Steve Bogart, Kalexo’s VP of Business Development, used a Glance session to guide me through the functionality of the current version of TeamWork. I was also able to meet a current user, Stephen Boak of Buro Happold, in London and get some end-user feedback on the system.
By way of introduction, Steve Bogart explained that Kalexo wanted the application to be regarded like voice-over-IP service Skype – a tool that can be fired up to enable communication about a task whenever the people involved are available online. Presence awareness is enabled via a small “soccer ball” (English football) icon displayed in the PC system tray, and users can indicate their online availability status.
When Kalexo is opened up, an overview screen – a bit like an in-box or ‘headlines page’ – gives a quick overview of recent project activity. Clicking on the task tab then displays the status of a user’s various tasks, with priority items displayed towards the top (a toggle at the top allows users to view all or view only unread items). Configurable, it offers a choice of ways to list and view items. Filters can be set to show all tasks or only the ones that involve you or your company or team. Tasks can also be grouped by priority, status, deadline, person responsible, category, creator, date created, recent activity or tag. A search field at the bottom of the screen also helps users to find particular tasks.
The people tab allows users to search for information about project team members. This breaks the team down by organisation, displays avatars for each individual and uses green coloured outlines to indicate their online status. Right-clicking allows you to view their profile, see their task list and – if they are online – initiate a communication session. If they are not online, you can leave a message or an online voicemail. If a colleague is online, you can initiate a session (a little message appears in the corner of your screen) and start an informal chat session, a voice chat, share a webcam or share your desktop.
Where Kalexo really comes into its own is in meetings. You can see tasks that others are focused on, and join those users in a meeting. Again a chat session can be instigated, and by clicking on a microphone icon you can open a voice chat session. The details of the task are displayed in a dedicated task window, along with the names and avatars of team members assigned to that task, a checklist of specific activities to undertake within that task, link(s) to related tasks, a comments field showing a complete history of activity on that task, and – across the bottom of the window – a ‘document shelf’ of files associated with the task.
The same screen is used to create tasks. Team members can be selected and assigned to the task, which can also be tagged and allocated to particular categories of work (these can be created as folders with subdividers inside them). It is very straightforward to create a task (Kalexo plans to make it even easier by allowing users to clone tasks that recur frequently) and to notify others that their input is needed – in a very simple workflow creation process, the ball is graphically passed from one user to the next.
The ‘document shelf’ or file tray is one of the most interesting and collaborative aspects of Kalexo TeamWork. Attachments can be added to this area by simple ‘drag and drop’ (Kalexo also has an iPhone tool that allows, among other things, photos to be uploaded to the system from your iPhone – Steve showed me a photo of a dredging machine), and you can scroll backwards and forwards through the items associated with each task. Kalexo will open files in their native application if it’s available but also incorporates drawing and document viewer and mark-up tools (eg: Autodesk Design Review) for comments (call-outs) and red-lining purposes, on CAD files, JPGs, PDFs, etc – see below.
The attachments are not just restricted to traditional drawings or documents. Kalexo allows users to share screen shots (helping get round situations where other users may not have the originating application used to generate an image) and also movies, ie: recordings of previous sessions on the Kalexo platform, including screen-sharing sessions during design reviews, for example. During an online meeting, attendees can take screenshots showing their comments and mark-ups and add them to the filetray so that they form part of the history of that particular task.
It appears to be a very user-friendly application and Steve says it takes most users less than an hour’s training to get up to speed with it. Naturally (given the highly visual nature of the system’s collaboration), the Kalexo website also has some help videos, but the main obstacles to effective use tend not to be technological. As with other forms of collaboration, it is often the reluctance of other people to use the Kalexo system that can frustrate the enthusiasm of existing users.
The Boak view
Buro Happold’s Steve Boak met me in the cafe on the 18th floor of London’s Centre Point during one of his recent trips to the UK. He gave me some background on his involvement with Kalexo – which dates back to 2007 – and explained how he and others in Buro Happold had been using Teamwork to manage tasks on some internal projects. He told me that Teamwork hadn’t been rolled out more widely yet as it was difficult for Buro Happold, as a sub-consultant on most of its projects, to drive wider adoption of this “very innovative” tool by the rest of a client’s supply chain (“It really needs to be driven by the client or someone at the top of the supply chain,” he said).
However, Steve did show me how he had used Kalexo to share stress analysis information relating to the structural design of a project in Texas, and we talked about its potential use in helping teams that were using building information modelling (BIM). This was where the screen-sharing and movie recording capabilities really help, he said. Not everyone in a project team will have BIM capabilities and current bandwidth constraints rule out online sharing of models, so desktop sharing is probably the most convenient way for people to view a model, and Kalexo’s screenshot functionality helps non-BIM users to record their comments in context as a session unfolds.
“Kalexo blurs the difference between synchronous and asynchronous collaboration,” Steve said. The conventional asynchronous process of issuing a drawing and then getting feedback is being superseded by meetings that are taking place in real-time (synchronous) but with design changes still being flagged and recorded for future update of the relevant document, drawing, image or model. In other words, we are still a little bit short of multiple users being able to collaborate upon and amend design drawings or other information in real-time.
The file management challenge
After my initial demonstration with Steve Bogart, I had asked him about Kalexo’s file management capabilities. Based on 10 years working with construction collaboration technologies (CCT), I know that many industry customers and their supply chains appreciate the value of having a tightly controlled secure single repository of all documents and drawings associated with their project(s), but – to me – Kalexo’s task-based approach seems to break this repository-type approach down into lots of smaller batches. Also, I wondered if Kalexo could match the highly structured CCT approach – Steve Boak described it as “more loose and flexible than extranets” (perhaps Kalexo could integrate its rich collaborative interface with the powerful version control and audit trail features of the mainstream CCT vendors?).
However, I understand that the next version of Teamwork will feature a much more robust file management capability. I hope to cover this in another post shortly.