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And Speaking of Weather

By Virginia Citrano  |  Posted 09-05-2007 Print
New collaborative tools empower employees to tackle tasks with better results.

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.


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