Come Together

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted September 01, 2001
by Gwen Moran

The instructor must have thought that David Warford was goofing off in class. It's not what you would expect from the president and CEO of a technology company like XLTEC. 8In fact, Warford was listening to the
lesson. He was also scoping out several sites through his Internet connection, occasionally clicking on a screen or sending an e-mail. He looked like any Web surfer checking sports scores or stock prices in class, but he actually was monitoring his company's operations hundreds of miles away in Alpharetta, Ga. 8Thanks to a new set of online collaboration tools, Warford was able to function practically as if he were in the office -- even from class. "Until we adopted these systems, you wouldn't believe what I had to go through to leave town for a week," he explains. "I'd be out of touch with all of the areas that I needed to know."

Over the past two years, Warford has methodically moved most of his company's systems on line, helping to streamline operations as well as to improve employee collaboration and access to information. XLTEC, which provides hardware and software systems to accounting and manufacturing firms, is a self-proclaimed paperless company. It has embraced a series of online collaboration tools, from a document-sharing program that has largely ended the practice of chasing paper to online accounting, shipping, and sales force automation systems.

Heather Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, has created an entire company around online collaboration. The president and CEO of MarketFitz, a Seattle-based marketing services and personnel provider, Fitzpatrick almost entirely connects her employees and customers through a portal system provided by Cambell, Calif.-based Portera Systems. Clients log on to a password-protected virtual workspace to view progress, give feedback, and approve projects. And since most of Fitzpatrick's 145 employees work from their homes, the ability to work together on line is one of the main reasons that the two-year-old MarketFitz is viable.

"We couldn't have existed earlier than when we created the company," she says. "We needed the online collaboration tools that we have now to exist."

Still, while companies like Fitzpatrick's and Warford's are flocking toward online collaboration tools, not all organizations are ready, willing, or able to adopt technology that allows employees to function and interact as if they're face-to-face. The litmus test for readiness lies in a combination of company culture, technological tools, and other motivating factors.

GOING WITH THE ONLINE FLOW

"We call it the e-collaboration imperative," says Lewis Ward, a senior analyst with Collaborative Strategies LLC, a San Francisco-based management-services firm. "It's when you really need to bring people, processes, and technologies together. As time goes on and cycle times get shorter, there's a greater need for communication and collaboration, both internally and externally, than ever before."

The tools to service that need are emerging. From portal-based services, such as the one Fitzpatrick uses, to Web conferencing, instant messaging, document sharing, and others, a wide range of collaboration tools have been developed to help businesses link employees from near and far.

But do they work? Warford thinks they do. Through his document-sharing program of choice, NetDocuments, he has purged his personal office of two large, black filing cabinets full of paper, which included all the hard copies of his tax returns, now also housed on NetDocuments. By instituting an online accounting system through which his employees submit their hours and expenses electronically, he has been able to pare down his accounting staff from five in-house employees to one telecommuter.

Documentation comes in, is easily reconciled, and then is converted to invoices and expense checks through NetLedger, an application service provider that allows companies to conduct management and accounting functions on line. In addition, Warford estimates, converting to systems that allow employees to share documents and information with each other has saved him more than 100 hours of personal time monthly -- time he used to spend monitoring processes and answering questions.

Monte Chapin, co-founder of 2DCubed, a technical drawing and drafting firm servicing architects, is another advocate of online collaboration. His company works through the ArchiCAD system to create drafts of work that clients review and mark up on line, either through ArchiCAD, if the client has the program, or through a plug-in. "At any one time, we have a half dozen or more people collaborating on projects on line," explains Chapin. "Our portals are leased, and we outsource the backbone of our services through the Internet."

This flexibility allows 2DCubed to serve clients well beyond its home base of Salt Lake City, including some as far as Canada and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Such a geographic mix wouldn't be financially possible if clients were serviced through travel, fax, and overnight delivery.

GETTING CONNECTED

Like most innovations, instituting online collaboration systems isn't always bed of roses, especially for smaller firms. Just ask Peggy Deras of Kitchen Artworks. The South San Francisco kitchen designer/space planner turned to industry portal Buzzsaw.com in an attempt to collaborate on line with some of her jet-setting clients. Out of the three clients with whom she tested the system, only one was able to access her designs on line. The other two ended up frustrated and demanded faxed copies of the projects.

