Collaboration: Superhero in the Cubicle

By Virginia Citrano  |  Posted 09-05-2007

Collaboration: Superhero in the Cubicle

Let's face it: It's not easy working for a U.S. company these days, regardless of your job. Decentralization is pushing more tasks down, leaving those below with more to organize, monitor and deliver. Communications technology means everyone is on call 24/7, in the office, at home, on the train, in the car. The flood of information unleashed on the Internet that was supposed to simplify our jobs has left most of us feeling deluged...

Most, but not all. As the Internet blossoms into Web 2.0, some workers and managers are discovering new tools to cope with task and data overload: Flexible tools designed for the myriad challenges knowledge workers face, not just for routine tasks. Tools that help better manage and prioritize work, rally the strongest team members for each job and use talent most efficiently. Tools that help deliver work and gather feedback. And perhaps most critical, tools that let only the essential information through the floodgates, in the most useful format.

Thanks to new collaborative tools, these employees have the power to do their jobs in a whole new way--a way that makes the best use of their time and their company's resources. It's hard to fault them for feeling a little like superheroes, capes rippling in the wind.

And Speaking of Weather

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And Speaking of Weather...

High wind and torrential rain can be the bane of the Federal Aviation Administration this time of year. But thanks to some new collaborative technology, the FAA is ready to handle the worst that hurricane season-- and government auditors--can dish out.

If an FAA installation is knocked out by a storm, the agency relies on a team of 200 volunteers to get it back on line fast. Managers use personal credit cards to buy any equipment they need to make repairs. That's much faster than government procurement channels, but it used to leave a messy trail for auditors. Now, however, the FAA's Disaster Response Team uses IBM Lotus Connections, a new Web-based tool from Big Blue that combines record-keeping, blogging, bookmarking and more. Using this application, workers can easily file all receipts, forms, e-mail, voicemail, instant messaging chats and related items to a central archive.

That may sound trivial, but by relying on technology to gather and store the data auditors will require later, the Disaster Response Team frees up time to concentrate on critical repair decisions now. The collaborative technology the FAA uses to empower its workers is sometimes called social computing; other terms, of course, include blog, wiki and mashup. These technologies aren't replacing corporate collaborative applications and databases, at least not yet. But they are proving an easy, inexpensive way to get work done, often without the help of the IT department.

Most of these Web tools are only in the early stages of development, and most companies behind them are start-ups. Some will never get out of the starting gate, some will be acquired, and some may be simply overrun as larger companies such as Microsoft, IBM and Google push deeper into the world of collaborative technology. What's more, even the best collaborative tools will be moot if a company fails to build a culture of collaboration around them.

But these collaborative technologies are the seeds of the next Web revolution. Business strategists Don Tapscott and Anthony D. Williams coined the term "wikinomics" and published a book by that name in 2006 to sum up the business dynamics of the tools that will make leaders of the companies that adopt them--and laggards of the rest.

IT adviser Gartner is more measured in its approach, saying there are indeed opportunities for collaborative technology, though by 2009 fewer than 30 percent of Fortune 1000 companies will have enterprise social software platforms in place.

Established collaboration tools work well on formal processes, according to Gartner research director Nikos Drakos. But when the work requires more give and take, or the process doesn't warrant formalizing, workers fall back on e-mail, telephone and instant messaging.

"The problem there is that everything that happens in those systems is invisible to everybody else," Drakos says. That doesn't make them effective tools for mass collaboration.

Or easy to manage. Just ask Chris Matthews how many e-mails he used to field before he implemented some collaborative technology.

Matthews is the global marketing integrations manager for Specialized Bicycle, whose bikes are ridden by some of the world's top road and mountain bike race teams. As such, he finds himself coordinating marketing efforts in seven countries and almost as many languages, a task that used to demand hundreds of e-mails.

About a year ago, Matthews switched his team to an interactive spreadsheet from Smartsheet.com, a software-as-aservice provider. Now Specialized Bicycle marketing staffers in Canada and France can share translation tasks. For instance, one column is designated for English with additional columns each reserved for other languages. This way, Matthews doesn't get three different French translations e-mailed back from speakers of that language.

But Matthews says the real advantage of Smartsheet is the ability to include other people, even the CEO, in the decisionmaking process. "You can go upstream with a solution a heck of a lot more easily than before," he says. "That alone makes things so much better for everybody. Your team feels like they have been part of the solution and the guys above you feel they have a smart team that can do the work."

Best yet, the new tool costs Specialized just $25 a month, which lets users create up to 100 Smartsheets. There are three other paid pricing plans, which top out at $149 a month for 1,000 spreadsheets.

Low

-Cost Doesn't Mean 'Cheap'">

Low-Cost Doesn't Mean "Cheap"

Small prices don't mean these Web collaborative technologies can't handle bigger jobs, however. Consider all the data Hansje Gold-Krueck has to gather for her job.

Gold-Krueck is human dimensions specialist and technical program leader at the Coastal Services Center, the unit of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration responsible for managing local coastal resources. The center partners in more than 100 projects.

But to fully understand the scope of Gold- Krueck's job, multiply those 100 projects by the need to assess, for each, the social, cultural and political aspects of managing public land resources. Then multiply that by the fact that the information she needs to make that assessment is housed all over the country, and some of it has never been formally published.

