Some companies are using the online virtual world Second Life as a virtual location for meetings and press events. For example, IBM created a meeting space in Second Life and hosted it on its own servers [source: Second Life]. Some people debate the usefulness of relying on environments like Second Life, particularly for meetings that include sensitive information.
Benefits of Online Collaboration
In many ways, online collaboration hearkens back to the original purpose of the Internet. When the Internet's predecessor, ARPANET, came online, it allowed researchers from one facility to access data stored in another facility's computer system. People working on different systems could collaborate on projects without leaving their computer labs.
The most obvious benefit of online collaboration is that it lets people who aren't in the same location work together on a project. Since several companies have offices in multiple cities and countries, it's important to find ways to keep all the people working on a project informed and engaged.
Another benefit to online collaboration is that it helps conserve physical space. Sometimes it makes sense for a company to hold a meeting online rather than in a physical location. If a company or department meeting has a lot of participants, it can be a challenge to find a room large enough for everyone. With very large groups, it's also difficult to control participation. Online meeting spaces can be an attractive alternative to cramming a room with disengaged employees.
Another benefit of online collaboration is that it can make team projects easier to manage. For example, imagine you're in charge of a product department at an electronics company. You need to submit a report about a proposed product to your boss. You've decided to include information from multiple departments in your report, including marketing, sales, and research and development (R&D). A good online collaboration system could make it much easier to generate a report than a traditional approach.
Each department could submit information to a centralized data storage system. The marketing department could share research on what customers say they want and recent market trends in the industry. Sales could submit information about customer purchases to help you decide how to price the new product. And research and development could report on potential features and functions. You could even assemble the report in this shared space and let other departments review it to ensure accuracy.
For companies willing to partner with competitors, online collaboration can sometimes reduce the costs of doing business. Some people call collaboration between competitors "co-opetition," a combination of the words cooperation and competition. Co-opetition might make sense for companies operating in the same industry but in different markets. For example, a chemical company operating in North America might partner with a competing chemical company in Europe if their customer bases didn't overlap. By collaborating, both companies can share information and mitigate the risks and costs of research and development. Online collaborations between rivals in the same market space are rare -- most companies won't share information that gives them a competitive advantage.
While the benefits of online collaboration are attractive, there are still some obstacles companies must overcome if they want to promote teamwork over network connections. What are some of the technical obstacles that make online collaboration a challenge? Find out in the next section.