A quiet transformation is under way within Chicago's city government. In his first 18 months on the job, CIO Hardik Bhatt has taken major strides to change how the city's 35,000 employees in 46 departments interact not only with documents, but also each other.

Work teams that previously shuffled paper or e-mail attachments between departments now create project-based document repositories using Microsoft's SharePoint collaboration software. The project focus eases access to group presentations, schedules, written comments and project status. One immediate benefit is that employees working with colleagues in other offices communicate more frequently and with less confusion.

"It definitely is starting to break down barriers between departments," Bhatt said.

 

Harnessing Collective Wisdom
In the wake of the broad economic forces of globalization, quicker times to market and greater worker mobility, corporations have started investing more money in technology to manage enterprise content, keep far-flung co-workers in sync and harness their collective wisdom to solve problems.

Gartner Inc. predicts the worldwide Web conferencing and team collaboration software markets will grow approximately 22 percent per year through 2010. In 2007, revenue in the sector is projected to total $1.6 billion, a 22.3 percent increase from 2006. Most major software vendors have noticed the increasing demand, and are adding collaboration tools to their software suites - although IBM's Lotus line of software and Microsoft's SharePoint garner a large part of the market share today, according to Gartner.

Web conferencing and team collaboration software has also caught on with public-sector agencies seeking more innovative ways to serve citizens and eliminate unnecessary bureaucracy.

"As more business cases and best practices develop around these technologies, they're starting to be seen less as a special service and more as a 'birthright technology' the way e-mail is seen now," said Tom Eid, research vice president for Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner. "CIOs will work with other business executives to make them part of the business fabric. That means training, learning about best practices - all of the elbow grease to make it more valuable to the organization."

Although government sometimes lags in adopting new technology, Gartner's research suggests that the collaboration software market has started growing just as fast in the public sector as it has in the private sector, Eid said.

Many early adopters have been in local law enforcement, emergency management and the Department of Defense. Public safety agencies are creating fusion centers that use portal software to aggregate law enforcement information and provide better support to first responders. They use instant messaging, chat rooms, whiteboarding and video conferencing to bring responders from various agencies together quickly so they can assess situations and make decisions mutually.

Web 2.0 social networking and wiki technologies will continue to change how workers access both content and colleagues, Eid believes. There are demographic reasons: Young people are more accustomed to working with technologies and want their work environment to be more flexible, he said. People are more willing to share things about themselves both in their private lives and at work. "It's a sea change that will impact how people interact in their work," he added.

 

Project Focus in the Windy City
Appointed Chicago's CIO and commissioner of the Department of Business and Information Services (BIS) in February 2006, Bhatt initially met with Mayor Richard M. Daley to discuss how IT could help serve citizens better. In addition to improving connectivity and access for field crews, another way was increasing productivity of office employees - how they work on projects and handle administrative tasks.

"I started thinking about workspace collaboration to allow employees to share information online related to projects," Bhatt recalled. "We could move these documents from paper-based to Web-based so they are always accessible, and so people can look at and edit the same document." 

His staff looked at Oracle's collaboration suite, but decided SharePoint was easier to use and quicker to deploy.

The first project last fall involved the 300-employee BIS' own IT projects. Program managers started moving project-related information - such as status reports, issue tracking, schedules and comments - into SharePoint to be used by BIS and agencies involved in the IT project.

The city also plans to take advantage of the software's ability to maintain threaded discussion histories about the projects.

The city's IT governance board - made up of BIS, the Mayor's Office and the Budget Office - now uses SharePoint for its IT project approval process. "Before agency execs make a presentation, they upload it into SharePoint," Bhatt explained. "As we talk with them more, they make changes to it, and maintain one version and keep status reports. They used to send things around via e-mail, and there would be multiple versions floating around at different stages of development."

In Chicago city government, SharePoint use has spread to 10 departments and 530 users. "There are seven gigabytes of documents on SharePoint," Bhatt said.

 

Transition Point
Much of the push for new collaboration tools has come from users themselves experimenting, rather than from IT leaders suggesting their adoption. For instance, Web conferencing was traditionally done outside IT because it was usually a hosted service. A sales and marketing team could buy a block of time without involving IT. That dynamic, however, may be changing.

 "We are at a transition point," said Jeff Rogers, director of public-sector industry solutions for the IBM software group. "Much of the impetus has grown up from working groups, but CIOs are seeing the phenomenal growth and realizing they have to get policies and procedures in place about how they are used," Rogers said. "Power users are leading the adoption of social software, such as wikis, blogs and social bookmarks. But that may change, too, and policies are being formulated around their use."

"People need to learn proper ways to opt in and opt out," Gartner's Eid noted. "You have to develop the social norms about participating in virtual environments in the same way it took a few years for there to be accepted rules about e-mail etiquette."

In many ways, it's good if the impetus comes from employees trying to solve problems together, Rogers said, because the user community must see the technology's value if it's going to be successfully adopted.

"At the end of the day, it's about people trying to improve their collaboration skills," he added. "A CIO can put a wiki capability out there, but it's up to people to participate in a positive way. The CIOs are an important cog, but it will only be as valuable as their connection to the user communities."

 

Web Conferencing in Lincoln
A good example of someone outside IT bringing collaboration tools to his department on his own initiative is Tom Casady, chief of the Lincoln, Neb., Police Department.