"I sent the instructions to her over and over again," Deras recalls. "She just said, 'Oh, I can't deal with that.' She didn't have the patience to see it through. For some people, it's just not that easy."

In Warford's case, even though he put in scores of hours of research to find the right tools, there were plenty of headaches. Early on, he adopted online time and billing system TimeSolve, only to find the reality of the service vastly different from what he expected. According to Warford, the system kept crashing and, after three months of disappointing results and thousands of dollars of billable time lost, he pulled the plug.

Fitzpatrick, on the other hand, says that her online collaboration system has been distilled down to a science. Workers log in and complete projects during a flextime schedule while clients can make approvals and changes from their desks. One of the keys, she says, is to arm employees with good equipment and systems that support the type of work they do.

"Certainly, we have unhappy clients from time to time," she says. "They thought the copywriting took too long, etc. But it's important to remember that you need to work on maintaining client relationships whether you're collaborating on line or not. Often, these issues are pretty easily resolved if you've worked to keep strong client relationships," she explains.

Consultant David Coleman of Collaborative Strategies believes that it's not always easy to find such a good fit but that developing a team approach is key. "You can't just assign your IT person to find a solution," he says. "The solution has to come from the people who will be using the tools so that you know they will work correctly. Otherwise, the technology is getting in the way of collaboration, and that's the problem with most collaborative tools."

Deras usually takes a simpler approach, adding that the most basic forms of collaborating on line, such as communicating via e-mail about drawings, have made her business infinitely easier. She does see a time when she may upload images onto "hidden" pages on her Web site for client viewing. However, there are some habits that are hard to break.

"Even though I do all of my drawings on the computer, I still need to print them out to review them myself," she explains. "And most of my clients need to see paper copies, too."

CULTURE CLASH

If you're rolling your eyes by this point, take heed from industry experts who caution not to be too quick to dismiss the issue of such "old-fashioned" notions. According to Jeffrey Stanton, organizational psychologist and assistant professor of Information Studies at Syracuse University, one of the determining factors of whether an online collaboration system will work in your company lies in your organization's culture. Stanton says that about 60 percent of technology projects within companies fail because they are never brought to fruition, are not adopted by employees, serve no purpose, or are simply "junk."

"There are some cultures that embrace change, and those will likely have an easier time adopting change that's needed," he explains. "There are some managers who Ward agrees. To ease the challenge of introducing a new way of collaborating, he suggests identifying an area in your organization that isn't working properly and is causing "pain" to employees, and start with a pilot project in that area. Once that project works, your employees may be more likely to accept larger changes and different ways of working together. "A lot of companies waste a lot of time and effort by jumping into something they're not ready for," he explains. "Literally, the whole system can be derailed by one senior manager who doesn't think it's a good idea."

Coleman recalls one large consulting firm with which his company worked. Although the company had invested in many collaboration technologies, its compensation structure was based in billable hours. Individuals with experience or specialization in a particular area were billed -- and paid -- at a higher hourly rate. Therefore, there was a perception that sharing knowledge would dilute an individual's specialization, diminishing incentive to share information and collaborate as a team. Coleman says that this type of attitude can be found in companies of any size. "If the technology doesn't support the WIIFM [what's-in-it-for-me] factor, the infrastructure for sharing knowledge will not be successful," he says.

And while Warford may seem like the poster boy for online collaboration, he also admits to losing some sleep over it, especially during turbulent times in the technology sector. He scans industry publications to verify the stability of the companies with which he deals. In addition, he has an agreement with NetDocuments that it will provide back-up copies of his three years' worth of documents should it run into trouble. Still, he admits, most of those provisional agreements are based on "good faith and a handshake."

"We've put our core functions on the Internet," he says. "If the Internet shut down or one of these companies went away, well, it scares me to death."

SUCCESS STRATEGIES

Ward says that, in addition to culture and leadership, companies need to pay attention to economics and technology. In other words, there needs to be sufficient financial incentive as well as the right mix of technology in order for an online collaboration system to work.

