Tips for teamwork in an online world

Groups discover how collaboration software can boost productivity if used properly

Editor's note:This story was updated at 11:15 a.m. Sept. 25. Please go to Corrections & Clarifications to see what has changed.

There could not have been a worse time for one of the Federal Aviation Administration’s critical online meeting rooms to crash. The 2001 terrorist attacks had just occurred and agency leaders were poised to log in to the designated online spot and huddle to respond to the deadly events. Knowing key officials were about to find a dark meeting space, information technology staff scrambled successfully to restore power to a downed underlying server within 15 minutes so the meeting could take place.

Practical measures can make or break efforts to bring individuals together electronically to tackle mission-critical problems or work on projects. Elsewhere at the FAA, managers working on hazardous materials and occupational safety issues repeatedly drill key employees until they learn how to access online meeting spaces and conduct their business there.

1. Develop a strategy.
Collaboration technology runs the gamut, emerging as an add-on to e-mail systems or proliferating as stand-alone products. Hosted solutions are also on the rise. However, just as important as the pursuit of the right collaboration solution is the crafting of strategies to use the tools.

“Many of our government clients are looking into collaboration technologies that support disaster preparedness or first responders,” said Erica Driver, a principal analyst at Forrester Research. “They are also pondering collaboration platform vendor selection, most often IBM vs. Microsoft. Meanwhile, they are developing enterprise collaboration strategies.”

To specify collaboration usage policies, agencies are wise to consider a few tactical steps toward maximizing the benefits of those tools.

Users across different agencies and levels of government offered suggestions to help optimize collaboration systems already in place or ease the adoption of new technology. Their advice is detailed below.

2. Know who’s on first.
Having people show up in the right electronic meeting space is only half the battle. The other half involves getting the right blend of experts in the room and offering those executives instantaneous communication with one another.

“Today, many collaboration solutions center on the familiar instant messaging buddy list, which is totally useless if all you have is a name but no context as to the person’s area of expertise,” said Alan Stensland, the FAA’s lead assistant emergency coordinator for environmental site assessment.

To rid the agency of useless buddy lists, the FAA is adding areas of expertise to rosters of agency employees. Stensland is an expert on the dangers hazardous materials pose to soil surrounding a contaminated site, and he offered an anecdote to show the importance of attaching credentials to names on a buddy list.

“I’m a dirt engineer,” he said. “At one point, we had a supervisor calling around about a sinkhole near a radar site. It would have been nice at that time if we’d captured secondary and tertiary areas of expertise that might not show up on an org chart.” Those narratives would have connected experts to the incident more quickly, he said.

3. Combat clutter.
Inviting many individuals to participate in a single project can also invite trouble, especially when people start e-mailing one another different versions of the same file. Thus, document sharing is central to many government collaboration efforts.

Losing control of documents is a formula for collaborative disaster, said Phillip Hardcastle, a senior accountant and auditor for Fresno, Calif. A participant in the city’s drafting of official bond documents, Hardcastle is involved in online collaboration efforts that can include as many as 150 local government agencies, spanning 96 cities, 28 counties and 22 special districts.

When so many cooks are in the kitchen, organization is a must, Hardcastle said.

“With all of the forms, applications, legal documents, compliance matters, tax counsels, insurance and underwriters, the paperwork can be overwhelming,” he said. “Some agencies had more than 100 people involved on their side — from lawyers to clerks. With each of these persons needing to access and edit the documents involved, tracking versions and maintaining document security was a constant challenge.”

4. Give in to peer pressure.
Fresno’s hunt for a tool to streamline collaboration and document sharing started and ended with a decision that the California Statewide Communities Development Authority (CSCDA) had made earlier.

It had chosen QwikdoX document drafting and printing software from Pacific Financial Printing to collaborate on certain tax and revenue operations.

“As a participant in CSCDA, I was asked to use QwikdoX to send and retrieve all documents,” Hardcastle said.

Although Fresno’s collaboration choice was predetermined, other agencies have a wealth of options that can sometimes prove daunting. When in doubt, look for solutions based on standards, advised Brand Niemann, data architect in the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of the CIO and co-chairman of the CIO Council’s Semantic Interoperability Community of Practice.

Because he is co-chairman of a CIO Council working group exploring the use of wikis based on World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) standards, Niemann nudges agencies in that direction. A wiki is a collaborative Web site with content that can be edited by any user with access to the site.

“The writeable Web is easy to learn, supports the way you work, is inexpensive and uses W3C standards to promote open collaboration,” Niemann said. “Try wikis before deciding on proprietary, expensive, thick-client, hard-to-learn systems.”

5. Double-dip.
To appease tight-fisted budget officials, tie collaboration purchases to existing applications. For example, the Richmond, Va., Department of Social Services (DSS) has linked its front-end, Web-based collaboration system with its geographic information system, financial applications and citywide search engines.

The goal is to get more out of the existing systems and better manage DSS’ foster care cases through collaboration.

