Virtual Work Spaces Ease Collaboration, Debate Among Scattered Employees

May 25, 2006
Like many government agencies, the Federal Aviation Administration struggled with bureaucracy and distance. With 50,000 employees spread across the country and rule proposals that required input from members of the airline industry, important projects seemed to move at a snail’s pace.

    "Since we didn’t all sit in the same building, we would end up calling and e-mailing each other," says Ronald Simmons, scientific and technical advisor at the FAA. "It just wasn’t an efficient way to have full-on debates about proposed rules."

    It could take 18 to 24 months to air out those rules—some of them dealing with critical safety and security matters. And atop the weight of bureaucracy there was a mundane but real problem: Government offices often close during heavy snowstorms. That bogged down the pro­cess even more.

    Enough was enough. In March 2002, the FAA began the Knowledge Services Network. Using software provided by CorasWorks of Reston, Virginia, the network’s 22,000 users, which include FAA employees and other industry members, can join virtual "rooms" to debate ideas and work on shared documents.

    The FAA spends $1 million annually on the network. It estimates that in 2005 it saved $3.7 million in travel costs and $2 million in employee time. Proposals now take at most a year to become rules. That’s because it is easier to retrieve information and debate issues in a virtual forum—one that doesn’t require time to travel or coordinate meetings, Simmons says.

    "It used to be that one-third of our workers’ time was spent on trying to find documents and information," Simmons says. Now that information is easily retrieved online.

    The FAA is among an increasing number of organizations that are creating virtual shared work spaces for employees. Annual new-license revenue for virtual technology software is expected to hit almost $1.4 billion by 2009, up from $800 million in 2006. CorasWorks, which uses Microsoft’s Sharepoint platform, says it’s closing about 30 new deals a month, up from eight a month just a year ago.

    This trend is partially due to advances in technology as well as companies’ growing comfort with the new way to work, says Nikos Drakos, a research director in the Lisbon, Portugal, office of Gartner.

    But more than that, employers are increasingly relying on virtual collaborative technology to better tap their intellectual capital, he says.

    "As operations and processes become more automated, companies are realizing that the more important differentiator is the way that they are using their people," Drakos says. "The companies that do the best job of getting their people to work together and solve problems will be the most competitive."

    To do this, companies need to get their employees comfortable with using the technology. That often requires a change in corporate culture and incentives, he says.

    "There are a lot of human factors that determine the success of any collaborative technology," he says. "Installing the technology is just the first step."

Tapping intellectual capital
    For the FAA, one of the major advantages of the Knowledge Services Network is that it allows the administration to better work with outside organizations. In 2003, for instance, Congress passed the Next Generation Air Transportation Act, a law aimed at improving the country’s air transportation system with a focus on better security along with safety and cost efficiency.

    The law called for the creation of the Joint Planning and Development Office, which is managed by the FAA and NASA and supported by staff from various federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Transportation.

    The office is working on eight projects simultaneously, requiring discussion among various staffers in different government agencies. This would be impossible to manage through phone calls and e-mails, says Tony Christopher, a contractor helping to run the program.

    By having each of the task forces work in virtual environments, employees can debate issues and research topics more easily, he says. Also, having everything centralized and archived makes it easy for the 20-person task force that oversees the project to keep tabs on various projects’ progress.

    To get employees of the different agencies comfortable with the technology, the FAA realized that there would need to be a significant amount of training.

    "Fifty percent of endeavors fail in their first two years because a lot of time is spent on building the technology, but little time is spent on making sure the workforce is properly trained," Simmons says.

    Simmons taught 300 employees how to use the software. Those employees then acted as trainers for the rest of the workers. Christopher and an associate would make monthly trips to train the 800 employees working on the Next Generation Air Transportation System.

    Mike Blaine, a consultant with Battelle Memorial Institute, a Columbus, Ohio, researcher working on the project, says he was one of the biggest skeptics when the group introduced the virtual technology.

    "I thought it would be onerous and time-consuming," he says.

    But in each training session, which would last for a few hours, the instructors would focus on a specific task that the technology could do for employees, ranging from managing calendars to opening new topics.

    "By giving us information in smaller pieces, it was easier to swallow," Blaine says.

    The training sessions also acted as forums where users could provide feedback.

    "If we had an issue or something we thought could be improved, they would go back and work on it," Blaine says.

    Part of the battle for many organizations in tapping their intellectual capital is freeing up employees’ time and providing a forum for their ideas. This was an issue for the city of Sparks, Nevada, where 800 employees used to struggle with quickly responding to e-mail.

    This could be an issue, particularly when public officials e-mailed with a concern, says Shaun Carey, city manager. Also, controversial city ordinances would inevitably lead to an ongoing e-mail dialogue, which would move the debate at a snail’s pace, he says.

    "There would be 100 fragmented conversations and you would have to scroll to the bottom of each e-mail to figure out what they were about," Carey says.

    After adapting virtual software provided by CorasWorks, city employees now organize discussions by topic. The system will also send out weekly reminders if issues remain open, which is a huge help to employees, Carey says. He estimates that by using the software, his employees have seen a 15 percent increase in efficiency.

Global connections
    Global expansion means that many organizations are relying on virtual technology to hold board meetings or discuss major transactions, such as mergers and acquisitions, says Adam Gartenberg, a product manager at IBM, which has a number of real-time and team collaboration products.

    "With employees working in different time zones, it’s easy to refer to these virtual spaces for documents and timelines, rather than requiring employees to dig through their in-boxes," he says.

    Companies are also more comfortable with the security of these virtual rooms than they were a few years ago, he says.

    AO Foundation, a Davos, Switzerland-based nonprofit organization focused on research, development and education in the field of trauma surgery and corrective surgery, used to struggle with planning its annual research symposium. The two-week series of seminars brought together 1,600 surgeons, academics and researchers from around the world to discuss issues and developments in the field.

    The event features 450 instructors and lecturers, so planning it resulted in materials being mailed back and forth worldwide. It was costly and inefficient, says Martin Heckmeier, IT project manager for the AO Portal.

    Using IBM’s QuickPlace software, instructors can go online, share documents and comment on one another’s ideas. The technology allows for the entire coursework to be planned online. Since it operates in real time, the group can include current information as well, he says.

    AO Foundation provided training for the software, but also made it so that its instructors had no choice but to plan the program through the online shared space, Heckmeier says.

    "Organizations should expect there to be a percentage of people who don’t use the Web in general," he says. But often just seeing how easy the system was to use helped make its instructors feel more comfortable with it, Heckmeier says.

Silo busting
    Many companies contend with bigger issues than just employees being scared of new technology. In some instances, managers don’t want to share information, Drakos says.

    "There are people who may feel that information is power, and that they lose power if everyone has access to the information," he says.

    In these situations, companies need to provide incentives to their workforces to use these online spaces. "Part of this requires creating a corporate culture that nurtures collaboration," he says.

    For a start, organizations can identify employees who are natural collaborators. These people can help break down silos and bring together participants from different divisions. And to drive the point home, employers might align their compensation with their success in facilitating collaboration, Drakos says. This might mean setting goals for team projects and paying out bonuses when they are complete.

    Companies also need to explain to employees the business goals behind the technology, he says.

    "If you just tell them, ‘Here is your software, now go work on it,’ you won’t be successful," Drakos says. "You may just end up with a big, empty virtual space."

Workforce Management, May 22, 2006, p. 38 -- Subscribe Now!