Mobile collaboration will potentially maximize the gains from enterprise mobile applications as real time communication enables dispersed workers to co-ordinate functions in real time for effective management of fluid situations.
THE DYNAMICS OF MOBILE COLLABORATION
By Kishore Jethanandani
A FuturistLens White Paper
Mobile collaboration lets scattered workers remain connected and interact as a team. Their decision
making, resource deployments and missions do not have to be interrupted even if they are in motion
and their situation around them is fluid. Delays in task completion are minimized when teams are able
to communicate as if they were on-premise. Geographically dispersed workers will be able to
collaborate, mobilize resources and plan their tactics most efficiently if they are able to recognize their
peers, their body language, intuitively grasp a situation and their context and interact with them aided
by voice, audio and video communication.
Industry Case: Construction
Construction industry is an archetypal fragmented industry which executes projects with the
participation of multiple partners. This includes owners, general contractors, subcontractors, architects,
engineers, consultants and suppliers. They exchange not only voice and text messages but also but also
data such as drawings and measurement data. Their locale is fluid with transportation of materials,
transfer of drawings and movement of people on the construction site. Online collaboration helps in
consultation, routing of documents, identification of key personnel, aggregation of data for daily
monitoring of project progress and costs. Just a simple matter of exchanging RFIs reduces the
turnaround time from 45 minutes to 5 minutes and reduces costs by $13,457 for each project according
to a study of the construction industry by the Harvard Design School. Rapid transfer of drawings,
currently Fedexed, is another major expense item. The cost savings from electronic transfer are
estimated to be $53,664 for each project.
One example of the dramatically different outcomes with the use of iPads and tablets together with the
Building Information Models (BIM) is the Health Sciences and Surgical Training Department recently
constructed at the University of California at Riverside. The original design had identified 7,000 potential
conflicts between the building edifice and the related elements such as ducts, air-conditioning systems,
etc. In the past, these conflicts were resolved by back-and-forth communications with RFIs which added,
on an average, $3 million to the costs. The availability of 3D models and collaboration with mobile
devices helped to reduce these conflicts to zero.
Teams risk a loss of situational awareness if their location and context is more distant from their peers.
In emergency situations like wild fires and floods, team members lose sight of their peers in the smoke,
the mist and the shuffle. Their locations could change in a fluid environment with the ever-present
prospect of an unexpected turn of events. Real time communications with a graphic reproduction of a
remote site helps to quickly grasp the change in the context. Instant messaging, voice communication
and audio conferencing are commonplace today and go some way to help remain connected. A vivid
view and comprehension of a complex situation is only possible with multi-media communication,
including video. In confusing and shifting situations like wildfires, lifelike video augmented with points
and maps, helps to quickly grasp a changing situation and respond to it rapidly.
The need for situational awareness grows with the size of the team. With larger teams, there are many
more combinations of resource deployments, situations are more likely to shift and tactical adjustments
more complex. Research on collaboration indicates that video enhancement has little value for teams
smaller than four people.
Companies already using video conferencing are a good gauge of the interest in mobile video
collaboration. Here the perceptions of the employers and workers differ. While half the enterprises who
use video collaboration and add mobile workers in voice-mode only agree video will be beneficial, only
10% of the workers believe this is the case. The disparity is due to greater exposure among workers to
shortcomings of the quality of the experience of exchanging media and information as well as networks
and privacy concerns. Further progress is needed for actual users to adopt mobile collaboration
Multi-media communication is especially beneficial in situations like emergencies where a quick grasp of
a scenario is essential for risk mitigation. The teams coping with an emergency like a wild-fire need to
aggregate individual streams of video to gain a multi-faceted whole picture. Fragmented information is
less actionable than multi-faceted information. A team will have multi-faceted information if it is
sourced from a larger number of team members and depicted on a common reference point like a map
to communicate the whole picture. Information is perishable and needs to be received in real time
otherwise its actionability diminishes rapidly with time.
Information is more likely to be consumed if its absorption does not extend beyond the attention span
of users and the time to action is tolerable. When people are outdoors, priorities other than information
sharing pre-occupy them. The sharing, the presentation and the interaction with the information need
to happen in real-time and technology should make that happen.
Counter-terrorism is a clear example where information and media sharing from multiple sources and its
compilation for easy absorption has enormous benefits. Covert actions of terrorists can be anticipated if
information is shared by citizens and soldiers. It will be easy to assimilate if presented on a map and with
pointers. The information will have value if it is simultaneously received in real-time by all team
members and there is a way for them to confer.
Mobile Collaboration Technology Trends
Some of the technology required for mobile is beginning to emerge in the marketplace and more is
expected. Bi-directional communication is one pre-requisite for interactive communication between two
or more people. It is already possible to have two people collaborate with existing mobile devices that
have cameras on both sides, like iPhone 4 with Facetime and HTC EVO 4. With these consumer devices,
two people can alternatively talk and view their counterpart. For teams to collaborate, several team
members should be able to participate.
The early attempts at collaboration between two or more people have had a buggy start. Skype’s group
calling desktop software for up to ten people, which integrates with Facebook, suffers deterioration in
quality when the number of users exceeds five.