“The city and other managed care organizations work in tandem to provide a more intense level of case management designed to stabilize a youth in a much shorter time frame,” said Paul McWhinney, Richmond’s DSS director.

Another option is to piggyback on major agency efforts, such as Web portals that serve thousands of users. For example, Navy Knowledge Online (NKO) — which lets sailors communicate online with loved ones — can also serve as a platform for department-level collaboration efforts.

“Navy recognizes that [instant messaging] and presence are powerful tools that will greatly improve information exchange,” said Peg David, NKO program manager in the Naval Education and Training Command.

She added that several departments are now tapping NKO to enhance collaborative applications for team-building and other exercises.

6. Look for guinea pigs.
Whether designed for a huge audience or small department, collaboration exercises are best hatched among a discrete set of users, said Mark Maggio, assistant director of the Federal Judicial Center’s Automation and Web Programs Education Division.

“We started our electronic meeting efforts by first working with advisory groups,” Maggio said. “For instance, we used a group of federal probation officers and pretrial workers within law enforcement and the U.S. Courts and really did a data-dumping exercise with them.”

“What I was looking for was feedback on the technology,” he added. Through the exercise, Maggio found that the group could quickly use new collaboration technology to hold online training exercises and construct, edit and review documents online.

7. Let the people speak.
After trying collaboration software on a small, willing pool of workers, it’s important to incorporate their feedback, said Audrie Magno, senior database analyst and solution developer for Montgomery Watson Harza (MWH), an environmental engineering and consulting firm that is working extensively with Sacramento County.

8. Say goodbye to spreadsheets.
“If I were going to start using collaboration tools, I would first get the users involved,” Magno said. “I’d ask those using the software for their wish lists for the new technology. This is going to save a lot of time in garnering user buy-in.”

Sacramento County employees, MWH employees and others collaborate electronically on major construction projects, such as Sacramento’s $500 million Lower Northwest Interceptor project to improve critical wastewater treatment services.

“When we introduced new collaboration technology, there was a bit of culture shock from a crowd of individuals who were used to sharing information via spreadsheets,” Magno said. “But in the end, it was not as difficult as we thought it would be, since we invested quite a bit of time in training.”

9. Recognize that only realists succeed.
The key is to think ahead. “Do not wait for a disaster to prove the need for real-time collaborative tools,” said Eric Kant, head of NC4 Public Sector’s Customer Performance and Operations Group. NC4 monitors worldwide events and advises agencies on response.

At the same time, Kant warned agencies to be realistic. “As is often the case with any major software introduction, change needs to be carefully managed,” he said. “Demonstrate how a new solution will make users’ lives easier.”

McAdams is a freelance writer based in Vienna, Va.

Tools of online collaborationElectronic collaboration can involve various activities, from person-to-person communications to group conferencing to content and project management.

Here are three main categories of features found in collaboration products:

Electronic communication tools

  • E-mail.
  • Instant messaging.
  • Faxing.
  • Voice mail.
  • Web publishing.
  • Electronic conferencing tools

  • Threaded discussion boards, which facilitate and manage online text messages.
  • Chat, which are platforms for managing real-time text messages.
  • Videoconferencing.
  • Application-sharing platforms that let multiple users access documents or applications at the same time.
  • Collaborative management tools

  • Electronic calendars to schedule, automatically notify and remind group members of events.
  • Project management systems, which schedule, track and chart the steps in a project.
  • Content and knowledge management applications that collect, organize, manage and share various forms of information.
  • Source: Wikipedia

    Choice of productsManagers have many options for allowing employees to collaborate online. Some agencies incorporate collaboration capabilities into upgrades of major systems, usually e-mail, while others adopt point products. Meanwhile, social computing tools that rely on individuals to contribute information, such as wikis and blogs, are catching on, according to Forrester Research.

    System upgrades represent a big part of the market, and major vendors such as Microsoft and IBM offer collaborative features closely linked with new systems.

    For instance, IBM now includes Sametime instant messaging and presence awareness capabilities with each Lotus Notes license.

    Microsoft’s Exchange Server software and Outlook client for messaging now integrate easily with the company’s collaboration tools, such as Live Communications Server and Windows SharePoint Services.

    Even as overarching software infrastructures absorb collaboration capabilities, many agencies still rely on stand-alone collaboration solutions, such as document-sharing packages.

    For instance, Sacramento County, Calif., officials use EMC’s Documentum eRoom to collaborate on major construction projects. Another example of point products doubling as collaboration hosts is Richmond, Va., officials’ use of Harmony case management software, which is based on Microsoft’s .NET technology.

    Third-party hosted solutions are mostly limited to small sets of users and often offered as part of broader packages, such as contact management, according to Forrester.

    Instant messaging tools also fuel collaboration. For instance, Bantu’s instant collaboration backbone is one of the solutions underpinning the Navy Knowledge Online portal.

    Finally, agencies’ collaboration efforts sometimes pull in evolving Web-based information-sharing tools. “Social computing tools will become part of collaboration platforms,” an August 2006 Forrester report states.

    — Jennifer McAdams


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