Consultants take their own

Consultants take their ownTORONTO -- The consultants at Project Management Practice Inc. were always helping other organizations redefine the way they collaborated with each other, but like the physician who ignores her own ailments, they neglected their internal needs for a long time.

Their approach to working together was nothing more than a series of Band-Aid solutions, said Sean Creaghan, vice- president of business development at Project Management Practice. E-mail was the consultants' primary mode of communications, Creaghan told the Microsoft hosted Canadian Collaboration Summit panel. The company had to change Internet providers three times in one year to find one that would make it easy to download and upload documents.

"It was hard for our customers," he said.

Finally, the company decided it needed to look at something else. It also had to be realistic, Creaghan said. Because it was a small organization, it needed an off-the-shelf solution and opted to implement Microsoft Windows Small Business Sever and Microsoft Office System in 2003. The company moved all of its resources onto Exchange Server.

"Our intellectual property was all over the place, on people's laptops. Now we know where it is," Creaghan said.

This is not uncommon, said Michael Bulmer, product manager for Microsoft Office System.

"Eighty per cent of all intellectual property lives on the desktop, and that's not a good place for it to be. Things happen to the desktop."

The new solution paid off, Creaghan said. "We've increased our productivity and our responsiveness tremendously," he said, adding that the company's return on investment was $80,000.

IT has made it possible to redefine the way people communicate and work with each other, making collaboration a hot topic again, said Deborah Compeau, an associate professor at the Richard Ivey School of Business at the University of Western Ontario.

New models of collaboration are made possible as technology evolves, said the London, Ont.-based Compeau, who was also a member of the panel. The dispersed nature of the marketplace in today's global economy is driving the need for collaboration, she said. So is the shift towards providing services, which require knowledge work rather than products.

Companies face many challenges as they try to redefine the way people collaborate, she said. More and more often, projects require working with people outside your organization, which means everyone is using disparate technology, leading to compatibility issues. Also, adjusting to new modes of working with other people leads to process change, she said.

Companies need to realign the way they award results, Compeau said. Though organizations are good at rewarding people, they don't know yet how to award teams. And teamwork is key to success today.

Today's teams are often geographically dispersed, making it difficult for team members to identify with each other.

One team she knows of does an inclusion exercise every time it meets online by asking questions such as, "What movie would you pay not to see?" Though this might seem like a waste of organizational resources, it has helped the team be successful, she said.

Finally, one of the biggest challenges to collaboration today, according to Compeau, is the lack of user capability. More often than not, the technology available to users has a lot more capability than they know

how to take advantage of. Users just want to know enough to get by, she said.

But users are no longer handed new technology without prior training and consultation, said Brian Edwards, the collaboration practice leader at Habanero Consulting. "The days are gone where you don't engage the end user when you put in a new system," he said.

The challenges of collaboration are something Ted Lee, the chief financial officer at Tourism Vancouver, understands.

His organization represents about a thousand companies in the Greater Vancouver Area.

Tourism Vancouver itself doesn't own or produce anything, Lee said. Rather, it's function is to gather information from its constituents and repackage it. For example, Tourism Vancouver will collect hotel and spa rates from businesses across Vancouver and gather them together in marketing material.

Here tools that simplify collaboration, such as versioning control, come in handy, he said.