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Technology Focus: Unite Your Business Efforts with Collaboration Software

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While not numerous, applications that facilitate collaboration between multiple users and establish workflow paths for document-handling and other tasks are available for IBM i.

 

One of the biggest long-range benefits that computing has provided to business is the computer's ability to improve communications between people. In today's information age, ever-better means of sharing information is paramount. And while our implanted personal communicators are probably still a decade or two away, current technology is already pointing the way to a future in which we can expect increasingly efficient collaboration between business colleagues as a requirement. While adoption of this kind of technology is stronger on other platforms, there are useful representatives of collaboration technology available for the IBM i.

Groupware Applications

Groupware, the most commonly known type of collaboration software, basically lets people who are in different physical locations work together and coordinate some of their activities, most typically through email, calendaring, shared data access and replication, collaborative documents, and electronic meetings. Microsoft's Exchange and NetMeeting products are commonly known PC applications that support groupware functions.

 

Groupware is best typified on the IBM i by IBM Corporation's Lotus Notes/Domino product family, which offers the widest assortment of collaboration features and services available on the IBM i. IBM Lotus/Domino IBM i provides a server-side platform for work group email, calendaring, scheduling, and collaborative applications. Notes is the application system's desktop client, iNotes is its Web client, Quickr is a team-collaboration application, and Quickr Content Integrator handles integration and migration of content from repositories into Quickr team spaces. Symphony is freeware for building and sharing documents, and Lotus Forms and Forms Turbo provide tools for generating electronic forms. The product family also includes tools for developing additional groupware applications, such as Domino Designer, IBM Mashup Center, Lotus Expeditor, and Lotus Workflow.

 

SWING Software's SWING Integrator is an application for IBM i that integrates Microsoft's Office and OpenOffice PC applications with Lotus Notes/Domino. It helps users produce highly formatted documents and charts using Notes data, updates Notes database fields from Office documents, integrates Office applications with Notes, and provides tools for building new Notes and Domino applications.

Workflow Applications

Workflow applications are a second type of collaborative software. In general, workflow applications automatically channel information or documents through a specific hierarchy of users or make it available to a team, each member of which needs to perform some kind of work. Examples would be documents that require a chain of approvals or materials that need to be prepared collectively by a group of experts. On the IBM i, the most common use of workflow features is in document-management and content-management applications, for a list of which please see "Document Management: A Cornucopia of Solutions," published last June in MC Systems Insight. Document- and content-management applications generally feature a repository, which is a central storage location for all work being done on a particular project. They also feature prevention of overwriting one person's work with changes from another, version controls for each document, and a means of synchronizing changes.

 

Because documents are central to managing a business, some document-management applications cross over into the realm of business process management, the practice of continually improving business activities and integrating them better with technology. RJS Software Systems' Enterprise Workflow typifies this phenomenon in IBM i applications. Not only does it help users manage collaborative document construction and distribution, it also features a design tool for creating new workflows, creates work logs and audit trails to demonstrate regulatory compliance, and works with processes as well as documents. The product also offers security controls, a Web interface, and hooks for integrating it with other applications.

 

Workflow capabilities are increasingly featured in enterprise resource planning (ERP), project management, and business analytics applications because those applications often require information flows to particular users or processing of data in a specific sequence. Representative ERP applications containing workflow features for IBM i include Infor's ERP LX and Oracle's JD Edwards World. Representative project management applications that use workflow include Automation Centre's TrackerSuite and Chrono-Logic's iAM for Management. A business analytics solution that uses workflow is NewGeneration Software's Decision Assist.

Collaboration Tools for Developers

In addition to software that helps coordinate workflow among users are software development tools containing workflow features that help designers and developers work together in a team environment. Generally called either software configuration tools or change-management applications, this kind of software enables developers in one location or multiple locations to coordinate work on a software project; it also provides a means for managers or interested end-user stakeholders to track progress. Software configuration management applications, like those for document management, feature a repository and tools for change synchronization, version controls, and work-overwriting protections.

 

Leading products in this area include Aldon's Aldon Lifecycle Manager, Applied Logic Corporation's Professional Development Environment (PDE), Arcad Software's ARCAD-Skipper, MKS' MKS Integrity for IBM i, Thenon Holdings' SEE/CHANGE, SoftLanding Systems' TurnOver Change Management, and Unbeaten Path International's Tight as a Drum, all of which support general application development on the IBM i. TeamStudio's TeamStudio Snapper is a software configuration manager that supports development of Notes/Domino applications only.

Collaboration Communications Managers

Collaboration between colleagues and business partners is often facilitated by messaging between their systems and portable devices, which in effect makes applications that manage those communications another kind of collaboration software. In this area, IBM's Lotus Notes/Domino products dominate the IBM i landscape. Domino Express offers messaging and collaboration services for companies with 1,000 or fewer employees, and Notes Hosted Messaging provides a similar environment for midsized and large enterprises. Notes Traveler replicates Domino services to mobile devices, and Mobile Connect provides secured mobile-device access to Domino services and other business applications. Lotus Sametime supports instant messaging and Web conferencing between colleagues, as well as video chats and VOIP telephony. Lotus Live Engage combines Web conferencing, instant messaging, and other tools to provide Internet-based collaboration services.

    

CommuniGate Systems' CommuniGate Pro is an application that can manage many enterprise communications options but runs on the i only under Linux.

    

Aside from Lotus Sametime and Lotus LiveEngage, there aren't any i-native applications that support Web conferencing. Microsoft SharePoint is a common PC-based Web conferencing solution.

Portals and Web Sites

Wikis, or Web sites with multiple interlinked pages, are fast becoming a collaboration tool that lets colleagues share useful information about customers, products, sales techniques, and other topics useful in carrying out business tasks. As wikis are Internet-based, there aren't any IBM i-specific products that support them, because there really don't need to be. There's a useful comparison chart of wiki software products available from Wikipedia, some of which run under Java, WebSphere, or Apache Tomcat and are usable on IBM i systems using those. There are some wiki-building applications available on a hosted basis, such as  Atlassian's Confluence, that let users on any platform build wikis using Microsoft Word and other common tools.

    

Closely allied with wikis are Web portals, which are secured Web sites through which enterprises can offer virtually any kind of information to their employees and business partners. Portals can also offer forums in which authorized users can collaborate on any topic or process, and customers can track their orders, help requests, or other items of interest. Prefabricated Web portal solutions available for the IBM i include New Generation Software's Decision Assist and BCD Software's Nexus Portal.

You Have Options          

Although the number of collaboration products native to the i is limited, the products available provide a substantial assortment of options from which to choose.

 

As always when looking for products or services, be sure to check the MC Press Online Buyer's Guide.

 

 

John Ghrist

John Ghrist has been a journalist, programmer, and systems manager in the computer industry since 1982. He has covered the market for IBM i servers and their predecessor platforms for more than a quarter century and has attended more than 25 COMMON conferences. A former editor-in-chief with Defense Computing and a senior editor with SystemiNEWS, John has written and edited hundreds of articles and blogs for more than a dozen print and electronic publications. You can reach him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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