Collaborative Tools: Interplanetary Collaboration

By Roland Piquepaille

Collaborative tools are not only useful, they're necessary. They lead to faster and better decisions. They save you money -- in fact, you will earn more money by using them.

They can be as simple as a meeting or a brainstorming session. They can use technology on a basic platform, like Groove on PCs. They can be very sophisticated and they can even be very expensive at the high-end level (more on this later on.) But in any case, they're essential.

Let's first take a look at this NASA development.

When two Mars probes -- the Mars Polar Lander and Mars Climate Orbiter -- went missing in 1998, a subsequent investigation blamed, among other causes, miscommunication at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). To uncross signals for its next mission to Mars, the agency is turning to experimental electronic white boards that enable scientists to view and annotate images, charts and presentations unlike ever before.
To get them all on the same page, NASA's Ames Research Center has adapted the Blueboard, a prototype electronic white board developed by IBM at its Silicon Valley-based Almaden Research Center. Ames calls its version MERBoard, from the acronym for Mars Exploration Rover. The prototype is simple: A transparent touch screen sits atop a five-foot wide plasma monitor, while a notebook computer acts as a thin-client terminal connected to Web server. The total cost of each set-up, including open-source networking software, is roughly $10,000.
For most meetings, the JPL team currently uses paper printouts and blown-up photographic images. MERBoard isn't designed to replace all the paper inevitably generated by a NASA mission, but to ease information sharing, says Dan Russell, director of the User Sciences and Experience Research division at IBM Almaden, which designed the original Blueboard.

If you're not yet convinced that collaborative tools are absolutely essential, please note the tremendous interest given to Ray Ozzie's Weblog.

As a final example, BusinessWeek published "Carmakers Put the Pedal to the Metal -- in Cyberspace" on Sep. 25, 2000. Here is a short quote.

"You eliminate hard production tools by designing the digital car," says Scott F. Merlis, an analyst at Wasserstein Perella Securities in New York who coined the term E2E (engineer to engineer) to describe the collaborative design process. "An engineer can depress a virtual brake pedal in Stuttgart, and others in Detroit or Tokyo can watch the calipers close to stop the car. These systems can manage thousands of design changes."

Sources: David Propson, MIT Technology Review, Alan Hall, BusinessWeek Magazine, Sep. 25, 2000