Baseline: The right collaboration tools

How many emails does it take to book a meeting? While this sounds like the beginning of a lightbulb joke, for most of us it is no laughing matter. Serial emails is still the most often used collaborative mechanism, and it makes for a poor tool when it comes to doing common tasks such as arranging a meeting, finishing a presentation or report, or working with a colleague in another office.

There are dozens of different collaboration tools available, some new and some old, including wikis, workflow managers, web and video conferencing, and smartphone applications (see table below). Yet it is still more popular to turn to email than to try to employ something more specialized and productive.

Here are some examples from those companies that have gone beyond email, in some cases to become more competitive and increasing their sales in the process.

Probably the simplest, and least expensive, is to make use of Google Apps or some other shared document repository. This is what New York City-based Web software marketing automation firm Pica9 does. “We manage our overall production schedule, support incident log, application test plans and punchlists using Google Apps. It plays an increasingly bigger role in our day-to-day as Google steadily expands and improves the functionality of the suite,” says Ben Hovaness, one of the firm’s developers.

A step up is to use wikis, which are Web sites that can be edited quickly by users inside their Web browsers. ZATZ Publishing uses an open source product called Dokuwiki to keep track of numerous documentation, engineering design notes, and other business documents. David Gewirtz, the publisher, says, “Wikis are a little hard to grasp and some people may not be aware that you can have a private wiki – they think Wikipedia and don’t want to put information in public.” The hardest part of using his wiki has been how to structure the page hierarchies. “People who aren’t pure geeks can find them a bit daunting and can be uncomfortable adding new pages or categories to them.”

The next step up from a wiki is a full-blown document management portal that can contain the main knowledge repository for a corporation. This is the case with Shore Mortgage in Birmingham, Mich. who uses Xerox BlitzDocs electronic mortgage collaboration suite with its 350 employees. As the mortgage business nosedives, the remaining lenders and brokers need all the productivity tools they can find. Shore has latched on to the Xerox software as a way to streamline its operations to achieve a paperless environment that is simpler and faster from application to funding a mortgage. The portal keeps track of the myriad of documents involved in the process, and integrates multiple systems too. “We now have a 24-hour turnaround time on all of our underwriting and we have increased our sales volume about 25% too,” says Pat Hinman, the CIO of the company. As a result, the system has become a competitive advantage to attract new brokers and business.

“About 18 months ago we looked into going to a paperless environment and using images instead of physical documents. Our existing software didn’t provide any ability to do that. With Xerox, we were able to use their Web services to do the integration and have a single location to share and store documents and data from origination through post-closing,” says Hinman.

What helped make the transition to BlitzDocs smoother was the way Shore rolled out the system. “We went in groups of four or five in our underwriting area. We started with our senior underwriters and had them do the beta test. We collected some feedback, tweaked some things, and pulled two more groups the next week. This actually made the new system more desirable because we were holding it back. It turned out to be one of the best migrations that I have done in 18 years.”

Certainly, one of the more popular document management tools is Microsoft’s SharePoint. The non-profit organization Practical Action has 700 staff spread around the world, using appropriate technology to help the world’s poor. “Since sharing knowledge is a very integral part of what we do, we chose SharePoint in 2006 as a means of sharing documents,” says Bryan Scurfield, their International IT Manager for the organization based in Bourton on Dunsmore in the UK. They now have 500,000 documents stored in various servers around the globe and are in the process of using MetaVis Technologies to upgrade to SharePoint 2010 version. “We wouldn’t normally want to be on the bleeding edge but we wanted to develop a project and funding database that needed the newer features such as centrally managed meta data facilities. This is important so we can use the same consistent terms in our metadata columns.”

“It has been difficult to persuade people to do that extra bit of work to save a document to make it readily findable by other people. You are asking people to put some metadata in and that adds to the time. Some of our project staff are contractors and they tend to need persuading that the work they do belongs to the organization. It helps that we require projects before they get funded to be completely documented in SharePoint,” says Scurfield.

Part of any document management system is in understanding the workflows and why, where and when particular documents are needed. This is what Scosche Industries of Oxmard Calif. discovered when they wanted to do a better job with supporting their several thousand aftermarket car audio installers. “We wanted to show someone how to take apart a car door and install a speaker there, and give them the information right at the moment they were doing the installation. Cars are so sophisticated and have so many different trim levels, all with different options too. We wanted to give our dealers an easier way to get information from us,” says Jack DeBiasio, a senior product manager with the company.

Scosche turned to a new application developed with Radish Communications that allows the installer to receive the schematic diagrams while they are on a voice call with the support representative. “Experience has been good so far. One of the things about the iPhone is that you can pinch and zoom into the picture. You can get to where you need to be and see a more detailed view. We see this as a way to differentiate ourselves and distinguish us from our competitors. Radish ChoiceView makes it easy for live agents to share information in real time with our customers.”

One of the hardest parts about collaboration is being able to connect people in different cities that want to work together in real time on a project. A number of “presence aware” applications are available for these purposes, ranging from the free Instant Messaging tools such as AOL IM and Skype to more sophisticated ones that tie into a company’s phone switchboard and email systems.

This is how SmithAmundsen, a medium-sized law firm with headquarters in Chicago, deployed collaboration. They needed to replace their old phone system and wanted to incorporate collaboration tools to help their lawyers be more productive. They went with Cisco IP phones and various other Cisco software tools such as WebEx video and desktop conferencing. They use the presence feature as a way for lawyers looking to find subject matter experts who are in the office and available for quick consultations, as well as being able to help track down a particular attorney when clients call the main switchboard.
Randall Kalik is the CIO for the firm. “The motivation wasn’t to just give them a new pretty telephone, but making our business more efficient in how we support our clients. Attorneys can do three things at once, such as look up a client’s number, engage in a text chat, and be on a conference call. They can transfer in mid-call between their office and cell phones to keep talking and being able to project the image of being in their office when they are on the road or working from home.”

Another aspect of remote collaboration are screen-sharing and desktop video conferencing tools, available from any number of vendors. This is the route that Andrea Prigot, the president of Amicus Consulting in Pelham Manor, NY, took. The firm sells and supports a variety of law office automation products such as a calendar, document and billing systems management tools. “We have to demonstrate and then install and configure these tools and we use Citrix GoTo tools extensively,” she said. Using Citrix cuts down on the number of emails and makes this support easier too.

As you can see, collaboration can pay by tie you more closely together and bring in new business too.

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