Even success isn't perfect. In Deras' case, the technology just isn't "there" yet. Warford's team of techies have files that are too big to transmit via e-mail, so they back them up onto a CD and forward them through more conventional means, such as postal service or overnight mail, to the company's controller, keeping a copy for themselves. After all, once the paper receipts have been scanned and tossed, losing the only CD copy of the monthly expense report is a big deal. Chapin also admits that low bandwidth has its challenges and that some clients find downloading his company's files to be a daunting task. "But many times it forces our clients to go to a new level of technology," he says. "They find that they're a little underpowered and they adjust."

Such unintended consequences are common, says Stanton. But that's not always such a bad thing, adds Coleman. In one case, he worked with a telephone service center that had set up an online community for some of its mobile phone products. The company found that the community, which was built with the intention of cultivating leads, actually turned into an unpaid focus group and first line of customer support. Because the community was populated with experienced product users, new users could visit the group and get answers to their questions.

That aside, Stanton and the rest agree that online collaboration is definitely here to stay. Chapin declares that we haven't even scratched the surface of online collaboration. As broadband communications links media get richer, Stanton speculates that some of the communication challenges will be minimized. However, he emphasizes that it is important for a company to periodically evaluate its online collaboration system in order to examine the effect on employees. Companies should never forget the importance of face-to-face interaction, he adds, regardless of how prevalent online collaboration becomes.

The bottom line: Be prepared. Collect data about your organization and see if it's ready for change, and pilot test programs before rolling them out full-force. Companies that take baby steps toward instituting major online collaboration systems are more likely to end up with a successful outcome.

BUY NOW OR PAY LATER?

IF YOU THINK you're ready to jump into the online collaboration pool, one question remains. Should I do it now or wait?

Wait, says Bob Kranker, president of Flatrock Technology Consultants. Through his Brown Deer, Wis., company, which provides technology consulting to small businesses, he hasn't seen many collaborative applications service providers with which he's been impressed. And, in light of the economic state of many technology companies, Kranker advises small businesses to tread carefully.

"Give it a year and deal with what you're doing now the best you can, even if that means a massive amount of e-mail or running a private Web site where employees can interact with each other," he says. "It's not the most elegant solution, but there's a massive amount of confusion about what these things are and what they can and can't do. A lot of [what these companies are selling] is smoke and mirrors."

David Coleman of Collaborative Strategies predicts that online collaboration tools will need to become more specialized in order to survive, following the model of industry- or category-specific providers. His company is studying that focus on areas such as distributed software development, professional service management, architecture and construction, and new product development functions. As these providers change, it may mean significant changes in the playing field.

"Unfortunately, many of these collaboration tools have become commodities," Coleman explains. "They need to go vertical, to add value to the user. Just being a general collaboration vendor isn't enough unless you're Microsoft, and not too many vendors are Microsoft."

Kranker adds that many of the more mainstream and simplistic collaboration tools, such as those from the major software companies, might be a good place to get started in online collaboration. While it's not real-time all the time, he explains, it has the potential to get employees comfortable with the process of online collaboration while waiting for the best bets in online collaboration technology to become more clear in the marketplace.

THE TOOLS THAT THEY USE

WANT TO KNOW more about the tools the companies in this story use? Here's the scoop:

ArchiCAD: GraphiSoft's ArchiCAD is a comprehensive software package for architects, addressing every facet from design and documentation to communication and collaboration, allowing architects to develop intelligent 3D building simulations. Learn more at www.graphisoft.com.

Buzzsaw.com: AutoDesk's Buzzsaw.com workspace is the leader in the $3.9 trillion global design, construction, and property management industries, allowing designers, contractors, architects, and other professionals to collaborate securely on line with their customers.

NetDocuments: NetDocuments provides a secure and interactive environment for exchanging information with customers, partners, and employees. Learn more at www.netdocuments.com

OpenAir.com: Secure, Web-based software allows authorized users to collaborate on accounting, business development, and other functions. OpenAir is delivered through an ASP model or the OpenAir Onsite deployment option, which is accessible through your LAN or intranet after a one-day hardware installation.

Portera Systems: Portera's subscription-based ServicePort, which keeps MarketFitz linked, is a professional services automation (PSA) suite that enables users to log in from virtually any computer to participate in a variety of activities from graphic design to finance. Find out more about their services at www.portera.com.

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