From high-definition videoconferences to online social networks, companies in every industry are using the latest tech tools to better collaborate in today’s global economy.
Never waste a good crisis,” says Lori Beer, CIO of Indianapolis-based WellPoint Inc. (WLP). “Take advantage of the situation. Step back and revisit the ways you’ve always done things.” For Beer and many other IT executives, such reflection in these harsh economic times is leading increasingly to the use of new collaborative technologies, which run the gamut from blogs and user-edited Websites known as wikis to virtual-reality-like “telepresence” rooms and Facebook-like internal social networks.
“The most expensive asset is your people, and they need to be able to collaborate when and where they can.”
Chief Technology Officer, EMC
Companies in nearly every sector now employ these high-tech instruments to improve collaboration among employees, business partners and even customers. “The value of information is increased by sharing it, not by hiding it,” says Chuck Hollis, global marketing CTO, EMC Corp. (EMC), a an information infrastructure technology and solutions provider. Hollis works with Fortune 500 companies around the world on different collaborative projects to deliver a variety of competitive advantages.
In some cases, companies want to work with clients on new products to develop relationships with — and retain — customers. Other companies develop products using talent deployed from around the world, so they need collaborative tools that allow employees to work together no matter where they are located. Still others, especially in health care, say they use these tools to react more quickly to changing business and regulatory environments.
“Our approach to collaboration is designed to make us more nimble and able to adjust to changes in life sciences,” says Karenann Terrell, CIO, Baxter International Inc. (BAX), a medical products and services company based in Deerfield, Ill. “It’s not about cool, bright, shiny toys; it’s about business capability. Our collaborative environment — called Baxter Connect — is geared toward making our expertise available globally, in different time zones, in different business divisions, in order to work together without actually being in the same place,” she says. Baxter Connect, Terrell says, knows the best way to reach a colleague at any given time, be it by e-mail, phone, video or instant messaging, and it allows employees to conduct a quick Web conference or even a telepresence meeting — a high-definition videoconference — to keep projects moving.
For media firm Thomson Reuters Corp. (TRI), which has approximately 50,000 employees in 93 countries, it’s essential to connect with workers around the world. “Whether it’s chat rooms, video or audio, you need to get in touch with people quickly,” says CTO James Powell. “It’s about jumping beyond the boundaries of time zones.”
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Indeed, videoconferencing can save travel time and expense. Bob Hersch, global executive director of workplace technology and collaboration and network technology business at management consulting company Accenture Ltd. (ACN), estimates that the cost of the company’s telepresence rooms is repaid by a fivefold savings in travel costs.
“What we used to do with countless memos we now do more quickly with instant messaging and video from our desktops,” says Mark Popolano, CTO of global information firm Reed Elsevier PLC (RUK). “We’re able to focus decisions in a much more rapid fashion.”
This trend has spread because technologies have matured to the point where companies can use off-the-shelf videoconferencing software instead of expensive customized programs. WellPoint’s Beer believes that business needs are also driving the increased use of collaborative technologies. “For us, the challenges around the affordability of health care create opportunities for collaboration,” she says. One example is how to take massive amounts of information and make it available to prevent deadly mistakes, such as prescription errors. “And it’s not going to be one specific solution,” she says, “because it also involves simplifying administrative practices, sharing prescription information and electronically transmitting images to bring it all together.”
At Ford Motor Co. (F), the collaborative rubber meets the road with the company’s all-digital advanced conferencing system, which allows designers from Australia, Europe, South America and the U.S. to confer via conference call and work simultaneously on the same computer design, exchanging ideas and proposals in real time. The ability for design, engineering and manufacturing teams to get such collaborative data earlier, Peter Reyes, Ford’s chief engineer for the 2010 Taurus, notes, has shaved years off vehicle-development times. “In the past we’ve built as many as three different phases of prototypes,” comprising hundreds of cars over a span of years, says Reyes. Now, he says, that thanks to such early design collaboration, using teams from Melbourne (Australia) to Dearborn (Michigan), it’s possible for Ford to build just one prototype model and start the first production run within 10 months. “The 2010 Taurus was our first start-to-finish digital production,” Reyes says.