schedules, tasks, documents and so on. Because these centralized systems entail financial and administrative overheadfrom $25/month for four users (Intranets.com) to $1,200/month for 100 users (eRoom)what seems a needless expense for the LaiserinLetter may represent great value for many of our readers' businesses.
To produce the LaiserinLetter we don't need audit trails, workflow templates or hierarchical "need-to-know" access controls, but most multi-enterprise design and construction projects do require such safeguards. Systems/services such as Autodesk Buzzsaw, Constructware, e-Builder or ProjectEdge provide the kind of robust project organization that's needed in an often adversarial business environment like construction. Raising the bar to include advanced functionality such as drag-and-drop business process rules definition or industrial-strength knowledge management support narrows the field to next-generation tools such as OpenText LiveLink for Construction.
A Hard Day's Night
The other lesson to be learned from our recent production coordination delays here at the LaiserinLetter is that the stuff that you may think is easy turns out to be relatively hard. The kind of online connectivity that is taken for granted in the United States is not so readily obtained elsewhere and, when available, can be prohibitively expensive. First, one must get past the notion that USA-based AT&T Worldnet service has anything to do with the world; it cannot be accessed from anywhere outside North America. On the other hand, the strictly business AT&T Globalnet (formerly IBM Globalnet) actually covers the globe and does so reasonably well (although the system setup's simple-minded insistence that the home country on your account must be the country from which you dialed to open the account produces incongruous results like my having a German dial-up account billed to my USA address while I travel to places like Finland, Italy and Slovenia).
With flat-rate "home country" access and low-cost "roaming" surcharges, AT&T Globalnet should be a bargain because it has local dial-up numbers nearly everywhere (even in lovely but out of the way locales such as Bassano del Grappa between Vicenza and Venice). However, most European hotels do not offer the flat-rate local calling service provided in most USA establishments; instead, the meter on local calls spins at a rate of one Euro per minute (or more), making a four or five hour email and collaboration session prohibitively expensive.
The bottom line is that P2P and Web-based collaboration are technologies ready to be done, not just proposedat least within well-connected communications marketswhile spotty access to fast, reliable, cheap telecommunication connectivity remains a stumbling block to truly global collaboration.
Let me know what you think.
Editor and Publisher, The LaiserinLetter
Analysis, Strategy and Opinion for Technology Leaders in Design Business