In June 2005, Casady hung two 50-inch plasma screens in an office at police headquarters for use during assemblies, which are daily briefings for the department's 422 employees to share details about leads and crime updates. 

Casady wanted to show officers visual information, not just tell them about situations. "If there was a suspect, I wanted to show his mug shot," he said. "There have been a series of thefts from cell phone tower sites. I wanted officers to see a map of where they are and a photo of what the copper grounding plates being stolen look like."

Adding visual content enhanced the value of assemblies, Casady insists. "And we have lots of content to put up on it because our record management system is Web-enabled, including mapping applications."

His next challenge was to engage the 100 employees working at remote substations and a narcotics unit. They had traditionally taken part in assemblies via speakerphone, but Casady wanted to get them involved visually as well. He chose Citrix Systems' GoToMeeting Web conferencing tool. "It has worked very well for us connecting our four sites," he said. "We still use the speakerphones for audio, but now the 11 assemblies a day are handled via Web conference."

Casady said he doesn't know of any other police department that uses Web conferencing software for assembly. "For groups such as the Nebraska State Patrol, which has 788 officers and many remote sites, it would make even more sense," he said.

In the next few years, Casady hopes to deploy a Wi-Fi network so officers in squad cars could also take part in assemblies. "Within four to five years, they'll be able to get a packet of data in some video format in patrol cars," he added, "and the need for assembly, other than as a pep rally, will be gone."

 

Change Through Telework
A concerted effort to promote telework in Loudoun County, Va., has made Gene Troxell a student of collaboration technology.

In 2005, Troxell, IT director for the fast-growing county in northern Virginia, began working with the nonprofit Telework Consortium on pilot projects using software from a company called Marratech - recently purchased by Google - that included whiteboarding, document sharing and video conferencing.

Approximately 15 percent of county workers now do some form of telework, and 20 percent of Troxell's 100 IT employees work from home. The county, which is larger than 500 square miles and has 92 dispersed offices, claims its telework promotion policy decreases commute times and enhances work-life balance for employees.

He readily admits, however, that some pilot projects proved more successful than others. "One of the lessons we learned is that you can't force technology on people," Troxell said. "For some of them, it was too drastic a step to move from face-to-face meetings. You have to take it in baby steps."

Yet Troxell said many county employees have found the Marratech software helpful. For instance, the county's legislative liaison to state government lives in Richmond, the state capital, when the Legislature is in session. Prior to the telework effort, she drove two and a half hours back to Leesburg each week to meet with supervisors and talk about their priorities and events in the capital. Now, armed with a laptop and the Marratech software, she can hold a video conference with the county board of supervisors or use a whiteboard for brainstorming.

Loudoun County began embracing the telework concept almost 10 years ago, but it wasn't until January 2006, with the hiring of telework coordinator Diane O'Grady, that the effort really gained momentum. She rewrote telework policies and created a technology "tool bag" to support remote work. "We have people doing many different things," Troxell said, "so no one set of tools was going to be right for all of them.

O'Grady also created a portal on the county intranet with descriptions of technology options, policies and procedures.

As the county IT department's telework staff grew to 20 percent, they increasingly relied on instant messaging for collaboration. "I can use it to see when and where people are working more easily than if I get up and walk around the office," Troxell said, adding that he uses IM to get rapid responses to questions he has for specific employees.

 IT project teams also create text messaging groups with people they are working with in other departments and use Citrix's GoToMeeting for Web conferences with far-flung colleagues.

Even departments that didn't immediately take to the collaboration tools benefited from the pilots, said Troxell. "Our efforts lie now in investigating new collaborative technology to support telework," he said, "but just showing people what these tools can do gets them thinking about it and a little more comfortable with the concept."

 

How Can IT Bolster Collaboration?
Is there a basic toolset CIOs should be making available to enable greater collaboration? Collaboration technology researcher and consultant Michael Sampson has identified seven ideal capabilities he believes IT should consider providing:

  • shared access to team data, an example of which is project wikis;
  • location-independent access to team data, people and applications;
  • real-time joint editing of documents;
  • coordinated calendar and scheduling software;
  • promoting social engagement through presence, blogs and instant messaging;
  • enterprise action management, which is tracking outstanding action points to make it clear to the group who should do what next; and
  • broadening the network through automatic discovery services, which scan the organization's documents and e-mail along topic lines to create bridges for communication between experts.

Sampson, a research analyst with Collaboration Success Advisors in Canterbury, New Zealand, adds that the biggest change-management challenge CIOs face when introducing new collaboration software is "getting collaborative tools to map with how people actually work, thus preventing them from switching back to earlier toolsets at the first hint of difficulty."

Regardless of how many tools they introduce, CIOs realize they must tread carefully around cultural and security issues. In Chicago, for instance, Bhatt said his staff spends considerable time addressing security because agencies might not want everyone in city government to have access to all project documents. "There's a focus on giving every user an ID and password, and allowing groups to restrict access to certain documents," he said.

Bhatt stays abreast of recent developments in enterprise collaboration. A recent article about how Procter & Gamble uses wiki technology, for instance, intrigued him. But he realizes he can't introduce many technological changes all at once. "A big thing here is cultural change," he said. "City employees have lived in a paper world for a long time. We like the idea of these new technologies, such as blogs and wikis, to help people work in new ways, but it has to happen gradually at its own pace."

David Raths  |  contributing writer