To gather and clearly see the points of convergence in all that data, Gold-Krueck's department turned to mashup software from Kapow Technologies. The Web 2.0 Mashup Server software lets users gather data, regardless of format (straight text, spreadsheets, Web pages, RSS feeds and the like), from internal and external sources, combine that data and redeploy it in entirely new ways, such as an information-dense and highly searchable Web site. The site lets people working on other coastal protection initiatives find research on similar initiatives in other locales. The Kapow Mashup Server is at the high end of the new collaborative technologies being built off the Web: The cost of a full enterprise version starts at $50,000.

And while Gold-Krueck says the Coastal Services Center notifies the organizations whose reports are pulled into the site (and credits them in the entries), she notes there's no need or obligation to do so. "The Kapow technology is completely non-invasive," she says. "We don't need to talk to their IT people." That is a key selling point. Most of these services are so lightweight they can be implemented and used without help from an IT pro. Many of the small vendors make their products available as a service over the Web, so they can be purchased on a project basis and not subject to the scrutiny that usually accompanies a decision to buy enterprise software. "There is an element of instant gratification here," says Gartner's Drakos. He cautions, however, that as the use of collaborative tools becomes more widespread, there will be larger questions about managing content and risk, and more need for an IT department to integrate the products with existing systems.

That's where the big companies like IBM may have an edge. Giora Hadar, the FAA's knowledge architect, says the FAA went with IBM Lotus Connections over other collaborative technologies because the FAA was already an IBM shop, using Lotus Notes, Domino and Sametime for instant messaging and Web conferencing. But a big company product doesn't necessarily carry a big company price tag: Activities, the single Lotus Connections product the FAA uses, has a list price of $55 a user for a perpetual license; the full Connections suite costs $110 a user. Hadar says the Disaster Response Team, which is spread across the U.S., is considering all the Connections components to see how they can be applied to its work.

Far-flung teams prove to be some of the biggest fans of these new tools. Take the folks at NetScout Systems, which makes integrated network performance management solutions. The company, which has some 3,000 enterprise customers around the planet, needed something to help users help themselves.

June Nugent, NetScout's director of knowledge resources, realized that members of the company's user group--network managers-- didn't have much free time on their hands. They needed an organized information source that could evolve as fast as their business needs did. But Nugent wanted something that would complement, not replace, its formal service channel.

That led her to Near-Time, a hosted service that can be used to build wikis and blogs, share files, create podcasts and handle RSS feeds. Near-Time's principals had co-founded Extensibility, an XML solutions provider acquired by Tibco Software in 2002. Near-Time's plans for corporate users range from $700 to 5,000 a year.

All plans include an unlimited number of wikis, blogs and other content tools for an unlimited number of users, but the highervalue plans include analytics, storage, bandwidth and other features as well.

Nugent's team has used Near-Time to create tutorials on best practices and to facilitate training. Instructors use the tool to post preparatory work for classes, and students use it to post questions after the classes. "The result," says Nugent, "is a richer communication channel with our customers."

It's important for companies to create new, informal channels between them and their users, "in no small part to help the former see what the latter needs and cares about," Nugent says. The Near-Time wiki tool helps NetScout do just that. "We are definitely extending our footprint for training," she says.

When Users Resist

When Users Resist

Alas, some IT professionals learn the hard way that even the sharpest collaborative tools can be blunted if users fail to foster a collaborative culture. Geoffrey Corb, director of IT for student information systems at The Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, had that unfortunate experience.

Corb was an early user of JIRA, an issuetracking tool from Atlassian. When Atlassian expanded to a wiki product, Confluence, Corb thought he'd use it to track discussions between Johns Hopkins and other schools that were implementing the same student information system. But the interaction needed between the schools just wasn't there, and the implementation failed.

Undaunted, Corb refocused his use of Confluence on managing the implementation of the student system within Hopkins. He then set out to make the wiki the exclusive place for content on the project. But this time, he took small steps, not giant ones: "Instead of sending an agenda for a meeting around by email," he says, "we would put the agenda up in the wiki and send out a notice that it was there." Little by little, contributors became familiar with the wiki and began to produce more content for it.

The productivity of Corb's IT team has increased since it started using Confluence. "It has empowered us to not just make decisions," he says, "but to consider alternatives that might otherwise have not made it to the table by broadening the group suggesting alternatives."

Johns Hopkins fully implemented the student information system, which covers all students in each of the university's nine schools, in July, two years after the project started. Corb contemplates using Confluence to manage work on a new course management system. Better yet, some of the departments involved in the student information system are using Confluence on their own projects. "We're encouraging more of that," Corb says, "because it allows us to see what's going on in the minds of their constituents."

And what employee or manager couldn't benefit from that kind of X-ray vision?

Five Keys to Successful

Use of Collaborative Tools">

Five Keys to Successful Use of Collaborative Tools

Don't Allow Anonymity: Chances for polite, productive collaboration are greater if users' names and reputations are on the line.

Managers Must Manage Collaboration, Too: Even in Wikipedia's free-flowing editing environment, super-users occasionally step in to resolve problems.

Dole Out Responsibility: A wiki-work ethic won't develop overnight, but you can speed the process along by giving users a clear stake in its growth.

Think Wiki: Encourage users to think about the many ways they collaborate--formally and informally--every day.

Think About What's Not Wiki: Not everything your company does is a candidate for collaboration. Set appropriate boundaries.

Source: Gartner