Damaka has demonstrated in expos technologies where up to four people are able to participate in a
video conference across a variety of device types and platforms. None of these solutions have anything
more than the most rudimentary capability for interactive communications, as if in a meeting room
conversing with each other, among multiple team members. In collaborative situations, the value is in
the back and forth exchanges for decision-making with flip charts, whiteboards and competitive war
A mobile version of Skype’s software for the Android platform is not yet versatile enough to work on a
choice of carrier and Wi Fi networks and has usability issues. Alternative mobile phone software for the
Android platform, Fring, works seamlessly across both carrier networks and Wi Fi networks without
adding to costs.
Social software brings scattered team members into a single virtual shared world where they can have
impromptu interactions with each other. Their profile information can help to identify them by their
current presence, expertise, functional role, location and activity. They have the ability to exchange
media, documents and files synchronously and receive a response instantaneously. Groups can be
formed in real time with the desired mix of expertise. Companies could discuss tactical issues with
distributors in specific locations. They could also deploy technical service personnel rapidly by locating
the person with the relevant training and qualification and assigning the nearest one who is available. If
the technician needs the approval of his supervisor for parts, he or she can click-to-call or click-to-
message or conference and receive a confirmation in near real-time rather than wait to receive
responses to e-mail messages. Mobile device users, given their situation, are twice as likely to use
social software as desktop users.
An example of how the speed of response with social software can be increased is the case of a fresh
produce distribution center, Anthony Marano Co, which receives calls from customers all day long which
have to be routed to the salespersons assigned for specific types of produce. The presence information
improves the efficiency of routing by checking out whether the salesperson is on premise or pre-
occupied with another customer. If a salesperson is available for a call, a click-to-call helps to connect
immediately. This saves the time otherwise lost on voice-mails.
Salesforce.com launched the first of the enterprise social platform, Chatter, which is like a virtual boot
camp where any employee can participate effortlessly once permission is granted. They can enter into
video conferences or a brainstorming session. Issues and problems could be posted on the platform and
experts could be sought online to have problems solved. It can act as a de facto archive for content
which can be downloaded online when needed. Chatter also interlinks not only desktops but also distant
Instantaneous communication will happen if people don’t have to wait to receive a message in a format
they can readily access and use. While in a car, voice messages are the most convenient format and
conform with the law. When in a meeting, an instant message works best. Across time-zones and
continents, e-mail is more viable. People are more likely to respond to an alert with a relevant ringtone
when they are in a rush. Video communication is more useful for team collaboration across locations.
Chat works better in the midst of a video or audio conference. Information and media sharing for
collaborative purposes is more likely to happen in real-time if the participants at either end can choose
whichever media they are able to use in their situation.
Unified messaging converts messages from one format to another seamlessly and stores them in a
single mailbox which can be accessed anywhere. In its first phase of development, unified messaging
focused on transforming messages into another format. E-mail messages could be converted into voice
messages, chat sessions could be delivered as e-mail and instant messages on e-mails. Services such as
Microsoft Exchange provided mailboxes where messages of any kind could be reviewed.
In the emerging phase of development, unified messaging and collaboration applications are being
integrated. Workers could use a variety of clients, whether e-mail or a chat session, to integrate data,
applications and content and interact with a team. Collaboration software can be embedded into the
chosen client to form teams, call meetings and make decisions. A single interface eliminates the
latencies in communication and decision-making. They can choose whichever device is most convenient
for them to use such as a desktop indoors or a tablet outdoors.
Real time data flowing from numerous team members is hard to digest when they are in motion or
when situations are evolving. The filtering, automation and structured presentation of the data, media
and content are the key to their usability. The clutter is reduced when each individual receives
information and content that is relevant for his or her context, location, presence, need or any other
One example is airport operations where the staff is typically spread over several buildings. When a
security breach happens, messages to the entire operating staff are likely to create confusion so
enormous that an unwanted management problem could be created at the wrong time. Instead,
contextual information will help to find a person who is most likely to quickly take action to contain a
potential damage. The expected impact of the breach and the recommended course of action can be
explained with video from surveillance cameras, interactive maps and content of airport assets. The
disarray caused by actions to close the security breach is likely to have a ripple effect on baggage
handling, passenger routing and aircraft parking. With context-specific communications, it would be
possible to synchronize the actions of each of the functional groups in the team without any of them
struggling to understand the overall plan.
The representation of information and its assimilation will be inefficient without automation. Emerging
augmented reality technologies present the context and the content in an intuitive manner for instant
absorption. Airport operations, for example, could have an application which shows the corridors of the
airport. It could also depict the flow of human traffic along the available routes. In times of
emergencies, airport management staff could receive vivid images of congestion in the corridors and
they could plan for evacuation.
Mobile collaboration is a composite of multiple technologies which include conferencing, unified
messaging, media management and contextual information. The more these technologies are
integrated, the easier it becomes for larger teams to co-ordinate their activities in real time and benefit
from real time decision-making and problem solving. They are assisted by data-intensive content which
helps to replicate visually situations remotely and create a common reference point for team members
to plan for cohesive joint actions.